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”

Size Matters

Screen Shot 2015-12-13 at 3.55.29 PM

It’s one of those small, personal films…..

The audience is VERY limited…..

People in major metropolitan areas will be go for it, but…I mean…

Why would anyone want to see this?…

BO-RING!!!…………

BRILLIANT!!!

There seems to be two types of movies nowadays – the BIG and the SMALL.

The BIG ones are entertaining and appeal to many people. Even when they’re dramatic they have lots of ACTION and are not full of MANY LEVELS of meaning. They’re LOUD and they’re fun. They can also be funny, with recognizable characters that you’d like to hang out with or hate. When they work they’re like great fast food or stylish mass-market clothing lines. You indulge in them because they deliver on what they promise.

Of course, this description is a little ridiculous. But that’s fine because we’re not talking about the BIG here. They get enough attention as it is.

That leaves – The SMALL. And the PERSONAL.

This variety is just that: intimate, multi-layered and often not very obvious. They are not fun in a ha-ha sort of way and many times they are just plain upsetting or confusing. Their pace is A LOT SLOWER (more, ahem, leisurely) and in too many moments you care to admit they can make you wonder why you would choose to spend what precious little spare time you have watching another person’s therapy session. Still, they give you something that you can’t get most anywhere else – an intimate, almost forbidden look into the psyche of someone else. At their best they can be moving, thought-provoking and, as a side benefit, can make you feel personally less crazy about your own mind and life.

Join the club!

Join the club!

Certainly, this description is biased and overly general. But no less false or true than the one used to describe BIG.   If it also seems a bit snobby, like I’m preferring this to the former, then so be it. Remember, we’re talking about what the general public considers SMALL. It needs all the help that it can get.

This being a lazy weekend where I’ve been under the weather after finishing up months of work on two different jobs, I was up for the small in the last few days.

You’d think it would be the opposite, right? Well, you wouldn’t be alone. My parents never understood why I preferred to write heart-breaking poetry at the age of 12 instead of playing baseball outside. Or why I worried so much about the destruction of the world, my own death and other existential questions of life.

What can I say, some of us were just born this way.

So to satisfy all of these urges– and yes, to RELAX ME – I popped in three different DVDs from my holiday pile courtesy of the usually ungenerous film studios. They are all what are considered SMALL movies. And they ALL had their moments – which you can take any way you want.

Other than being tossed by the general SHOW BIZ public into the dreaded SMALL and PERSONAL category, they have absolutely nothing else in common. Which is why they’re worth examining individually before they entirely disappear from the motion picture zeitgeist – and perhaps seeing if what I (or THEY) say about small is true.

BY THE SEA 

Directed, written and starring Angelina Jolie-Pitt

brad-and-angie-by-the-sea

It’s difficult to imagine ANYTHING starring Mr. and Mrs. Brad Pitt as small or personal, right? After all, is anything they do either of those things for very long? Certainly, it’s never SMALL. Except this film.

No – it’s nowhere near as BAD as you might have read it is. Nor is not a two-hour plus perfume commercial, the ultimate vanity project or the thinly veiled semi-autobiographical tale of Ms. Jolie-Pitt’s deceased mother.

By The Sea is actually a strangely watchable and often infuriatingly flawed tale of a an early 1970s it couple in marital crisis done in the style of a late 1960s French film where shots linger, meanings are implied and the scenery, clothes and sunsets are all breathtakingly beautiful. All done to the tune of what seems like a mash-up of the ambient theme music of every film ever directed by Jean Renoir, Roger Vadim and Claude Chabrol, not to mention a few others.

and then pipe in some Burton-Taylor 1970s glamour

and then pipe in some Burton-Taylor 1970s glamour

If you’re looking for faults you’ll find them. It’s thoroughly dumb-founding why Ms. Jolie-Pitt spends the majority of her screen time miserably unhappy and girding towards a breakdown. And when the truth is finally revealed (Note: yes, hang in there, she finally will let you know) it has nowhere near the impact it might have had it been doled out to us in even semi-coherent bits and pieces all along. True, this is screenwriting 101 but, I mean, are you going to be the one to give the Pitts notes when they’ve signed on to star in a new movie they want you to make?

This being the case, let’s focus on the positives. This is a filmmaker-movie star that understands exactly who she is and what the public thinks of her. So what she chooses to do here is indulge us with it – meaning her – until we can’t see straight and then subvert our expectations of who we think she is. Or, well, who her character is. Not that there’s a difference. Or, is there?

Oh Angie... you clever girl.

Oh Angie… you clever girl.

See, that’s the point. Ms. Jolie-Pitt plays an impossibly beautiful, glamorous former-dancer from New York married to Mr. Pitt, an impossibly handsome famous novelist of the time. They live in New York but are vacationing in a gem of a small hotel on the water in the south of France where they drive a spiffy sports car and seem to have unlimited clothes, style and funds to stay as long as they choose. They are so breathtakingly watchable and enviable that you hate them – then hate them for being as miserable as they both are. Until you also can’t help but be intrigued by one question: how can this possibly be??????

