Sunday, August 24, 2014

I SING MYSELF ELECTRIC

THE HEALER
Who is that lady? Aurora, that's who.

And if the body does not do fully as much as the soul?
And if the body were not the soul, what is the soul?
“I Sing The Body Electric” Walt Whitman

To quote another poet whose unapologetic sexuality is part of his palette, Leonard Cohen says, “My body aches in places where it used to play.” I wonder if his soul aches as well?

Without enumerating the tedious specifics, my body has—since my HIV diagnosis more than a quarter of a century ago—been ravaged by various insidious offshoots of the virus and the sneaky side effects of the life-saving drugs. In some instances—like the vicious peripheral neuropathy in my feet that is incrementally sneaking up my legs—the verdict is out on whether the condition is a symptom of HIV or a byproduct of the multitudinous drugs I’ve been ingesting for these many years.

And now, even though I’m in my sixty-fourth year (“Will you still love me” the Beatles asked, “when I’m sixty-four?”), I tend to blame everything on HIV —from an ingrown toenail to cataracts—when the real culprit is age.

So I arrived in Santa Fe with a case of sciatica that has been lingering for nearly two months (officially not HIV-related, by the way). I’d gone to my regular doctor, to the chiropractor, to an acupuncturist—all providing temporary relief from either drugs and/or the human touch.

But in Santa Fe? Where are as many “healers” as there are turquoise bracelets? I set out to find one of the town’s preeminent in the field. Her name is Aurora which immediately conjures the glamorous but decidedly witchy character that Agnes Moorehead embodied in the popular Sixties television series, Bewitched.

Mitch agreed to drive me since it’s about a twenty minute ride from campus and a bit off the beaten track. But even his GPS was able to identify the “dirt road” that Aurora instructed would precede our entrance through the turquoise gates.

Mitch and I howled in laughter all the way there. What was I doing? What did I expect? Would it be all airy-fairy or would Aurora actually perform a magical massage and rid me of my sciatica? By the time we traversed to the dirt road, which contained a small, opaque lake, we had written several scenarios, most of them veering toward the lurid. We had arrived at the blue gates which were a bit rusted but nevertheless opened and beckoning.

Since we arrived early, I insisted that Mitch drop me off and not linger. “I’ll read a bit of Walt while I wait,” I said, pointing to a rickety chair situated in the blazing sun.

Mitch was no longer laughing. “Hey, man, just in case,” he said, “take my phone number and give me yours.” As we did the phone exchange, I glanced up at the huge curtain-less window on the second floor of Aurora’s isolated dwelling.

“Mitch! Look at the very center on the ledge of the window.”

As if determinedly placed by a propmaster, for optimum theatrical effect, was a bottle of lotion, glistening in the Santa Fe sunshine.

“Dude, you are in for it,” Mitch proposed. It did faintly resemble the cinematic opening shot of a Stephen King movie. I insisted my buddy leave; I was ready for my closeup.


Santa Fe Clouds

“What is the pain saying to you?” Aurora asked, looking at me with mystical intensity through oceanic azure eyes. And it went from there—for the next three hours, I was both psychologically (spiritually, if you will) examined and physically contorted.

But the most significant aspect of Aurora’s approach was her concentration on the coexistence of the soul and the body; this mergence is where, she feels, one needs to put their energies in order to heal. Yes, the synchronicity between Whitman’s mantra and the healer’s was stunning. The soul, she said, sometimes “wobbles” outside of the body and needs to be allowed inside if we desire wholeness. 

She astutely suggested that I have taken on the pain of others. “You might be carrying their pain in your hip and leg where the sciatica attacks,” she said. I could not disagree; my daughter, my brother, and even some of my students come immediately into focus.

“Give it back to them. They need to experience the pain, not you. You are getting in the way of their healing and learning movement forward.

