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”

Now… It’s Over

Screen Shot 2015-08-02 at 11.37.09 AM

Some idiot at MSNBC cancelled Now with Alex Wagner and I’m pissed off. Can one be angry at an idiot who doesn’t know any better? Or is it more appropriate to be p.o.’d at an amorphous thing like a network that doesn’t have any feelings? How much of an effect will that have? Of course, I’ve met a lot of idiots who don’t have feelings so perhaps I’d be better off going with the individual just to make it all feel more personal to me. At least there is some satisfaction in that.

Yes, I realize most of you don’t know who Alex Wagner is or have anything invested in Now. Make of the last part of that last statement what you will. And know that I will explain more about both AW and Now in a bit.   For now, just be aware it’s a mid-afternoon news/talk/opinion show – one of a block of three such programs MSNBC has axed in order to mainstream itself with a CNN-type breaking news kind of strategery. Yes, strategery.

STRATEGERY, my friends

STRATEGERY, my friends

Apropos of that — back to the idiots.

I’ve read this monumentally stupid decision was the brainchild of new NBC News chairman Andrew Lack, who is anything but new. Or news. He actually presided over NBC in its news heyday of the nineties when he helped take its anchor Tom Brokaw from #3 to #1 in the nightly race for ratings among the three major broadcast networks’ Nightly News programs. But does anyone you know watch the Nightly News anymore? (Note: Jon Stewart doesn’t count and in another week he’ll be gone too – waaaaa). Certainly no one reading these words. Or writing them.

No love for Davey?

No love for Davey?

Someone should tell the 68-year-old Mr. Lack that his plan to insert recently deposed NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams (Note: Yeah, the guy who was put on “leave” for fictionalizing portions of at least a few more than several news stories he reported on) into the slots occupied by the brilliant and effervescent Ms. Wagner (and others) is akin to me ordering my current film students to sit down in a room and watch Barbra Streisand movies from the 60s and 70s on a loop. Or replacing Jon Stewart with Bryant Gumbel. Well, now I fear I’ve really lost the under 25 crowd. My first instinct was to use the Olivia Newton John or Elton John or even Jimmy Stewart comparison but I doubt any of those would have fared any better.

... and good luck to the over 40 crowd in recognizing this guy

… and good luck to the over 40 crowd in recognizing this guy

I have an unhealthy addiction to what used to be MSNBC and Ms. Wagner in particular because like me they are smart, sarcastic and liberal yet also managed to be surprisingly fair and balanced. Again, make of that last statement what you will but, no, it is not an oxymoron in our current cable news landscape. Also, in Ms. Wagner’s case I suspect she’s a lot nicer than I am. Certainly, she’s more modest. As for MSNBC, up until now they have been one of the few news sources with commentators who are not constantly dumbing down the issues of the day for the “masses,” blanding it down to the point of snoredom or amping it up to the tenor of the Donald Trump parade hosted by Fox News. I was going to say Sarah Palin parade on Fox because I hate to give Trump any more ink at all. But then I realized that evoking Sarah Palin was as relevant as hiring Brian Williams to be the new face of change for a floundering cable outlet. Or giving zzz’s inducing Meet the Press moderator Chuck Todd four more hours of daytime programming chores as your second new hosting face.  Kill me now.

Welp... it's about time for my mid morning nap  #snooze

Welp… it’s about time for my mid morning nap #snooze

What did/do I love about Alex Wagner? Well, for one thing she often referred to the 2012 Republican presidential nominee as Willard “Mitt” Romney (Note: His real name) and Donald Trump as the “Teflon Don” (Note: Too nice to be his real name). She could also speak as eloquently about Jay-Z as she could on Zero Based Budgeting, while on that very same show interview everyone from Ron Paul to RNC Chairman Reince Priebus (Note: Imagine being fair with him???) to any bleeding heart liberal on the block with a combination of tough-minded accuracy and good-natured aplomb.

News goddess

News goddess

Oh, and did I mention she’s 37, of mixed race origin and is married to former Obama White House chef, close First Family friend, and now NBC’s newest Today show contributor Sam Kass? Not to be mercenary, but why would you want someone like that anchoring an afternoon chat show on your network in 2015? Instead, let’s contract with more straight, deep-voiced or doughy-looking white men because, god knows, they are the wave of the future. What’s an Obama Coalition, anyway?

I'll have what she's having

I’ll have what she’s having

One might surmise this is less about Ms. Wagner and MSNBC and more about the fact that… the Chair does not adapt to change very well. Hmm, that could be at least partially correct. One strategy to overcome one’s anger – aside from just letting it go – is to welcome change as an opportunity for something better. I mean, the chief message of Pres. Obama to the Obama Coalition was something like: We are the change we have been waiting for. Remember?

Well, that’s a nice thought but in this case it would seem to indicate that the answer to all of this would be for me to start my own network, find another program or, as a last resort, try to figure out a way to hang out with Ms. Wagner on my own. I’m not entirely sure which one is the most doable. Though certainly I could guarantee the one of the three that would be the most fun.

Oh, do not start your own network, honey.

Oh, do not start your own network, honey.

That is, I suspect, the real issue. There is not a heck of a lot of fun in media these days. Or – there is too much of it. It’s entertaining when it’s supposed to be serious/serious when it’s supposed to be entertaining. Is Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly or even Fox News itself meant to be taken seriously? Have you ever tried to watch Fox and Friends? Every so often I tune in to the latter, one of several bizarre series on the top-rated cable network. Last week, when speaking of the surfer who got attacked and nearly eaten by a shark during a competition, one of the geniuses on that show wondered out loud why the surfing area wasn’t automatically cleared of sharks when there was a sporting event going on.

#Dowager4ever

#Dowager4ever

Yet on Ms. Wagner’s final program the Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart got it exactly right when asked about Thursday’s first Republican nominee presidential debate and the emergence of Donald Trump as its inevitable centerpiece. Mr. Capehart offered that the ratings would be high not because of a resurgence in political interest or a worry about the direction of the country. No, he said, it was mainly because it was a great potential entertainment event where you could sit in front of TV with a bowl of popcorn, a group of friends and play the drinking game of your choice as you watched Donald Trump eviscerate a stage full of – well, take your choice on what you want to call them, no partisanship here.

#srsly

#srsly

It is this kind of truth-telling that one seems to only get on shows like Ms. Wagner’s that I will miss. And yeah, I know I might be able to get it elsewhere. And it may even be better. Or it might not and I might be inspired to spend less time nodding my head at the television to people that I already know agree with me and being more productive in my life as a writer, teacher, husband and general citizen of the world.

As Gandhi once famously said – and perhaps this is where Pres. Obama got it from – Be the change that you wish to see in the world. In other words, don’t fight it.

#preach

#preach

Well, that’s a nice thought. But I’m still pissed off at MSNBC, Lack and the whole cabal for their misguided corporate stupidity. As such, in this situation I quite prefer the prose of Dorothy Parker, who many, many decades ago once wrote:

In my youth, it was a way I had,

To do my best to please.

And change, with every passing lad

To suit his theories.

 But now I know the things I know

And do the things I do,

And if you do not like me so,

To hell, my love, with you.

Or, in 2015 vernacular: Bite me, MSNBC.