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Knight at the Movies: Becoming Chaz; film notes
2011-05-04

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Queer cable show and film producer/directors Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato (known through their moniker World of Wonder Productions and their biggest TV hit, RuPaul's Drag Race) are the duo behind the documentary Becoming Chaz. The movie follows the year in which the former Chastity Bono, the offspring of Sonny & Cher, makes the transition from female to male—finding renewal as Chaz Salvatore (in honor of his late father) Bono on the other side.

Oprah Winfrey's OWN network grabbed the movie, which debuted at Sundance to good advance word; it will premiere May 10, kicking off a new documentary series. It's easy to see why Winfrey's nascent network would purchase the broadcast rights to such a remarkable journey. A movie that follows the gender reassignment of the child of celebrity icons in a respectful, rather than salacious, manner seems made to order for OWN. Indeed, as we follow Chaz throughout the final steps to becoming male (including hormone treatments, surgery to remove breasts, legal reclassification, etc.) it's evident that there's much in Becoming Chaz that both the informed and the uninitiated with the topic of gender transition will find compelling.

I have been a big champion of Bailey and Barbato's feature offbeat documentaries—especially, Inside Deep Throat and The Eyes of Tammy Faye—but beyond the subject matter of making a transition, the duo is, for once, stymied by their central figure. Chaz is no Tammy Faye or any of the colorful characters that normally populate a Bailey/Barbato presentation. Once past the fanciful vintage clips and the "I always knew I was born in the wrong body" refrain—painful yet familiar—the duo's film subject turns out to be such a typical guy's guy (obsessed with video-gaming and his pets) that the filmmakers end up looking to Chaz's girlfriend, relatives and doctors for some dramatic juice.

Cher herself is seen in the archival footage, news clippings and in a lone solo interview, discussing her fears and emotional difficulty with "da" (the family's nickname for Chastity/Chaz). However, though we see Chaz with Sonny's widow and stepsiblings, Cher, whose mega-celebrity hangs over the proceedings from beginning to end, isn't seen in contact with her new son until a brief, forced meet-up between the two (obviously staged for the cameras) at the film's conclusion (during the Burlesque red carpet premiere). Moreover, tantalizing questions—why Chaz's lesbian couple friends (his sobriety sponsors) had to lend him the money for surgery, for example—aren't addressed.

What we do get a lot of—and I mean a lot of—is Chaz's girlfriend, Jennifer, who wears out her welcome long before she and Chaz start to have problems because his testosterone shots find him acting more aggressively and with less "softness." By default, she becomes the go-to girl for the filmmakers and the movie feels padded because she's always there cajoling, kvetching, explaining hers and Chaz's feelings. Best are the instances where the filmmakers stick close to their shy central subject, capturing some of the most genuinely moving moments in the process—when Chaz's driver's license, with his new gender classification, arrives in the mail; when Chaz alone attends an Atlanta conference with other transgender people; or watches his mother on TV explaining her feelings about his sex change on The David Letterman Show. (Talk about surreal.)

A segment late in the movie where Bailey and Barbato follow Chaz on what can only be described as a play date with a pint-sized transgender male child as well as his involvement with an organization of parents supportive of their children living as opposite genders (started by the child's mother) is particularly illuminating and poignant. Scenes like these speak volumes about the courageous journey that the shy, taciturn man—a true trailblazer—has gone through on his way to combining body and soul.

Film notes:

—For the fourth year in a row my alter ego, Dick O'Day, will be hosting (with able assistance from David Cerda and the Handbag Players) Mother's Day with Mommie Dearest this Sunday, May 8, at the historic Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the 1981 camp classic that stars Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford, portraying Crawford as both the world's most maniacal movie star and mother. Mara Hobel and Diana Scarwid play the beleaguered, adopted daughter Christina, who penned the bestseller that started all the fuss upon Crawford's death. I can honestly report that there's nothing quite so satisfying to a gay moviegoer as hearing a packed house scream out in unison, "I'm not mad at you. I'm mad at the dirt!" and hearing some of the hilarious ad-libbing offered at each year's screening.

"Joan and Christina" will take photos with eager fans beginning at 1 p.m. in the lobby (with proceeds to benefit Vital Bridges) and the pre-show (costume contest, prizes, a video by The Joans, Mommie Dearest Sing-A-Long, etc.) starts at 1:30 p.m. with the interactive screening to follow. Tickets are $12/general admission or $28.50 for a pre-screening brunch at Blue Bayou (across the street from the Music Box) and preferred section seating in the theatre. There's all that plus 300 "souvenir" wire hangers to the first 300 patrons! See www.musicboxtheatre.com .

—You may have heard that a certain former leading box-office powerhouse whose personal life has spun out of control—filled with drunken arrests salted with racial and homophobic epithets for starters—is starring in an offbeat indie in which he gives a performance that his female co-star and director (not to mention the producers of the movie) hope will convince audiences to overlook his personal prejudices and focus on his work in the movie. You may have also read interviews with his equally high-profile co-star and director—winner of two Best Actress Oscars—in which she tacitly defends her star's behavior, insisting instead that she wants you to give both the actor and her movie the benefit of the doubt.

However, although this actress-director is giving plenty of interviews to mainstream press to try and make her case (especially to writers willing to tiptoe around said actor's abhorrent behavior) as we go to press she's once again snubbing the LGBT media (though, to our surprise, she initially did schedule an interview with WCT, only later to cancel it for "scheduling reasons"). Apparently, it's one thing to implicitly defend her star's off-screen behavior by sidestepping questions about it with complicit journalists but it's quite another to chance addressing her own status as a closeted lesbian—an open secret she herself somewhat acknowledged when receiving an award several years back. Taking all that into consideration, why then would Windy City Times and its resident queer film critic review this film, do anything that would imply our support of said movie or encourage our LGBT readership (and those sensitive to LGBT issues) to do anything but the same?

Check out my archived reviews at www.windycitymediagroup.com or www.knightatthemovies.com . Readers can leave feedback at the latter website.


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