I admitted that I compound the pain by blaming myself, ruminating that I've done something to deserve the sciatica. Interestingly enough, I never blamed myself for getting HIV—maybe, in part, because I likely seroconverted from negative to positive before there was much information as to how one becomes infected. There remains, more than twenty-five years later, contradictory opinions on that subject.

“Don’t blame yourself,” Aurora said, in a soothing but emphatic voice. “Be curious.” Hmmm. “Ask yourself, ‘Why am I feeling the pain? Is there something my body—or soul—is saying to me?’” I wonder—no, I am curious—if what I’m experiencing is a manifestation of soul-sickness.

Her massage technique is masterful, verbally defining the body-soul geography while elaborating in detail about each of the areas that she physically manipulated. In that regard, it was the most specific treatment I’ve ever received.

I realized, however, that it had grown much later than I had anticipated and asked if I could take a moment to call Mitch and assuage any anxiety that he might be feeling.

“Everything is cool, I’ll be in class on time,” I said. “Aurora is driving me back.”
(Only in Santa Fe would your healer also graciously act as chauffer.)

I made it back to the seminar, a bit discombobulated, feeling like I’d been lobotomized rather than healed. Little did I realize that I’d need my brain, my heart and my courage (all those goodies Dorothy got on her way to Oz)—not to mention my soul—for the next “chapter” of my Whitman saga.


This is part three of a five-part series. 

Sunday, August 17, 2014

I SING MYSELF ELECTRIC

THE BROMANCE

I have somewhere surely lived a life of joy with you,
All is recall’d as we flit by each other, fluid, affectionate, chaste, matured,
You grew up with me, were a boy with me or a girl with me,
I ate with you and slept with you, your body has become not yours only nor left my body
mine only
You give me the pleasure of your eyes, face, flesh, as we pass, you take of my beard,
          breast, hands, in return
“To A Stranger’ Walt Whitman

My soon-to-be twenty year old daughter dismisses the word “bromance” as the relationship between two straight guys who love each other but are afraid of being perceived as gay. I don’t entirely agree. I feel that sometimes we have to provide a phenomenon with a word in order to define something that makes people uneasy; by naming it, we often demystify it. (She’s way beyond the simplicity of semantics; “It just is, dad,” she says. “You don’t need to label it.”)

And she’s right. Perhaps what Walt was describing in all those fervid lines about his male-to-male encounters were, indeed, the first recorded bromances. The Urban Dictionary defines the word as “a relationship between two men that are unusually close” while several mainstream dictionaries suggest it’s a relationship specifically between two heterosexual dudes.

“What was the name of the poem you mentioned in class today?” Mitch asks. Not only are we in the Whitman class together, his room is directly across from mine in the dorm. Mitch possesses that television star virility with an accessible sexiness rather than movie star hauteur. In addition to his physical prowess (athletic, confident stature), he is intellectually muscular as well.

How can I not hope for a bromance? Yet, that part of me that is often distrustful of being drawn to a straight man was on alert when I reminded him of the name of the poem. A lot of my hetero buds would not be able to wrap their pretty heads around the complex nature of Whitman’s “To A Stranger”.

But Mitch got it, responding with a certain masculine ease that assured me were destined to the George Clooney-Brad Pitt stratosphere of bromancehood.

This was confirmed by our enlivened chats about what went on in the day-to-day seminars and our burgeoning reflections on Whitman. In addition, we intimately bonded by sharing details on the roller coaster ride each of us values and struggles with on a daily basis: fatherhood.
Katherine with her dad Michael

As the father of a nine-year old, it was clear that Mitch (mid-forties) was a spectacular father and part of that praise I heap on him is derived from his anxiety about being a good dad. He’s listening to his boy; he and his wife are paying attention to the world that his son is growing up in. These details all swirl in the orbit of Whitman’s passages.

And Whitman does stress the gloriousness of conception—above all else, in fact. And please, my fascistic gay friends, don’t tell me that’s homophobic. Whitman is celebrating the miracle that is each new life. I feel certain that he would applaud the soulfulness of “conception” in all configurations of the Twenty First Century.

