The Fake True Story

I was watching the first two episodes of season 11 of American Horror Story the other night because:

a. I needed an escape

b. It takes place in gay NYC in 1981, and 

c. I figured, how much worse could they make the impending doom of that time than it already was?  

Do I really want to know the answer?

Plus, one thing I can always count on this show and Ryan Murphy for is a few cheap thrills.   

And let’s face it, these days nothing is cheap and little, if anything, feels thrilling.

Well hell if I can’t say American Horror Story: NYC and Ryan didn’t deliver every cheap, thrilling, tawdry, salacious and ridiculously familiar tidbit with a twist that I could imagine, and then some.

But the problem is, it also made me think.

LOL What???

In an age of alternative facts is it okay to simply mix real events and fictionalized nonsense to the point where even I, an overly analytical gay guy who lived through those times, can barely tell the difference between fact and fiction? 

Or, say it isn’t so, is that actually the point???

AHS: NYC is the latest in a whole series of sensationalized TV and movie fact-tion that to varying degrees feasts on real people, real events and even numerous real names and images.  

They then swallow them whole and spit them out into a based on a true story but not really dramatization of events and eras that definitely existed but, well, in not exactly the way we’re telling it.

What is real???

Netflix’s recent humorless (note: and in my mind heartless) feature Blonde, an adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’ novelistic approach to the barely fictionalized life of Marilyn Monroe (note: real name used) instantly comes to mind.  As does the retelling of one view of Princess Diana’s life in last year’s Spencer, not to mention the singular tragedy porn take of director Pablo Larrain’s telling of the brief post-assassination period of Jacqueline Kennedy’s life in 2016’s Jackie.

Oh for god’s sake

This approach is not limited to the real lives of women, though those stories often prove irresistible fodder since we in the public have loved to fetishize females as somewhat tragic figures who never seem to get either the credit or the love that they deserve.  

Full confession:  I’m as guilty as any on this score.  Me, a guy from the boroughs, spent my teens, twenties and some years beyond feeling so badly for the very young, very from the boroughs and very inexperienced at love Fanny Brice/ Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl.   

Who… me?

I mean, she marries the handsome, worldly gambler Nick Arnstein because she so purely and desperately loves him and, despite their differences, knows she can make it work as she does everything else on stage.  Until she is forced to finally realize the hard way that mere love is not enough to make a relationship work.

It’s compelling to watch versions of the naïve, odd-looking, inexperienced kid from the cheap seats and the handsome, high-living lothario with a heart of gold who falls in love with her that we’ve all heard and read about, right?  Except, well, it’s all kind of made up.

Does Lea know?

It was only with this new 2022 Broadway iteration of Funny Girl that even I, Mr. Show Biz, found out the real Fanny Brice was married and divorced from her first husband prior to ever meeting Nick-y Arnstein, her second one. Not only that, but she already knew he was an unapologetic racketeer into all kinds of illegal stuff long before she married him and even well after.

But, I mean, how romantic is that story? (Note: I, for one, find it wildly compelling but that is yet another story).  

There has been a tradition of plundering through people’s lives in hopes of making some creative and commercial sense of their existences.  You clean up a little here, romanticize a little there, condense the timelines when convenient and change the names to protect against any one who can sue you.

Except Diana: The Musical… I have no idea what that is

No one really cares that Fanny wasn’t a virgin and that she brazenly married a racketeer if it’ll ruin a better story and make them not appear…sweeter.  Just like audiences don’t really want to know that in Gypsy the real life stage mother from hell, the iconic Rose, also had female lovers, one of whom she shot and killed after she dared to make a pass at her daughter Gypsy.

It’s one thing to tidy up specific people’s lives but it’s quite another to pick and choose from many, many lives you are appropriating, not to mention in what ways you are doing it.  But well, is it?  

The Law and Order franchises have made ripped from the headlines roman a clef a true television art since 1990 and lives on to this day.  (Note: Do not say ONE BAD WORD ABOUT MARISKA!).   And there is hardly a decade of history in the last 250 years that has not been pilfered for reinvented real-life tales, tall or otherwise.

WORK!

This is all a lot to consider (or not) while watching the beginning of AIDS, the murderous virus of homophobia, the leather cruising, the excessive drug use and the pilfering of fact and fiction as the subculture of gaydom before it was mainstreamed and/or talked about as portrayed in AHS: NYC.

It’s 1981 and we’re given a bit from the much criticized movie Cruising (1980) when a closeted gay detective played by Looking’s Russell Stovey examines what remains of the body of a handsome, fictionalized, leather-clad airline pilot murdered by the docks.  

But the detective is living with an angry, middle-aged out gay journalist, played by renowned out gay director-actor Joe Mantello, a composite of many but sort of a roman a clef of a real-life but much younger out gay journalist at the time, Michaelangelo Signorelli,  who became famous for outing famous closeted gays in the late eighties for not doing more to lead the fight against AIDS.

