Apparently I was in the mood for documentaries this weekend! Fortunately for me, Netflix is currently offering three movies (mostly) about gay actors, particularly interesting watched together: The Out List, To Be Takei, and Tab Hunter Confidential.
The Out List (2013)
This one’s not entirely about LGBT actors, I just thought it was. It’s a one-hour documentary about “some of the most influential voices in America’s LGBT community.” The advertising strongly features Neil Patrick Harris and Ellen DeGeneres. Turns out it’s actually more about public figures in general than celebrities, including a sheriff, some minor politicians, writers, that sort of thing. Fine, but misleading. That said, the film takes an interesting approach by showing one person at a time, giving about five minutes each for them to share their story and talk about what they want to see happen for the LGBT community. There’s no voiceover, and it’s not thematic or chronological, but it doesn’t get boring because each person is so different from the rest.
The selections are generally intersectional and inclusive, but not perfectly so — there’s only one trans person, and the one bi person spends most of her time explaining why she doesn’t like the word “bisexual.” I think I’d been hoping for a gateway documentary, something with recognizable actors talking about stuff that would be good for a total newbie. This isn’t quite that, but you can get a quick overview of current topics.
To Be Takei (2014)
You may know George Takei as Star Trek‘s Mr. Sulu, as a gay-rights activist, or as “that guy with the funny Facebook page.” To Be Takei touches on all those things. It’s one and a half hours, with a gregarious feel to the editing, jumping from George and his husband goofing off to serious stories about George’s time in one of the US’s Japanese-American interment camps during WWII. The end result is something that doesn’t get super deep into his life, but actually kind of works as a whole, a snapshot of George.
My favorite bits were about Star Trek, which will surprise no one… We hear a lot about Uhura being an incredible symbol for African-American women, with good reason, but it was really cool to hear similar stories about Sulu as an Asian-American man. He also talks about taking horrible stereotyped roles early in his career and regretting it now, plus his decision to stay in the closet for the sake of his career early on.
Tab Hunter Confidential (2015)
This is most straightforward documentary type thing of the three, but turned out to be my favorite. It’s about the fifties, and a movie star we’ve probably never heard of, yet it stays interesting. You don’t need any prior knowledge, and it maintains a lively tone while clearly showing it wasn’t all milkshakes and smiles. Tab Hunter was an all-American Fifties heartthrob who stayed closeted until well after he stopped acting… The level of control the movie industry had over actors, let alone the pressure from all sides and the cultural impossibility of being out, really comes through here.
In this documentary you get the movie history, a rare look at an actor’s life after his career, and a perspective on navigating sexuality in the public eye. Tab’s experience is his own, but it fits into a very typical white-middle-class-male gay narrative, and aren’t we all in the public eye in some sense? That’s the whole point of “coming out,” that people are watching. On top of that there’s plenty of footage and photographs, the great advantage of doing a documentary about a movie star. This may be the most traditional of the three, but it still uses interesting editing techniques to grab and keep your attention, almost using those clips and photos as stand-ins for footage of his off-camera life, if that makes sense. It’s clever and it’s way more interesting than the usual “voice-over while showing a bunch of black-and-white pictures in sequence” approach. And hey, he dated Tony Perkins from Psycho! Highly recommended if you’re at all interested in any of the topics it covers.