When you rivet on the same subject for several days, you inevitably come up with alternative words to describe them or their trademark beliefs and behavior: “Whitmanesque,” “a Whitman moment ” or, perhaps, “ Walt would like that.”

Mitch’s relationship to his son is Whitmanesque and, according to Mitch, they share what I would identify as “Whitman moments”: every morning when Mitch drops his kid off at the school bus (“Be kind and smile,” he encourages him) and every night when he tucks him in (“Dream big,” he says).

In getting to know each other, I told Mitch—keep in mind, this is a man who teaches at a private school in Connecticut and wears black turtle necks five days a week—I was going to go to see a healer because I have been suffering from sciatica.

“A healer?” he asks, intrigued but without a whiff of judgment.

I admit that I don't really know what a healer does exactly but I feel Santa Fe is where they would likely do it best. He agrees and offers to drive me to Aurora’s.


This is part two of a five-part series.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

I SING MYSELF ELECTRIC

Part One
WALT & ME (THEN)


As Adam early in the morning,
Walking forth firm the bower refresh’d with sleep,
Behold me where I pass, hear my voice, approach, Touch me, touch the palm of your hand to my body as I pass,
Be not afraid of my body.
“As Adam Early in the Morning” Walt Whitman

At our first seminar (St. John’s College, Summer Classics), we were asked why we chose to spend a week deepening our understanding of Walt Whitman.
The answers ranged from “I know very little about poetry in general” to “I know virtually nothing about Whitman.”

“I read ‘To a Stranger’ when I was in my late teens or early twenties,” I said, “and it remains my favorite poem of all time.”

For a young man on the cusp of embracing his sexuality, it was as if Whitman was whispering into my ear while strands of his white-white beard tickled my neck. His poetry allowed me to embrace my queerness. It often made me hard. Walt was not only a poet; he was one of my first sex partners.

As a high school kid, I had been bullied. I was ostensibly popular, starred in all the school plays, even had girlfriends. But none of that mattered to a group of homophobic hooligans who had labeled me (rightly so) a “queer,” a queer to be thrown into the locker room shower in the middle of the day and mercilessly  kicked.

Is it any wonder than Whitman soothed my battered body/soul?

As life unfolded, I would learn that Whitman was gay, wasn’t gay, had to be gay, couldn’t have been gay, was out and proud, was in the closet. I also learned that Whitman indeed celebrated male physicality but that this recurring theme was only a fraction of his expansive palette. And Whitman’s celebration of the body was inextricably bound to his celebration of the soul; in fact, the two are, in Whitmanese, inseparable.

And as our initial seminar revealed, the manifold parts of Whitman poetic palette extended far beyond those of his (or anyone else’s) body.

Democracy, for instance is paramount to Whitman’s voice. In fact, he considered the words “America” and “democracy” interchangeable. And it is, Whitman felt, the duty of the poet to identify our democratic impulses and nourish them. “The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem,” he said in Preface 1855 –Leaves of Grass, First Edition.

We are not better than or greater than anyone—whether you’re eating at the Russian Tea Room or shopping at the 99 Cents Store. You deserve equal treatment, respect and—yes—love. That expression of intimate identification, in my opinion, can be as simple as a smile or as charged as offering someone a few bucks with no strings attached. Do these random acts of kindness feed the soul? You betcha.

And where is the soul? Is it floating outside of our body, encircling the crown of our head, like a halo? Or is it inside our body, snuggling up against our heart? Maybe it is in closer proximity to our brain? Our sexual organs? Maybe it has the ability to traverse at will.

My classmates were a fascinating assemblage of personalities. There were two undergraduates who were attending St. John’s, both with a sense of the world—and their place in it—that extended far beyond their years. There was one grand woman, likely in her eighties, who spoke with such dignified and good-natured gravitas that everyone in the room become instantly entranced by her every utterance. Then there was the lawyer in all his quiet yet brilliant thoughtfulness and the judge who spoke through the prism of fairness.

