"A Tear in the Ocean": The Final Days of Alexis Arquette

Alexis Arquette - Main - H - 2016
Courtesy of Subject

Living in low-income housing and resistant to treating a rapidly progressing HIV, the transgender trailblazer, who died Sunday at age 47, spent her last days living as a man and struggling to make ends meet. Says one of her closest friends: "She was rightfully angry that she should have had the success and notoriety that comes with being such a talented actor and being born into a family that presents the opportunity."

They were gathered around a hospital bed in Cedars-Sinai, the famous brothers and sisters of Alexis Arquette, who lay before them in a medically induced coma. Alexis — who had been born Robert Arquette and had been straddling genders for much of her postadolescent life — had been battling health problems related to her positive HIV status for years.

A Hollywood nightlife fixture and charismatic performer who stole scenes in films like Last Exit to Brooklyn, Of Mice and Men, Pulp Fiction and, perhaps most memorably, The Wedding Singer, Arquette had contracted the virus more than two decades ago, when it was still considered a death sentence.

Arquette remained fiercely private about her health struggles and obstinate about seeking treatments, ignoring her friends' and family's entreaties to take the life-saving AIDS drugs that were emerging every year. In recent weeks, the battle became a losing one: Arquette, 47, had developed an infection in her liver that spread throughout her body. 

She was pronounced dead at 12:32 a.m. on Sunday, Sept. 11. The news was first shared in a Facebook post from her eldest brother, Richmond Arquette, 53, perhaps the least-known member of a powerhouse acting family that includes Rosanna, 57, Patricia, 48, and David, 45. "Our brother Robert, who became our brother Alexis, who became our sister Alexis, who became our brother Alexis [has] passed," began his announcement.

Alexis had left specific instructions for her death: David Bowie's "Starman" was to play as her final moments approached. (Glam rock had always been her favorite genre of music, followed by new wave and punk.) And when the final breath passed her lips, she asked that everyone cheer "the moment that [s]he transitioned to another dimension."

Wishing he was there was Sham Ibrahim, 37, a fellow drag performer who befriended Arquette in the dressing room of a Hollywood nightclub in 1999. Sham was a 19-year-old go-go boy, Arquette the drag-queen host. The two remained very close through the years.

"When we heard she was in a coma we all tried to go there," Ibrahim tells The Hollywood Reporter. "All of her friends called Cedars-Sinai but it was on lockdown and reserved for family only. I understand that, because Alexis had a lot of crazy friends."

From left: president of HBO Documentary Films Sheila Nevins, Ibrahim and Arquette in 2008. Says Ibrahim, "I remember they met in the ladies' restroom and Sheila and her hit it off right away."

Arquette, who is being credited in obituaries as a transgender pioneer, had a complicated and fluid relationship with her gender. Back in 1999, she was living as a man. Still, says Ibrahim, "I always felt that she had the spirit of a female. I always referred to her as a she."

In 2004, Arquette began taking friends aside and telling them she was starting to slowly "phase out the boy" side of her personality and live as a woman. "I didn't even bat an eyelash because it seemed so normal and natural," Ibrahim recalls.

The Arquettes are an unusual Hollywood dynasty, in that most of their stardom clustered into a third generation. Their grandfather, radio and early-TV star Cliff Arquette, was the son of a vaudeville performer who gained notoriety for his "Charley Weaver" character, a country yokel in a smashed porkpie hat. Cliff's son, Lewis Arquette, earned steady work throughout the 1970s and '80s as a TV character actor, most famously as J.D. Pickett, a factory owner on The Waltons

Lewis fell in love with Brenda "Mardi" Nowak, the daughter of a Polish Holocaust survivor, and the two had a daughter in 1959 — Rosanna — before marrying in 1963 and having four more children. (Brenda died of breast cancer in 1997; Lewis died four years later of congestive heart failure.) Alexis was born Robert on July 28, 1969, and it quickly became clear that Robert was different. Recalls Ibrahim, "Alexis had told me that she used to run around in high heels and wigs since the age of 2 and her family was very supportive about the whole thing."

The family moved to a commune in Front Royal, Va., in 1970. It was there, Alexis later recalled, that she began to have the first flickers of gender awareness, fantasizing about "lining up with the girls, wanting to wear the dresses." 

The family later settled permanently in Los Angeles. As Rosanna's star began to rise with lead roles in the 1982 TV movie The Executioner's Song and 1985's Desperately Seeking Susan, the indie comedy that helped turn Madonna into an icon, Robert was being targeted in school hallways for the way he looked and behaved. "They all started calling Alexis 'fag' and 'queer' and so on. And of course I started fighting people," Patricia said in 2011. By 16, Robert was going by the name "Alexis."

