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The key paradox to emerge from Jennifer M. Kroot’s The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin is that the counterculture-era Dickens of San Francisco’s LGBT community was the son of an unapologetic white supremacist, whose connections helped him land his first TV writing gig, working for arch conservative Jesse Helms, of all people. Few readers devouring Maupin’s cherished Tales of the City books can have guessed that the creator of Anna Madrigal, the enigmatic, weed-smoking trans landlady of 28 Barbary Lane, was in fact the great-great-grandson of a Confederate general who became a congressman in order to defend his slave-owner rights.
With candor, humor and poignancy, Kroot’s entertaining documentary depicts an artist who continued to seek his bigoted father’s approval even as he embraced a life as a proud gay man that his parents could never condone.
As much as the gentlemanly Southern charm of Maupin, now 73, and the lively interviews of famous friends and colleagues, it’s the fabulous archival material, summoning all the sexy swagger of the Castro back in its heyday, that makes the film so enjoyable. It steps a tad too gingerly over the thornier elements, such as Maupin’s outing of gay and lesbian celebrities — most notably erstwhile fling Rock Hudson when the Hollywood star was dying of AIDS-related causes. But limited as it is, the issue is sufficiently contextualized to introduce a welcome edge of contention into what’s otherwise a breezy love letter.
Kroot breaks down the film into titled chapters marked by animator Grant Nelleson’s colorful ‘70s-style graphics. The meatiest sections, unsurprisingly, deal with Tales of the City, a string of novels that started as a newspaper serial, first in Marin County’s Pacific Sun in 1974, then two years later in the San Francisco Chronicle‘s inside back page. The relative anomaly of a daily broadsheet running a fictional commentary on its rapidly changing, post-hippie subcultures seems even more notable when you consider that Maupin was pumping out fresh installments five days a week on deadline.
The stories chronicled the lives of gay and straight characters orbiting around Mrs. Madrigal’s apartment house, including the wide-eyed Cleveland transplant Mary Ann Singleton, and Maupin’s alter ego, Michael Tolliver, whom he describes as a romantic with a slut side. Starting in 1978, book-form publication of the first of nine novels in the series brought popularity beyond the Bay Area. That expanded further with the TV miniseries, the first of which aired in 1993, starring Laura Linney as Mary Ann and Olympia Dukakis as Mrs. Madrigal.
Despite record ratings and a Peabody Award, PBS dropped the show under pressure from a campaign led by Maupin’s old boss, by then Senator Jesse Helms, who fulminated over the use of taxpayer dollars to fund what he branded as depravity. The 12-minute montage screened in the Senate stitched together just about every moment of sex, drugs, nudity and profanity from the first series; it looks amusingly mild in hindsight, compared to the far racier content that now gets aired even on basic cable. “We made a beautiful show about family, and everyone’s right to search for love,” says producer Alan Poul of the series, subsequent seasons of which aired on Showtime.
Authors Amy Tan and Neil Gaiman are among those weighing in with warm appreciations of Maupin’s work, which provided role models for LGBT readers at a time of limited mainstream representation. And Linney shares a lovely anecdote about riding in a San Francisco Pride parade with Maupin as grand marshal, while both of them were still reeling from painful breakups.
While his literary output provides the core material, Maupin’s personal biography is equally interesting, from his straitlaced North Carolina upbringing and his early embrace of starchy Old South values to his enlistment as a U.S. Naval officer during Vietnam and his meeting with Nixon in the Oval Office, bucking the counterculture protest movement by endorsing a right-wing propaganda offensive.
Maupin was almost 30 when, after moving to San Francisco, he came out in 1974, partly through the forum of his newspaper column. In a section of the film titled “Bathhouse Baptism,” he speaks poetically of how hooking up with men of various races and skin colors helped him to reevaluate much of what he’d been conditioned to believe in his youth. The wonderfully droll food writer Peggy Knickerbocker recalls her reaction to his coming out as, “Oh, big f—ing deal,” summing up the widespread acceptance within the local community. But the onset of the AIDS crisis, the loss of friends and the rise of Anita Bryant’s anti-gay hate campaign gave political urgency to LGBT visibility, prompting Maupin to become a vocal opponent of the enslavement of the closet.
His outing of Hudson and others sparked friction within the community that to some degree remains a divisive issue, and Kroot’s reluctance to dig deep on this subject seems unduly timid. Different perspective is provided by friends including Ian McKellen and Jonathan Groff, sharing illuminating insights about their own coming-out process.
Perhaps the film’s most moving sequence covers the letter Maupin wrote and published as Michael Tolliver, a fictional character coming out to his mother, the real intention of which was to force the author’s own parents to acknowledge his sexuality. Their eventual response failed to satisfy, but hearing the Tolliver letter read by Maupin, McKellen, Linney, Dukakis, a tearful Groff and others provides a powerful emotional catharsis.
Throughout the doc, Maupin remains an easygoing, good-humored subject, clearly relishing his stability with his husband Christopher Turner, who is 30 years Maupin’s junior and first came to his attention on Turner’s website, DaddyHunt. (He talks early on about “leaving behind my biological family to find my logical one.”)
There’s a poignant sense of personal, political and creative endurance, through the struggles of LGBT rights, the sorrows of AIDS and the hard-fought breakthroughs of gay marriage, making the film double as a chronicle of queer politics over the decades. But perhaps its most rewarding takeaway is its portrait, through gorgeous archive footage, photographs and vintage interviews, of San Francisco as a liberating haven for people who at that time were sexual outsiders.
Production companies: Tigerlily Pictures, in association with Dodgeville Films
With: Armistead Maupin, Laura Linney, Olympia Dukakis, Ian McKellen, Jonathan Groff, Neil Gaiman, Amy Tan, Margaret Cho, Christopher Turner, Selene Luna, Alan Poul, Charles Busch, Amanda Palmer, Kate Bornstein, Peggy Knickerbocker, Jewell Gomez, Richard Thieriot
Director-screenwriter: Jennifer M. Kroot
Producers: Gerry Kim, Jennifer M. Kroot, Mayuran Tiruchelvam
Director of photography: Shane King
Music: Michael Hearst
Editor: Bill Weber
Animation: Grant Nellesen
Venue: Provincetown Film Festival
Sales: The Film Collaborative
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