Wendy, one of my favorite classmates, was as open and as curious as a newborn; that is not to imply a lack of insight or intellect. Rather, it is to her credit to be able to process chunks of information that may have not previously been part of her lexicon, approaching them with a willingness to alter her perception.

Among my peers, I was the least educated, likely the poorest, and probably the loudest.

And I love Walt with all my heart.

I also love Mitch—there, I said it—a fellow student.

This is part one of a five-part series.


Tuesday, June 10, 2014

THE AWARD IN MY STARS

THE LUCK IN MY STARS

That's the thing about pain. It demands to be felt.”
                                                                    Gus, The Fault In Our Stars

I suppose my pain, seemingly an endless reservoir that deepens with age, was being its demanding self when it read the New York Times review of The Fault In Our Stars. If you asked, I would say that I need some good head more than I need a good cry but my pain receptors ordered me to get to the nearest movie house and purchase my ticket (at a painful senior discount) to the new cancer movie.

I chose to go alone rather than subject someone to indulge my histrionics which I knew would be as predictable as the filmmakers incorporating a gooey montage of the sweetest moments of the movie as the final moments unravel (along with the audience).

I find watching a film to be so subjective. I suppose any artistic experience is but—positioned in that darkened space with human emotions magnified beyond any sense of reality—my “material” (as they say) ineluctably merges with the material that those larger-than-life characters are manifesting.

I’m less emotionally rickety watching something on the small screen, residing in a less heightened state; that’s why I’ve avoided The Normal Heart like another colonoscopy. But The Fault In Our Stars is being compared to Love Story—good pain, not the torture chamber of AIDS in the Eighties.

Yes and no. Death is death—whether it’s in Venice, New York City or the emotional terrain occupied by two teenagers in love. Hazel and Gus share scrumptious faces—as likable as they are lickable—and cancer. The inevitable Who-Will-Kick-First? leitmotif is one of the art-mirroring-life subplots that hooked me before the opening credits rolled by.

While many friends and I played that game—replete with campy repartee (“If you go first, I promise to get rid of the dildos under your bed before your parents arrive from Iowa”)—it wasn’t until my relationship with Philip that the theme became deadly (sorry) serious.

Speaking of heart-rending movies, a startling realization struck when Philip and I were seeing Longtime Companion at the Vista Theater. About halfway through the routinely labeled “AIDS movie”, Philip went to the bathroom. Feeling the suddenness of his departure, like a throbbing jolt—in that very moment—I thought to myself, wanting to scream it outloud to the actors on the movie screen: “He’ll die first.”

One of the most defining aspects of my relationship with Philip had been travel. Like the star-crossed lovers in The Fault In Our Stars, we chose Amsterdam, not in search of a famous author (like the lovers in the film) but rather in honor of the one-hundredth anniversary of Vincent Van Gogh’s death. Nearly a quarter of a century prior, yet like our filmic counterparts, Philip and I assumed that we were both approaching a fated finish line.


Hazel & Gus
Perhaps the most jarring scene in The Fault In Our Stars, the one that most shockingly mirrored our peregrination to Denmark, was the unexpected visit that Hazel and Gus take to the Anne Frank House, complicated by the fact that our screen heroine is gasping for breath, lugging her oxygen tank, navigating the steep, narrow stairways to the attic as Anne Frank’s words are spoken in voiceover: “Think of all the beauty still left around you and be happy.”

Philip and I trudged up those same stairs, both of us likely thinking something akin to what Gus and Hazel were thinking, something about the impermanence of life and the gift of having fallen in love before the fault of our stars would separate us.

At this point, during the movie, I was blowing my nose with my cardboard popcorn container. Philip would die less than two years after we visited Amsterdam. A gooey montage, capturing the sweetest moments of our short history together, blurred sequentially in my memory as he was carried away in a body bag.