At 17, Alexis tagged along with Patricia to New York City, where Patricia was summoned to potentially star in Last Exit to Brooklyn. The 19-year-old Patricia was pregnant at the time with her first child, son Enzo, leading her to turn down the part. But producers were captivated by Patricia's brother, who'd only just begun to experiment with drag performances, and offered him the role of the young transvestite Georgette. 

Despite that well-received debut, Alexis' openness about her sexuality gave mainstream Hollywood cold feet. "She was out and proud at 15 years old, at a time when that was just unheard of," Ibrahim says. "Directors and producers avoided her. She was rightfully angry that she should have had the success and notoriety that comes with being such a talented actor and being born into a family that presents the opportunity to you."

The parts simply did not come. When they did, such as in The Wedding Singer, in which she played a Boy George impersonator, Alexis was required to endure the taunts of straight men — just as she did in her own life. "Anywhere we went, especially the rock 'n' roll straight clubs on Hollywood Boulevard like the Burgundy Room or the Beauty Bar, the guys just couldn’t handle it. People would literally throw things at her, call her 'tranny freak,'" Ibrahim recalls.

Against her better judgment, she signed up for VH1's celebrity reality show The Surreal Life in 2006, in which she shared a house with The Jeffersons' Sherman Hemsley and the lead singer of Smash Mouth. What could have been a potentially disastrous situation for Alexis instead brought her praise, for presenting a strong trans role model at a time when such a thing was virtually nonexistent. 

Her decision to transition to female was documented in the 2007 film Alexis Arquette: She's My Brother. But she resisted the filmmakers' constant probing into the nitty-gritty details of her sex-change process. The tension led to multiple fights and almost caused Arquette to walk away from the project altogether.

"Her whole point was, why do people care what was in her pants?" Ibrahim says. "And If you want to get graphic about it, she was very well-endowed and I don’t think she was going to cut that thing off. I don’t think she had any intention to."

In 2013, amid increasing health complications, Alexis (pictured left in 2006 with Holly Woodlawn, another pioneering trans actress, who died in December 2015) began presenting herself as a man again, telling Ibrahim that "'gender is bullshit.' That 'putting on a dress doesn't biologically change anything. Nor does a sex-change.' She said that 'sex-reassignment is physically impossible. All you can do is adopt these superficial characteristics but the biology will never change.'" That realization, Ibrahim suspects, was the likely source of her deep wells of emotional torment.

"She was very attractive, very beautiful. Men loved her, women loved her. She had many lovers — like, harems of lovers. Even movie stars would be into her — straight, heterosexual guys — because of her androgynous look," he says. "But she could never find the right man to love her. And I think that as her health was deteriorating, [presenting as a woman] was too much of a struggle to even think about. Being able to get up and put that dress on and the wig — it was too much for her."

In recent months, Arquette, determined to live self-sufficiently, was living in The Palm View, a 40-unit apartment complex in West Hollywood run by The Actors Fund that offers one-bedroom apartments to potential residents so long as they meet two criteria: They must be diagnosed with HIV or AIDS, and have an annual income between $17,400 and $29,000 per year. 

Her final public appearance came last April at RuPaul's DragCon, an annual drag convention held at the Los Angeles Convention Center, where she spoke at a panel celebrating 1995's Wigstock: The Movie, a documentary in which Arquette appears. Alexis came dressed as a man that day, wearing a purple leather motorcycle jacket, her hair mostly shaved save for a tousle of blond hair atop her head. She looked gaunt but was in high spirits about the screening that preceded the talk.

"I totally cried today," she said. "It’s good to see that people are interested in drag now and that there’s money to be made from drag and there are superstars of drag. It turns me on." Asked by the director, Barry Shils, how the film altered her career, Alexis replied, "It didn't — because I was so hidden already. And I am going to remain hidden for all time."

Ibrahim often filmed Arquette. ("If you had a camera with you, she would act out a skit for you right then and there, regardless of her health.") In one video, she expounded on what might await us in the afterlife.

"If I was a gambling lady and I wanted to make a bet of what life would be like after death, it’s sort of like a tear in the ocean," Arquette said. Then she added: "They say that energy never goes away, but I don’t know if that’s true."

Alexis Arquette: Celebration of Life Party, hosted by Sham Ibrahim, will be held Sunday, Sept. 18, from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. at The Pig N Whistle, 6714 Hollywood Boulevard.