Uncle Gloria: One Helluva Ride


People are people; what’s on the outside is just gift wrapping.

(2017) Documentary (XLRator/Seventh  Art) Gloria Stein, Butch Rosichan, Dan Friedman, Steven Shulman, Susan Schaffel, Natalie Chasen, Larry Sands, Dawn Heber, RB Perlman, Ricki Perlman, Arlene Shaffer. Directed by Robyn Symon

 

Everyone has their own journey in life to take. Sometimes it seems to follow a set path but some journeys take us in unexpected ways to unexpected places. All we can really do is enjoy the ride; and it is a helluva ride.

She started out life as Butch Rosichan. A short, stocky man who made a living as an auto wrecker in Broward County (South Florida), he was a bulldog of a man who would get in your face at any perceived slight. He was not above getting into fistfights if he was provoked Homophobic and crude, he was something of a ladies’ man who had two sons from a failed marriage but that was nothing like his second marriage.

His divorce from that marriage turned into a bitter, knock-down drag-out thing. His ex and her pit bull of a lawyer hounded Butch into losing everything and then put him in jail for non-payment of alimony. When he finished serving his 120 days in the hoosegow, he found his business was finished and shortly thereafter another warrant for non-payment of alimony was issued. Not wanting to return to jail, he went into hiding instead – as a woman. Thus Gloria Stein was born.

As it turned out, she liked being a woman and decided that it wasn’t just a disguise. In 2003 she underwent surgery to change his gender. As Gloria, she met a man, Dan Friedman who as it turned out had been born a woman; Dan helped Gloria mellow out and smoothed out some of her rougher edges. She began reaching out to family members that she had alienated as Butch and began reconciling with them, although her two sons as of the filming of this documentary had yet to accept her or even return her calls. This is clearly very painful for her.

Butch became Gloria at the fairly advanced age of 67 (she’s pushing 80 now) and became the subject of a documentary by then-PBS documentary director Symon. The project, which was initially intended just to cover her transition from male to female became a decade-long endeavor.

Gloria is an engaging sort, an interesting subject matter who still refuses to take crap from anyone, although she’s less in-your-face about it these days. She’s an outspoken advocate for transgenders who does speaking engagements throughout the country. Along the way she has been a sex worker – a professional dominatrix – and oh yes, continues to have an interest in classic cars.

There are a lot of empty spaces in the film however and in many ways Gloria isn’t very forthcoming. When asked why she decided to undergo the sex change, she blurts out ‘I don’t know” and that feels a bit disingenuous. I suspect she knows but either can’t or won’t articulate it. Some of the more negative aspects of her life are glossed over somewhat; why she was unable to pay her alimony is never discussed although it is hinted at.

Apparently as Butch she was also involved in a stolen car ring but we don’t hear a lot about that other than a couple of moments discussing how she and her first wife used to take a cab to a restaurant then steal cars from the valet lot. Beyond that, we learn nothing about how she got involved with stealing cars and why. We’re also told that as Butch she was a homophobe but we get nothing else; I for one would love to have heard her feelings on her homophobia now that she has become a transgender. Considering that the documentary is only 76 minutes long, it seems incomprehensible that Symon had ten years to film and could only come up with 76 minutes of footage for her final product.

Symon utilizes home movie footage, re-enactments of certain events but primarily interviews with friends and family of Gloria, all of whom knew her as Butch. I’m wondering if the film couldn’t have used at least a couple of people who only knew Gloria and not Butch. The movie overall has a wry sense of humor about it that I liked very much.

It’s a fascinating documentary but maddeningly incomplete. I suppose it’s better to leave an audience wanting more than wanting less, but it’s still not a good feeling to leave a documentary wanting to know more about the subject and knowing that there was plenty of room to give us more. This feels more like a work in progress than a completed film, but at least it’s a quality work in progress.

REASONS TO GO: Stein is an engaging subject. The movie has a wry tone that is delightful.
REASONS TO STAY: The film could use much more fleshing out. Gloria needed to be a lot more forthcoming about her past.
FAMILY VALUES: There are adult themes, some profanity and brief sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Symon during her time at PBS won two Emmys.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/6/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Woman on Fire
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Blood Stripe

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Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story


There's nothing funny about The Graduate.

There’s nothing funny about The Graduate.

(2015) Documentary (Adama) Harold Michelson, Lillian Michelson, Danny DeVito, Mel Brooks, Francis Ford Coppola, Bill Krohn, Rick Carter, Jim Bissell, Gene Allen, Gabriel Hardman, Richard Sylbert, Tom Walsh, Stuart Cornfeld, Norm Newberry, Tish Hicks (voice), Will Vought (voice), Anahid Nazarian, Marc Wanamaker, Patrick Mate. Directed by Daniel Raim

Harold Michelson was a storyboard artist who kind of fell into the work after serving his country in World War II. He had met and fallen in love with Lillian, a penniless but beautiful orphan from Miami who was originally friends with his sister. Although they didn’t know each other well, Harold was smitten and brought her out to California where they eventually got married and started a family.

