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 Simple Truth

Less is more.

This is the mantra that my writing mentors taught me and that I try to pass on to those writers I mentor.  It’s tempting to hear these words to mean that working less will mean more.  In fact, it’s exactly the opposite.  It takes a great deal of thought (though not over thinking), digging and artistic courage to explore areas you find scary, embarrassing and frankly, well, private, to come up with what you see as “the truth” (or at least an artistic version of it) in any given dramatic (or comedic) situation. And then to pare it down to less, less and still less in an effort to showcase it in its most relatable and thus, understandable light.  The (not so) simple truth is by then you might be thinking – who needs this torture!  But as one mentor told me some years ago:  “No one forced you to be a writer.”  Indeed.

I was thinking about being “simple” this week when I read that Zachary Quinto — the very talented actor best known to movie audiences as Mr. Spock in the “Star Trek” reboot, to TV audiences as the villainous Sylar in “Heroes,” and to Broadway audiences as Lewis, the neurotic gay intellectual who leaves his HIV infected long-time lover of in the revival of Tony Kushner’s  “Angels in America.” –- acknowledged what many in the entertainment industry have long known but apparently many in the public were still surprised by – that he is G-A-Y.

Having been gay all of my life, what I know for certain is that publicly acknowledging the truth about your sexuality, or about anything else in your personal life, is a personal choice and full of booby traps. Although it could be simple it often isn’t because of endless internal dialogue:

What’s too much… what’s too little; why am I saying anything at all?

But by not saying this am I lying about who I am?

What good will come of this in the age of #Twitter, Facebook (hiding you), tumblr (uh…_), TMZ (bad photo), VERY high unemployment (will I lose my job?).  

The real truthy truth is words can be so easily twisted and damn it, I just want to be understood!

We feel you, ZQ

To this I say – don’t we all?  But it is in that very attempt to do so that we all, including myself stray away from the simple truth in an effort to – what exactly?  Explain what could be covered in a single line, as one screenwriting teacher once told me?  Why not just have your hero take an action, if he has to say something, make it brief because the more he says the more confused you’re making me.

I wonder if to some extent this is what happened to the quite courageous Mr. Quinto, and, I suspect, might have happened to me at 34 years old if I were a major actor and an over thinking artist – both of which I think Mr. Quinto is (and half of which I probably wish I were at some point).  Instead of simply saying: I AM GAY and I want to be honest about it, etc. etc. here is the statement currently posted on his website:

I think he said he was….wait, did he?  Let me read it again.

Good for ZQ (what great initials) for saying something. And who am I to tell him how to say it (obviously this is not stopping me).  But might it have been good, or even more good (I don’t want to say better) for what he was trying to do – which is to make a public statement about his life – to simply, say:

“I am a gay man and I want to help.  And if me living my life openly as a gay man in some tiny way helps a gay kid somewhere who is considering suicide, that’s a small sacrifice on my part.”

Maybe he could add something like, “This is a very personal decision but if all actors, young and old, came out, it would soon become not a big deal and we could get on with our jobs of entertaining people.”

If pressed he could even further elaborate: “Imagine if everyone came out?  Maybe this is not possible for everyone.  But if it slowly were to happen, I can’t help but think, or in fact know, that the bullies would be outnumbered.”

Let me be clear – EVERYONE HAS A RIGHT TO SAY WHAT THEY WANT THE WAY THEY WANT IT.  This is something I tell myself AND my students.  The issue is – what is most effective?  Being Complicated?  Being Simple?  Or something in between?

Certainly, there is nothing wrong with putting all this in the personal and political context of Jamey Rodemeyer’s tragic suicide, the “It’s Get Better Videos,” and civil equality for the LGBT community.  But as they taught us in journalism school and as James L. Brooks taught us by way of Albert Brooks’ character in “Broadcast News,” the one thing you don’t want to do when you’re trying to make a point is: BURY THE LEAD.

Meaning: how great is it when you can say what you want to say simply?  Upfront.  Clearly.  Think the inverted pyramid – who, what, when, where, why, how.  It will ALWAYS work if it’s honest because nothing works more effectively than the simple truth.  It’s the only way to counteract the bullies and the liars and the tellers or stories that deep down we know in our hearts and souls couldn’t possibly be true.

Given our current climate, one could argue simple is not best.  But remember – true simplicity is not just brief but it’s truthful – simple does not necessarily mean TRUTHFUL HONEST.  Which is where the slope gets extremely slippery and where people as smart or even smarter than Mr. Quinto, often get tripped up.  Twenty years ago when an actor I was working with as a writer (one who would soon become hugely famous and powerful) saw my wedding ring and asked if I was married, I brushed him off with a one line joke and didn’t give him the real answer which was that the ring signified the love my GAY partner and I had for each other since we couldn’t marry.  A matter of a year later this actor, who I later found out was hugely liberal and very complimentary of my work, would become nationally known for playing the part of a married man on something he produced and I realized what he was indeed asking me was – if you’re a married guy I think I’d really like to have your perspective in this next project I’m doing.  Which – I will sheepishly admit – became HUGE.

Now, there’s no way to be sure that was the case, but in this instance I think so.  So clarity, honesty, or no matter how you want to define it can cut both ways.  I don’t regret my choice (well, not too much), because it taught me something incredibly valuable.  It might seem like a risk, but more often than not the right answer is the honest and simple one.  Now don’t get me wrong, getting that job certainly would have presented an even greater set of issues and I likely would have quit or got fired because this actor was not necessarily easy.   But neither is simplicity or, at times, honesty.  Though it is always the way to go.  No doubt the latter is something ZQ will be showing us more of in both not so simple and very simple ways in the days to come.

ADDENDUM:  I can report since this writing that ZQ has personally reached out to gay organizations and committees, including one in which I’m a member, offering his help when available.  In this case, his ACTIONS speak louder than his WORDS – and that is truly rare – and something which I greatly admire.  And when it is a choice between words and actions, let’s face it – we’ll take the latter every day of the week. Bravo.