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 Fame Monster

I’ve been thinking a lot about the overheated spotlight of fame in the last few days. 

More specifically, what it means when we see someone relentlessly splattered on our screen or are unable to avoid incessantly reading about them in the news or on social media.

Who and what exactly are these people and how do they fit into the paradigm of who and what THEY really are?

Kinda like Kim K’s recent Met Gala look, you have to wonder… who is she?

And what do our reactions to and fascination with them say about us.

Two people now all over the news and in pop culture that couldn’t be more different prompted this.  

In fact, the only thing they share in this moment, and likely for all time, is an outsized level of notoriety that IMPLORES us ALL to have an opinion on them.

1. The late Princess Diana Spencer, aka The People’s Princess.

And….

2. Kyle Rittenhouse, the now 18-year-old AR-15 rifle-toting killer of two men a year ago that was just found not guilty of committing their murder.

I know. 

You sure Chairy?

It doesn’t feel right to even carry them in the same thought, does it?

But bear with me.

Earlier this week I received the first complimentary DVD of the 2021 Hollywood awards season, Spencer.  It’s a creepy little film about a reimagined pivotal week in Princess Diana’s life in 1991 where she is secluded at the Queen’s estate to celebrate Christmas with the Royal Family and must decide whether she wants to fully embrace her public doppelganger, Princess Di, or re-emerge as her fast disappearing true self, Diana Spencer, and in the process attempt to save her two young sons from the clutches of the royal version of the fame monster.

As dramatic as its poster!

If that sounds a little pretentious, well, it is.  But that’s because this film was directed by Pablo Larrain, who unapologetically played fast and loose with the facts of Jacqueline Kennedy’s life in Jackie (2016), a movie I personally loathed and would have turned off had I not been determined to blog about how truly disrespectful and sickening I thought it was.

Still, there is something about Spencer that sadly speaks to the latter part of 2021.

Not to mention that, in its way, and with the help of a disturbingly transformational performance by Kristen Stewart, it manages to give the people’s princess a momentarily quite happy ending.

Is Oscar calling?

It also helps that at the outset the filmmakers superimpose onscreen that what we are about to see is: a fable from a true tragedy.   As we watch what seems like yet another crushingly awful exploitation of a dead person’s life we can at least relax into the idea that the filmmakers have copped to the fact that they’re cherry picking their way through a reimagined and reassembled graveyard of facts to serve their own purpose.

Not quite noble but, hey, when you’re as famous as Diana was and continues to be you’ve willingly bargained away your anonymity for the type of riches and attention that the rest of us mere mortals can only dream of.

Or have you?

So many Dianas, how can we keep up?

In a sense that is the question Spencer asks and it’s best expressed when the philandering and quite awful version of her husband, Prince Charles, finally confronts what seems like a mid-nervous breakdown Diana with a sobering fact he presumes she had to have always known.

The idea that there are two of us, the personwe really are and the other one people take pictures of.

In the film Charles is speaking of the Royal Family, trying to drum it into Diana that this is what she signed up for and to think or act in any more authentic way will indeed literally drive her crazy.

Pretty generous casting

Yet given what we’ve “achieved”(Note: Ahem) in terms of world interconnectivity in the last three decades this has now become an undeniable fact of life for all of us.  

For it’d be naive to deny that in less than 24 hours any one of us could be living out the hideous fishbowl existence of our own 2021 version of Diana, but without the designer clothes and cool sports car she drives in Spencer.

Whether we enable it, whether we plan it or if, as in most cases, it happens quite accidentally.

This brings us to Kyle, the good ole boy cause celebre or object of international hate/love of the hour.

Ugh, this guy

The moment this then 17-year-old little shit chose to travel to another state with a semi-automatic rifle he didn’t own strapped on his shoulder so he could strut around like a big bad PROUD boy, pretending to be someone he was not (Note: A military-style paramedic vs. a princess for the people) he was immediately trading in his anonymous life and willingly putting himself in the crosshairs of danger – red, white and blue style.

It might be true that he hadn’t planned murder – or well, multiple shots with a war weapon directly into the bodies or two unarmed people he would kill, though later be found not guilty of committing a felony against – but this was always in the cards.

The reason they call them military-style weapons is that they’re meant to kill people in the most efficient manner possible.  To deny this is like denying that dating a famous person from a famously Royal family can very likely make you viscous fodder for the international consumption of venal gossip.

Justice had no chance against an AR15

The difference, of course, is that young Kyle chose a potentially lethal weapon that he could aim at others for fun, frolic and effect.   Diana chose a potentially lethal arena where many of the weapons of the world would eventually be borne down on her because, well, they could.  And it’s fun.

Kyle quickly and enthusiastically became the hunter.  Diana found herself hunted. 

And it’s always better to be armed when you find yourself in the midst of a hunt.  Until, well, it’s not.

By play acting soldier and making himself a minor in a minefield of social unrest, young Kyle was living out a video game fantasy of right wing revenge on the streets of Kenosha, WI over a year ago.  But as often happens in these situations, who he truly was or could have become (Note: We’ll never know) got swallowed by the events he set in motion to hideously public effect.

More of the same…

With his exoneration in criminal court last week, it might right now seem that he’s emerged victorious and gotten away with it.  Yet recent history often has a way of George Zimmerman-ing and Dan White-ing the crap out of people like him – shooters who walk away seemingly unscathed to only years later be hoisted on their own petards (Note:  I’ve been waiting decades to use that comic book phrase from “Batman” and this is the first time it’s ever seemed appropriate).

Kyle might have physically survived a situation his victims couldn’t (Note:  Tough crap crazy Judge Schroeder, I can use that word outside of your courtroom).  But it remains to be seen if he can survive himself.

He’s scheduled to do his first post-court interview with Tucker Carlson to air on Fox Monday night and there has already been talk of him being offered an internship via accused child sex trafficker, Rep. Matt Goetz (R-FL).   

Eyeroll of the century

So, I mean, that will certainly end well for him in the long run, right?  Like, what could go wrong as the years go on?

Fame and some potentially small fortune might be currently knocking at his door but one of the things we know all too well as 2021 is coming to a close is that everything comes at a cost. 

And I’m here to tell you as a college professor with two decades of experience that few, very few, 18 year olds have what it takes to weather the kind of relentless, ongoing storms Kyle will find himself in.

It’s a dangerous drug

Fame is a harsh, relentless and unforgiving mistress as all of us adults who’ve been fortunate enough to live through Diana’s death AND the last thirty years can attest to.

No matter what side you’re on and no matter how dastardly or noble your motivations or deeds.   Stay tuned.

Lady Gaga – “Monster”