She had gone to school to become a librarian but ended up founding a research library which would become one of the most valuable in Hollywood. Wanted to know what undergarments Jewish girls wore in Russia in the last decade of the 19th century? The makers of Fiddler on the Roof did and Lillian found out for them. Want to know what a drug lord’s mansion would look like? The makers of Scarface did and Lillian found out for them.

They were never a power couple but as their close friend Danny DeVito put it, they were the beating heart of Hollywood. Respected and beloved, both Harold and Lillian were well known for mentoring young people who were hoping to do what they did someday. Both of them worked on some of the most iconic films in the history of movies, from West Side Story to Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

One of the most fascinating sequences in the movie looks at Harold’s storyboarding work on The Graduate. Harold wasn’t just someone who sketched drawings; he understood camera angles and creativity and often his ideas helped make films better, making him much sought after and after The Graduate even more so. Shots like Benjamin Braddock being framed by the crooked leg of Mrs. Robinson were Harold’s idea and many of the shots that we still remember today from that film came out of Harold’s mind.

In some ways, this is four movies for the price of one. We get the story of Harold and Lillian’s courtship, with lots of drawings (presumably by Harold) that depict them during this period. We also meet their family, including an autistic son who has since become a computer programmer. Second, we find out about Harold’s work, the films he worked on and how important his contributions were to some of the most classic films of the era. Third, we see Lillian’s development into the top research librarian in Hollywood and what her own contributions meant.

But it was the fourth part that’s magic. We get more of a sense of the relationship between the two and the love that exists between them, with all their own insecurities (and they both had plenty). The last is set to the strains of Claire de lune by Claude Debussy and a more perfect soundtrack they could not have asked for. The music means something to me personally (I used it to court my own wife) so in the interest of fairness I have to say that the emotional resonance for me was far more than perhaps it might have been for others.

But as informative as the middle two segments are, it is the last one that will stay with me. The couple stayed together for sixty years until Harold sadly passed away in 2006 – Lillian is still alive and living in the Motion Picture Retirement Home and is in her 80s, possibly 90s by now and still beautiful and vivacious and even though her husband has been gone nearly a decade, her love for him is still very much apparent.

The secret to their successful marriage is not just that they were a great team, although of course they were, but simply because they didn’t let anything get in the way of their love. Sure, they fought and sure, they had disagreements but they resolved things between themselves. I won’t say that they draw a roadmap to a successful relationship because every relationship is different, but there’s no doubt that their formula can be useful to anyone who wants to make their relationship last. One can only wish for a marriage and a love like theirs – it’s what most of us aspire to.

This is a beautiful film that is also an informative film and I can count on the fingers of one hand how many films I’ve seen that are both, and I’ve seen thousands of films, maybe tens  of thousands. This movie is going to stay with me for a very long time. It’s premiering at the NYDOCS festival tonight and then playing again tomorrow. After that, keep an eye out for it on the festival circuit this Winter and next Spring (which I think would be the perfect time to see it). Hopefully after that, a savvy distributor will give it a theatrical release or at least make it available for streaming or VOD. This is a movie that very much deserves to be seen.

REASONS TO GO: Informative about the Hollywood process. Some wonderful anecdotes. The love story is beautiful and presented in a touching, heart-warming manner. Great use of music.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit of talking head syndrome.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mild language and period smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The King and Queen in Shrek 2 are based on Harold and Lillian and even bear their names.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/17/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Home movies of people you adore
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: Phoenix

The Theory of Everything


Jane and Stephen Hawking, sneakin' around.

Jane and Stephen Hawking, sneakin’ around.

(2014) Biographical Drama (Focus) Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, David Thewlis, Simon McBurney, Charlie Cox, Harry Lloyd, Emily Watson, Lucy Chappell, Charlotte Hope, Christian McKay, Abigail Cruttenden, Maxine Peake, Simon Chandler, Georg Nikoloff, Enzo Cilenti, Frank Leboeuf, Adam Godley, Guy Oliver-Watts, Alice Orr-Ewing, Nicola Victoria Buck. Directed by James Marsh

There is no doubt that Stephen Hawking is one of the greatest minds of our generation. He has redefined our thinking on how the universe works and the nature of time itself. There are many who believe he is in the same league as Einstein and Sir Isaac Newton when it comes to his effect on modern physics.

It is also well-known that he has had physical obstacles that most of us could never begin to cope with. Diagnosed with a version of ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig disease) at age 21, he was given just two years to live. In those two years he lost all motor control and eventually even his ability to speak. Still, he remains alive today – more than 50 years after his initial diagnosis.