And that’s the crux of the film and what makes it more often than not watchable. Which is not to say I give it a hearty recommendation. But by the end, you marvel at how skillfully Ms. Jolie Pitt was able to undermine our expectations of just who she and her husband are vs. what they seem to be. And if you want to know if I’m talking about the real couple or the characters they play I have no idea. Which is, again, the entire point, and what makes the movie an unusual experience you don’t get much of anymore on the BIG (or even small) screen.

ROOM

Directed by Lenny Abrahamson; Written by Emma Donoghue (based on her novel)

Every year it seems there’s room for ONE small, personal, INDIE film on the Hollywood must-see A list. Last year it was Whiplash, and deservedly so. This year it’s Room, a movie that is equally deserving.

It’s difficult to predict why one very intimate, low-budget SMALL story will work so well while others falter. The strength of Room is its unrelenting oppressive intimacy and suppressed emotions. Which is not say it’s without its fair share of hysteria. But there’s an astonishing lack of bells and whistles here – whether due to budget, design, style or all three – and it all works pretty seamlessly.

There will be no spoilers except to say Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay, who play a mother and her five-year old son stuck in a small room – a premise novelist/ screenwriter Donoghue was inspired to create after she read about an even more harrowing real-life story. People often think writers can only tell personal stories they’ve experienced or seen happen to their family and friends. This is shortsighted and denies the very craft of writing itself. If you do your homework and are open to your own emotions you can become part of each character’s story and wind up telling a tale about your own life – at least by extension.

Move over J. Law, Brie's Hollywood's newest It Girl

Move over J. Law, Brie’s Hollywood’s newest It Girl

For whatever reason, that seems to have happened here with Ms. Donoghue, the director and the actors. Ms. Larson is astonishing, as she was in the similar-in scope Short Term 12 several years ago. Her co-star, the now 8-year-old Jacob Tremblay gives one of those child performances that will go down next to Hayley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense and Abigail Breslin in Little Miss Sunshine. You just find yourself wondering – how can this be? How does a kid DO this? And…could I even put two thoughts together when I was his age???

There’s a lot more to Room than any of this but since I managed to see it with little or no information beforehand I’ll do you the same favor here. But you should see it. It shows that you can still aspire to tell any sort of subject matter onscreen and, with enough time and effort, do it every bit as well or better than any one of the BIG guys (or gals, for that matter).

INFINITELY POLAR BEAR

Directed and written by Maya Forbes

3

This movie is an admittedly semi-fictionalized account of the writer-director’s own childhood as the young daughter of her bipolar, blue-blood father who tries to be a full-time parent to her and her sister when their African American mother decides to go to grad school in order to be able to earn enough money to support the family.

Its strength is that it embraces mental illness as both a serious medical condition AND entertainingly over-the-top oddity. Too often this type of character becomes merely charmingly strange or sadly pathetic – either whitewashed into a sideshow freak or held up as a sadly melodramatic life-wrecking nut job. Mark Ruffalo’s performance manages to convey equal parts of both and it imbues the film with just the right kind of narrative drive to sustain a fairly episodic story. Just as you think it’s all getting a bit ridiculous, he anchors you back to a believable reality. But when the film veers into Lifetime TV melodrama (Note: That is if Lifetime TV did more films with male leads – but that would then make it a TNT or Nat Geo movie where he’d have to be a crazy cowboy in the Wild West), he comes up with an odd bit or reaction that makes you smile but won’t send your face into snide eye-roll mode.

Just want to remind everyone that this was a real Lifetime movie in 2015.

Just want to remind everyone that this was a real Lifetime movie in 2015.

One wishes the story offered something a little bit…newer on the subject. Or perhaps that by looking at his predicament through the 2015 lens of what we know about mental illness makes everything about what’s presented seem a bit dated. One can’t help but feel like we’ve seen it before, or read about it or watched too many cable and now even network series on the subject with more than our fair share of QUIRK.

There are also moments in the movie where we can’t help but feel as if we’re watching Ms. Forbes’ comic recreations of a childhood that she has recreated for many others through the years. Of course, there is nothing wrong with that on its own. Almost every artist does it with their stories and experiences in some form or another before offering it up for general digestion (NOTE: Guilty as charged). The trick is for it not to seem as if this is material that has had previous out-of-town runs. You don’t want the sense that the daughters’ embarrassments are too planned or the wife’s exasperations too rehearsed – which is how it too often seemed. But like he does in so many roles, it’s Mr. Ruffalo who seems to know just how to calibrate it all. It’s why he’s the go-to character guy of his age group – a guy who knows how to make the small seem something better than big – REAL.