Recent Comments

    More Tales from Armistead Maupin in New Documentary Out on DVD

    By Gary M. Kramer

    Jennifer M. Kroot’s adulatory documentary The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin is out December 5 on DVD. This adoring film, which coincides with the publication of Maupin’s memoir, Logical Family, offers extended interviews with the San Francisco-based author best known for Tales of the City. His celebrity friends, which include Laura Linney and Olympia Dukakis—who starred in the PBS miniseries of Tales—as well as out actor Ian McKellen, and writers Neil Gaiman and Amy Tan, among others, praise the “quirkiness” and “honesty” of the author’s writing.

    Maupin himself guides viewers through the key elements of his early life. The author grew up as part of the Southern aristocracy. He tried—mostly in vain—to please his conservative father. He was a teenage Republican, and even worked at one time for Jesse Helms at a North Carolina TV station. (Ironically, the future Senator would speak out publically against PBS’s airing of Maupin’s Tales of the City, because government funds were used to promote homosexuality, nudity, drugs, and other threats to family values). Maupin also once shook hands with President Richard Nixon.

    These stories, which include Maupin’s description of losing his virginity at age 25, may be more familiar than untold for anyone who has read interviews with the author over the years, or even glanced at his Wikipedia page. They flow from the author’s mouth with ease, however, and hold viewers in rapt attention. Kroot knows that it is best to just turn the camera on Maupin and let him speak because he is such an engaging raconteur. The filmmaker sometimes includes clips from the Tales of the City” miniseries, photos from Maupin’s life, and archival clips of San Francisco in the 1970s to break up the talking heads, but these edits neither enhance nor detract from the narrative.

    Maupin explains—for anyone who doesn’t know—how he came to write Tales of the City as a serial in the San Francisco Chronicle. Nevertheless, most fans of the books or miniseries will wish they could have read the Tales in the daily paper as it first appeared in print so they could have hung on every word. Maupin describes creating Mary Ann Singleton, Michael “Mouse” Toliver, and the mysterious Anna Madrigal, and the challenges the gay and transgender characters posed to the Chronicle editors and readers. One of the film’s highlights has Maupin reading some of the paper’s letters to the editor responding to his work.

    But The Untold Stories of Armistead Maupin is also about how Maupin himself became comfortable in his own skin. He describes his manhood issues growing up. He eventually accepted his sexuality and came out when he moved to San Francisco. He talks about his relationships with his friends and partners, and eventually meeting his husband, Chris Turner on DaddyHunt. Maupin is candid about his personal life—his previous partner, Terry, was HIV-positive, and Maupin and Chris have an open relationship—but there is not much personal dirt. Maybe some of the ugly stories about Maupin’s father, or a suicide in his family history count. 

    Kroot does talk about some of the controversies surrounding Maupin. He famously “outed” Rock Hudson, after the actor had been hospitalized in France for an AIDS-related illness. Earlier in the film, Maupin recalls fumbling a pass (or two) Hudson made, but that anecdote comes across as slightly unsatisfying as it lacks juicy details. Moreover, Ian McKellen counters the Hudson outing scandal by claiming that Maupin and his then-partner Terry encouraged the British actor to come out publically in 1988.

    It seems as if Kroot never seems to want to be too critical of her subject. She emphasizes that Maupin’s work provides considerable joy to fans. Tales offered readers, and viewers, hope and role models for LGBTQ characters who had not been portrayed as normal people or in a very positive light in popular culture. That is worth celebrating. When Maupin explains that his goal was to “put his life in the context of the rest of the world,” where gay and straight can co-exist, it is poignant and affecting.

    While the film briefly mentioned Maupin’s other novels, Maybe the Moon, and The Night Listener, the focus here is on Tales. Kroot builds to a dramatic crescendo involving Maupin and the other interviewees reading aloud sections from Michael Tolliver’s coming out letter in the Chronicle, which doubled as the author’s coming out letter to his family. It is a terrific, emotional, and inspirational letter—one that might even jerk tears, especially when Maupin describes the response it receives from his parents.

    The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin showcases the author’s talents as a writer. While it is meant to enchant fans—and it will—the film also serves as a 90-minute advertisement for Logical Family, should anyone want to know what else Maupin has left to tell.

    © 2017 Gary M. Kramer

    Gary M. Kramer is the author of “Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews,” and the co-editor of “Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.” Follow him on Twitter @garymkramer