Young Stephen Hawking (Redmayne) was a geeky, awkward, gangly sort of young man at Cambridge with plans to get his doctorate in cosmology and go on to come up with one simple, elegant equation that explains everything. In the meantime he does the same sorts of things that geeky, awkward, gangly sorts of young men have done in college for a very long time.

That is hang out with his friends, sleep in, go out drinking from time to time and have a spectacular lack of success with girls. That is, until he meets Jane Wilde (Jones) who is studying Iberian poetry. He is quite captivated with her. They are in many way polar opposites – he is drawn to science, she to the liberal arts. He is not traditionally handsome, she is a beauty by any standards. And he is a dedicated atheist, she a devout Christian member of the Church of England.

But he is warm and funny as well. His imagination takes him beyond the stars and into the way stars live and die. Even as a doctoral candidate his genius is recognized by his mentor Professor Dennis Sciama (Thewlis) as well as noted mathematician Roger Penrose (McKay). However his bright future is severely shaken by the news that he has a motor neuron disease and is only expected to live for two years, maybe a bit more. Needless to say he enters a deep depression.

But he and Jane have fallen deeply in love and have plans to marry. Certainly Stephen would understand if Jane would walk away from what can only be pain and heartache but ever-plucky like a good English rose, she refuses. Whatever happens will happen to them both and if their time together should be short, they will make the most of what they have.

But she wasn’t expecting to sign on for the long haul. Stephen, whose man parts are unaffected by the disease, fathers three children. As his condition deteriorates, she is caring for two and then a third squalling baby as well as for a husband who can’t do anything for himself. Desperate and overworked, she seeks solace from her mother (Watson) who advises her to join the Church chorus.

It turns out to be a splendid idea. The choirmaster, Jonathan Hellyer-Jones (Cox) becomes quite taken by the Hawkings’ situation and offers to help out as much as he can do. He turns out to be a godsend and he and Stephen get along famously. Hellyer-Jones, recently widowed, has begun to develop feelings for Jane and she for him. At his request, he steps back from a situation that is getting tricky.

The new therapist who helps Stephen learn to use an alphabet board (this is before he got the computerized voice that he is now famous for), a vivacious redhead named Elaine Mason (Peake) who came highly recommended develops a bond with Stephen that Jane doesn’t seem to have with him anymore. What will happen to this fairytale love story?

The operative words for this movie are the last two of the previous sentence. This is not a documentary about black holes and singularities, although some of the pioneering science that Hawking is responsible for is explained somewhat simply for most of us who simply don’t have the ability to understand the details of his work. Rather, this is a love story about two people who overcome frightening odds and share triumphs and tragedies.

Redmayne is a wonder here. Folks who are following the buzz for the upcoming Oscar nominations to be announced late next month are probably aware that many veteran industry observers feel that Redmayne is a lock for a Best Actor Oscar nomination and Jones is a serious contender for a Best Actress nomination as well. The buzz isn’t wrong. Redmayne is phenomenal, undertaking a very physical performance, literally shriveling up before our eyes going from a fairly healthy if not physically fit young man to one who is barely able to walk until he is a shell of a man, hunched over in his wheelchair and unable to support himself even in a sitting position. Redmayne spent time with dancers and ALS patients in order to get the movements and body language right. He also captures Hawkings’ delightful sense of humor.

Jones has a difficult role to play albeit one that is much less physically taxing. Hers is much more emotionally challenging, playing a woman who is being beaten down by the difficulties of her role not of wife and mother but also of nurse. Often times she feels taken for granted, cleaning up after the messes that her family makes and unable to take the time to pursue her own dreams. Jane is clearly frustrated and overwhelmed and Jones successfully conveys that to audiences. Our sympathy is with her as well as with her husband as her sacrifice takes on special resonance for those of us who are disabled who have a partner who has to shoulder more than her burden (or his).

There is a scene that resonated especially with me as a person with a degenerative condition. Stephen is having more and more difficulty walking and one afternoon Jane brings in a wheelchair. There isn’t any dialogue but it can only be an admission that the disease is winning for him and she allows him to process the situation on his own. “This is only temporary,” he says tearfully in a slurred voice. “Of course it is,” she says comforting him. With a wheelchair likely in my own future, I could relate to his sentiment.

Friends of mine have criticized the movie as being boring and perhaps from a certain point of view it is. My wife would most likely call the movie quiet, an adjective she uses a little differently than most of us. Perhaps the expectations of those going in is for something a little bit more science-y and this is not that movie. It is, as I mentioned before, a love story. One that possesses no loud crescendos, no cosmic triumphs but just sheer will power to make things work and a complete faith that two people have in each other to get them through a severely challenging situation.