Joe giving us full Ryan Murphy lighting

So far, so good and  a smart mix of fact and fiction – kind of.

But then it gets kind of murky when we’re introduced to several requisite gay killers, one of whom is stalking our sweet, young, looking-for-love but not necessarily for sex, hero Adam, causing his best friend to go missing and Adam to become desperate.

A series of clues lead him to a bathhouse where he stumbles upon a famous photographer of provocatively naked, rough-looking gay males, but someone who also likes to capture images of flowers.  He should really be called Robert Mapplethorpe but isn’t because this isn’t a Fanny Brice-type biopic.

Not now Lea!!

However, it sort of is because the Mapplethorpe type has a rich boyfriend/manager/art patron named Sam, portrayed by Zachary Quinto, as a sleazy, sadist who is a little older and who is clearly based on Mapplethorpe’s real life lover/patron, Sam Wagstaff.  

By all accounts, the real Sam was a kind man who loved Mapplethorpe, bought him a building to finance and create his art, and believed in his work when almost no one else did.   Nevertheless, his AHS version likes drugging young men, locking them in cages against their will and doing god knows what to them before they meet some looming awful demise.  At least by the end of episode two.

There’s also a lot more.  

Ryan? Excess? I don’t believe it

The obviously well-educated ex-military gay psychopath who, with some help, drugs and kidnaps men at gay bars, and then tortures and/or kills them by injecting needles under their fingernails.  He and the crimes in the opening are sort of but not exactly based on New York’s notorious real life Last Call Killer as well as some of the murders portrayed in Cruising.

Not to mention the chanteuse at the gay bathhouse played by Patti Lupone, who so far has no dialogue but sings two songs great.  The problem is one of them is the haunting Oscar-nominated tune I Am Calling You, from the 1987 film, Bagdad Cafe, and she’s singing it in 1981 to a group of gay men, many of whom are likely to be dead by the time the real version of this song was first written and recorded six years later. 

On the other hand, does this matter when you get to see Patti in a Cleopatra/Cher/Victor/Victoria type headpiece, doing an homage to the world’s most well-known, real life gay bathhouse singer, the young Bette Midler of the early 1970s? 

No, it definitely does not

Not to anyone else but me, it seems.  

AHS:NYC and the like may not be historically accurate but they don’t have to be.  They are real enough, real-ish, which is fine as long as they are believable enough to be moneymaking and/or entertaining.

To use the present vernacular, they provide us infinitely more digestible alternative facts than our actual history.

And then some.

The lovely Kellyanne Conway first coined the oxymoron alternative facts in early 2017 on NBC’s Meet the Press in an effort to defend, or at least massage, the Trump administration’s lies about the number of people at his inauguration.

‘member her?

Days before, at his very first appearance as White House press secretary, Sean “Spicey” Spicer bellowed to a group of disbelieving reporters that President Trump had the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration – PERIOD…!

That easily provable lie and blatantly improvable alternative fact quickly became an embarrassing international meme and butt of many a Saturday Night Live gag.

Some of Kate’s best work

Numerous comparative aerial photos, as well as final Washington, D.C. Metro figures for that day became irrefutable truths that Trump didn’t have anywhere near the attendance they claimed.  In fact, the first inauguration of Barack Obama more than doubled the real Trump numbers, which Spicer had already exaggerated by about 20-25%.

It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time, more of an embarrassing mess that would ultimately be cleaned up in the history books by real facts, not alternative ones.

And look where we are now.

George Michael & Lynn Mabry – “I’m Calling You”

The Movie of the Week

There is a searing, harrowing horror in watching a sexual assault survivor recall live what happened to her when she was 15 and her attacker was 17.

Still, this is nothing compared to what the survivor experiences.

So we were riveted when clinical psychologist Dr. Christine Blasey Ford expertly described the encoded memory of her 15 year old self being thrown unwilling into a tiny bedroom where a 17 year old version of US Supreme Court Justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh ground his body into her as he laid on top of her young body and tried to remove her clothes in a drunken stupor.

When this story feels like too much, remember to VOTE.

It got even more horrific when she tried to scream, his hands covered her mouth and another drunken 17 year old in the room, his best bud, jumped on the bed in gleeful excitement at the spectacle and caused them all to roll onto the floor.

Still, what put it over the top and made it a peak experience never to be forgotten was their incessant laughter, at her and her powerlessness, reverberating almost 40 years later in her mind.

She recalls it as the irremovable primary memory, one that makes us wonder how a girl that young was ever able to move out from under him, run out the door and lock herself in a nearby bathroom until the sound of that drunken teenage boy laughter stumbled down a winding, skinny set of stairs and out of earshot.

If there is something TV movie sounding-ish about all of this, it’s because there is.

This is real. And it feels more real than ever.

This all might easily be mistaken for a TV-movie done by one of the Big 3 networks in the 1970s or perhaps Lifetime in the early aughts, had so many of us not just seen it live in a US Senate Judiciary Hearing this week.

