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”

Tribes

We all have our tribes, be it by race, religion, sexual orientation or even…hair color.   It’s often nice to be a part of something larger than oneself but if you’re at all curious (or just get bored easily) you can’t help but be intrigued by the OTHER. For example, I for one have always wondered – DO blondes really have more fun?

OK Marilyn…we get it

Those of a certain generation might remember that old ad slogan while anyone under 30 probably has no idea. That’s another tribe – the over/under 30, 40, 50 and….so on.

What I can also personally attest to is that once you do indeed become a “so on” the ranks begin to thin a bit and your tribe often needs to expand – if for no other reason than practicality. The alternative is being left entirely alone or slowly driven crazy by the very same people who at one point provided you comfort, excitement and the fuel to simultaneously remake and/or bend the world to your will.

In America we call that – living your best life. Not sure what it is in other cultures but I’ll wager that as an expression it translates pretty well – not unlike one of those universal traffic signs.

I caught up with the movie Black Panther this weekend and enjoyed it far more than I expected to for any number of reasons. But principal among them was that it chose to use the superhero genre to look at what it means to stay a member of one’s own tribe to the practical exclusion of much of everything else.

Deserving of the (box office) throne

NO SPOILERS HERE, don’t worry.

Still, what is fascinating about the film is that it manages to advocate extending a hand to outsiders by sharing your wealth and gifts AND staying especially loyal to the very tribe who nurtured you through the years. The latter is especially the case to members you may never have met and who may be far less fortunate or classy than you and applies even if you think you don’t have much to offer.

What a concept. If I were a religious person I might say that sounds like the teachings of Jesus, Mohammed, Moses, Allah or…God? But being a heathen I define it simply as decency. A no-brainer. After all, no tribe has the market cornered on morality. Except mine.

I’m joking. I think.

for that over [age redacted] crew

The very fact I really liked Black Panther was yet one more small step away from my natural state of tribalism.   To whit, I don’t generally care for superhero films. I mean, they’re okay – sometimes fun. But, well, I was a kid who didn’t get the appeal of superhero comic books. They seemed silly, unreal and unlikely.

Except the 1960s Batman TV series – the bane of most superhero comic book fans’ existence (I think?). But the 12 year old me could never turn away from Tallulah Bankhead as the Black Widow – not to mention Adam West or Burt Ward. Which should tell you all you need to know about my childhood.   Or me.

Allow me to present… the Batusi Dance #thisisreal #ilovedit

Yet here I am all these decades espousing the virtues of Black Panther.   And asking questions like:

  • How is it that there has never been a major studio movie about a superhero of color?
  • Why is this one of the few, if only, movies of its kind to directly tackle contemporary issues of race and ethnicity with a fully coherent story AND have cool action scenes and more than a few witty lines – while still being entertaining?
  • How can so many really good actors be that f’n good-looking?

I mean…. #hott

Speaking of good-looking and living your best life, after getting home from Black Panther, and probably looking inwards for some contact with something from own tribe, I decided to watch a few episodes of Netflix’s new Queer Eye – a reboot of that early aughts Bravo series Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.

You know the one. It’s where a bunch of gays saunter, macho walk and/or swish into another guy’s mess of an outer and inner life and make him over. Well, to be fair, they more try to make him the best of himself within budget, reason, time constraints and what raw material there is to work with.

Oh hello honey

If that sounds snide chalk it up to my Queer way of putting things because truly, I don’t mean it to be. Many of us gay guys in general have been doing it on ourselves for years, especially those of my generation who as teenagers didn’t really have a discernable tribe and were often left to blend in – usually badly – and out of necessity had to self-teach ourselves a way to blossom into our true selves without our tribal elders.

So why not have a show where we use our talents for the greater good and, in doing so, show people we aren’t so damned…scary? Threatening? Different? Satanic? Unacceptable? I never could really figure it out.

Every episode would end like this

At least that was the overriding subtext of the original series. Times have thankfully changed a bit since then and the new one no longer seems intent on trying to prove anything. It more seems like a romp where they don’t necessarily change an uptight straight guy’s life but can also help an aesthetically challenged gay guy clean up his outer and/or inner act.

Even when the subject is a Southern, redneck, overweight, older straight guy (the subject’s self-characterization, not mine), it’s not about the queer quintet subliminally getting acceptance from the heterosexual world. The redneck wasn’t uncomfortable with the Fab 5 (he seemed to adore them from the outset), he was hopelessly uncomfortable with himself and spent most of his time sad and by himself, watching TV from an old, stained barcalounger.

One of these is not like the other

So within the settling of reality television, it seemed perfectly normal – if not downright formulaic – to watch a group of experts using their pooled tribal talents to transform yet another human life for the better. The fact that they were queer – substitute any other OTHER you like – seemed almost beside the point. Like choosing a red color palette instead of one that was blue or green.

(Note: Hopefully the subjects will evolve and extend to women, senior citizens of either sex or those of any age landing anywhere on the continuum of gender identity).

Sure, it’s staged and yeah, it’s not saving the world. And no, not all gay guys know about clothes, home design, hair, food, or culture (Note: Certainly not culture, I mean check out your neighborhood gay restaurant or bar and see just how delicious and relationship ready your selections seem).

I’m sorry… what did you say? I got distracted by Antoni the food guy #imean

It is merely one part of a tribe showing the rest of THE WORLD who they are, how they roll and just how fabulous IT and THEY can be. But instead of keeping the knowledge or fun (or whatever) to the like-minded, it’s inviting them into your party and morphing said world forward in some small way.

Immigration can achieve similar results. It happens in the theatre, where people sit together and watch a show live. I see it in the classroom everyday – or, well, at least every other day.

Blondes don’t have the market cornered on fun. That was just an old Madison Avenue ad line – a come on that left out all the other colors. Though it was thought of by one of the first female advertising executives in the 1950s. Who also happened to be Jewish. And the daughter of Russian immigrants.

Think about it.

The Weeknd & Kendrick Lamar – “Pray For Me (from Black Panther)”