It is an inspiring story but I don’t think it is meant to be in the rah-rah sense. Rather, this is just two people getting on with it. The ending to the movie is neither happy nor sad but it is the stuff of everyday life, even if both of the parties in the relationship happen to be extraordinary.

REASONS TO GO: Award-worthy performances by Redmayne and Jones. Some sequences inspire wonder. Is more of a love story than a physics textbook.
REASONS TO STAY: Some sequences are a little dry. Easily offended religious sorts may take umbrage at Hawking’s frankly stated atheism.
FAMILY VALUES: Adult themes and some sexually suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: It took screenwriter Anthony McCarten three years to convince Jane Hawking to allow a film version of her book to be made; it took another seven years for him to get the movie made.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/15/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Beautiful Mind
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Horrible Bosses 2

Tabloid


Tabloid

Joyce McKinney strikes a pose.

(2010) Documentary (Sundance Selects) Joyce McKinney, Jackson Shaw, Peter Tory, Kent Gavin, Troy Williams, Dr. Hong. Directed by Errol Morris

Some stories are too good to be true. Some are so weird that they could only be true. Some are both – and those are so rare that when they happen, it takes a master documentarian to chronicle them.

Joyce McKinney was a beauty pageant winner (Miss Wyoming World) who, during a stay in Utah, fell in love with a young Mormon man named Kirk Anderson. By all accounts, the feeling was mutual although his parents, devout Mormons, disapproved of the free-spirited McKinney quite acutely. One day, by McKinney’s reckoning, he just up and disappeared – vanished without a trace.

Stung and still deeply in love, she went to Los Angeles and hired a private detective who traced Anderson to England where he was on a mission for the Church – something most Mormon males aspire to. She gets it into her head that Kirk has been brainwashed and sets off to England to indulge in her own brand of de-programming.

Aided by a close friend named Keith May, a bodyguard (who quickly pulled out of the venture) and a pilot named Jackson Shaw (who also pulled out when he discovered what was really going on), she made plans to spirit her love away to a Devon cottage and after a weekend of intense lovemaking and gourmet meals, he made plans to marry her right away and went back to collect his things.

Or, if you believe Anderson’s account, she kidnapped him at gunpoint, shackled him to a bed in a Devon cottage, attempted to seduce him and when that failed, raped him repeatedly after which he lulled her into thinking he wanted to marry her and called the police the moment he got free.

McKinney was later arrested and incarcerated. A story like this even in 1977 was too juicy and too irresistible for the tabloids to pass up and they carried stories of the Case of the Manacled Mormon, as it was referred to at the time. McKinney and May were later released on bail and became quasi-celebrities (McKinney showing up to the London premiere of Saturday Night Fever where she was spotted with John Travolta). However when the crush of the press became too much, McKinney and her partner-in-crime fled the country, disguised as mimes. Yes, mimes!

While in the United States, competing newspapers (The Daily Mail and the Mirror) both sent reporters to try and get the story that was Joyce McKinney. While she allowed the Daily Mail the interview rights, the Mirror sent a journalist who dug into her past and discovered…nude pictures. These were splashed all over the rag’s pages, along with allegations of selling her body for money. There were so many stories out there that nobody really knew who the real Joyce McKinney was.

Neither will you after viewing this movie but for once, that’s a good thing. We really get only one viewpoint as to the events depicted here – McKinney’s (Anderson, quite wisely I think, declined to be interviewed for the film as he has for all other interviews about the incident). We don’t even get Morris’ viewpoint which is something he’s notorious for. He is one of the most objective documentarians alive. Whether he thought McKinney raped Anderson or had a tryst with him he keeps to himself.

I’ll be honest, early on I was believing McKinney’s version. She seemed to be so effervescent, so sweet and so believable. However the more she talked, the less she seemed to make sense and after a short while you begin to understand she’s a totally unreliable witness. Da Queen called her cuckoo and she might actually be, but the longer the film goes, the more bizarre it gets.

Because there’s only one point of view, we really don’t get compelling evidence that Anderson’s version is the right one. Peter Tory, a reporter for the Daily Mail, opines that the truth is probably somewhere in between the two stories – that there were some consensual elements that Anderson felt prudent to hide, but that somewhere along the way he got cold feet particularly when it came to marrying McKinney, which she clearly believed was about to happen.

This is one of the most fascinating and compelling documentaries you’re ever likely to see, and while it isn’t a game changer like, say Capitalism: A Love Story and An Inconvenient Truth, it is going to at least keep your interest and stay with you long after the film is over.

REASONS TO GO: Fascinating stuff

REASONS TO STAY: It just keeps getting weirder, and weirder, and weirder…

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some sexual content and nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Morris uses a technique called the Interrotron, in which he uses mirrors to give his interview subjects a face to respond to rather than speaking to a blank lens.

HOME OR THEATER: Certainly well-suited to home theater for those who prefer their titillation in private.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Bruce Almighty