And perhaps it will be.  Meaning, of course it will, all that’s missing is the grotesquery of the date.

Real-life couple Felicity Huffman and William H. Macy could easily play Dr. Ford and Judge Kavanaugh.   Really think about it.  They both look the parts and they have the acting chops!  He even plays an alcoholic Dad on Showtime’s Shameless, albeit one who makes no bones about it.  Well, her riveting appearances on American Crime and so many other series and feature films will make up for that, if we’re at all worried about appealing to Red State America, which of course we are.

Though SNL’s choice of Matt Damon was oddly inspired. #ilovebeer

And who to play Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, sputtering with rage at the gall of these forces conspiring to derail what felt like a fait accompli for the married, straight white judge?  Is Tommy Lee Jones too old?  What about Sean Penn, is he just too…Sean Penn to play, as Mr. Graham referred to himself as during the hearings, a single white, Southern male?   Well, few of us could have ever pictured, much less thought we’d buy, Penn as gay icon Harvey Milk, if you think about it.  And you should about now.  (Note:  Oh yes, I DID write/bold that).

Oh, Chairy. #hehe

It seems certain if we could get big stars to appear as supporting cast, a la the classic Judgment at Nuremberg, Meryl Streep could manage Dianne Feinstein, Scarlett Johansson might make a fine Amy Klobuchar and Tracey Ellis Ross could evoke Kamala Harris.  Of course, no one could top Frances McDormand or Angela Bassett as the California senator who in any just world (Note: Hah!) will one day be president.  Still, all would-be producers these days are already terrified of being non-PC on this kind of project, at least publicly, so we can’t even go THERE.

Oh wait, we can stay within the TV realm and still get a great actress for Kamala.  What about…Sarah Paulson!!!!   Oh, again, not PC enough?  Yikes.

Well we know Sarah has range. #neverforget

Of course, the octogenarian men are even tougher to pull off…in so many ways. (Note:  Get it?)  For TV viewers we could age Chris Cooper for 85-year old Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley and Bruce Dern would need no makeup, just his awesome talent, to make 84 year old Orrin Hatch seem real.  Except it might be a mistake to make him too real when he refers to a sexual assault survivor in her early fifties as an attractive woman.  On the other hand, maybe we want reality?  Maybe that IS the point?

Now, who for amiable Chris Coons, the Democratic senator from Delaware who helped broker the handshake deal with Jeff Flake, his telegenic friend and soon to be early retired Republican senator from Arizona, to acquiesce into asking the committee to have the FBI spend one week further investigating the now multiple allegations against Judge Kavanaugh?

People are saying this, not to mention the herculean efforts of the two rape survivors who cornered Flake in the elevator, were key, especially since Sen. Flake had just one hour before committed to voting YES on the Kavanaugh confirmation.

Hell. Yes.

Don’t laugh but it’s more than possible Jason Alexander could play Sen. Coons.  Even Howie Mandel.   He’s amiable, right?  They both are.  (Note:  Stop the chuckling, this is serious).

Ahh, but who for Flake, the guy we’re scripting to be the reluctant hero who rises to the occasion, key word in that being reluctant…or perhaps hero?  Hmmm.

Ya gotta admit, Flake’s a good-looking guy at 55 with great hair and a big toothy smile in the mode of Ronald Reagan but without the Hollywood/California baggage.  Maybe…gosh I’d like to say John Malkovich with makeup but clearly no one is buying that.  Anyway, it’s probably just because someone who worked in my periodontist’s office told me this week that I reminded them of sexy Malkovich in Dangerous Liaisons, which at first seemed insulting but is now kind of growing on me.

But back to Flake.  Okay, let’s go with the obvious of Hugh Jackman since they’re both really tall, Flake is a devout Mormon and none of Mitt Romney’s sons have any acting experience as far as we know.  Though wait, how about Scott Eastwood???  He would certainly cost a lot less than Hugh and has a great pedigree to evoke reluctant hero.

If he wasn’t so damn British, Hugh Grant would nail the “about to cry at any second” Flake look. #boohoo

Not that we are all not ALOT more than our heritages.  Especially white, straight men cause, well, let’s be fair to EVERYONE.

If this all seems to trivialize the events of this week, the searing, harrowing horror of it all, it wasn’t INTENTIONAL.  It was NEVER MEANT to have THAT EFFECT.  It was only meant to sound angry and bitter.

Actually, it wasn’t.  It was meant to make a point.

Nothing could trivialize what happened this week, or be any more bitter, than the reactions of half the Senate Judiciary Committee to it.

This will forever be seared into my memory. #DidIMentionVOTE

We all know which half and exactly who they are.   But whether they will ever be willing to change, or even partially admit their culpability, remains a far different story.

It is one that pales in comparison to the REAL STORY in every possible way.

Kelly Clarkson – Because of You