The day after I saw the movie, Katherine—my daughter/the filmmaker—came home from her first year of studies abroad. Since her taste in film is infinitely more finessed than mine, I knew she would be appalled that I saw The Fault In Our Stars.

“Oh, dad,” she groaned. “You’re such a teenage girl.” I didn’t deny it—even though I did point out to her that I got a senior discount at the box office.

What I didn't tell her is that the tears that dampened my popcorn were also tears of ineffable ecstasy. A couple of years after Philip died, the award in my stars resulted in the adoption of a five month old baby girl.  

In a couple of months, Katherine will no longer be a teenage girl; to be alive for that? I cannot fault my stars, only thank them.

That’s the thing about joy. It also demands to be felt.


Katherine & Dad

Friday, May 9, 2014


MOMMY IN ME
Graduation at Idyllwild Arts Academy
Michael with his daughter Katherine


Nearly twenty years ago, I took my baby for a walk, pushing her stroller, breezily sauntering up and down the streets of our Los Feliz neighborhood, one of Los Angeles’ enclaves applauded for its progressiveness and hip pedigree. But to suggest that we turned heads —a white, forty-plus year old man and a six-month old African-American baby—is not hyperbolic. 

One woman simply had to stop and ask me, “Are you the nanny?”

There were several assumptions inherent in her insensitive query: daddies (without a mom in attendance) didn’t steer strollers, single men (especially those who appeared unaffectedly gay) didn’t have children and what’s a white dude doin’ with a black baby, anyway?

“I’m her father,” I said, employing restraint. She looked absolutely befuddled, as if she had just encountered two aliens.

As the single, gay dad of a black little girl, alien is how I often felt. Even in liberated Southern California, mommy and daddy gender identities were fairly inflexible at the end of the Twentieth Century. So were the vicissitudes of families whose skin color didn’t match. I felt like an intruder at Mommy and Me; I was often the only male in a group of female parents who thought I should be at work; asking for ethnically specific hair products for my little girl resulted in profound looks of consternation.

I was once the lone male in a room full of moms at a meeting about various school challenges that had to be met on a daily basis. “It’s the moms who pick up our kids. We’re the ones who have to keep them safe on the parking lot,” one of the females said, intimating the collective female gender. Not only was she suggesting that it was the moms who did the daily afternoon chauffeuring of their children; they were also the protectors.

“Uh,” I said, waving my hand, a tad histrionically. “Do you see me sitting here?” There was uproarious laughter, the laughter that emanates from a gay man’s brittle delivery. I was being heard for a quick second, but not necessarily being taken seriously.

I was taken seriously when fundraising drives came around (flagrantly so when decorating was involved) but I was inevitably the only man in the midst of a gaggle of over-achieving mommies.

Before adopting Katherine, I had soldiered through several trial runs as a foster parent (one four-month stint with two brothers, three and six years old), and decided that —in spite of the laundry list of things that didn’t appear to be in my favor—I had to become a full-time father. Being gay wasn’t even at the top of my (supposed) flaws: I was HIV-positive (this was before protease inhibitors), I was old (in my forties), most of my income came from being a solo performer (you can stop laughing), I was single, and I grew up in a family setting that would give Tennessee Williams pause.

I had to be a father.

I’d lived through the AIDS deaths of dozens of my male comrades including one man I’d loved more deeply than any of the others. It was his death in 1992 that forced me to admit the one desire that I’d determinedly buried for more than a decade.

I had to be a father.



While most of my gay male buddies said I was “crazy” or “selfish,” not one female friend or associate ever discouraged me. When I told people that my entire body ached with longing when I saw a dad with his kid(s), most gay men thought I was being theatrical; most women (no matter their sexual proclivities) shook their head “yes” in acknowledgement. This “biological urge” phenomenon I experienced is almost exclusively attributed to women and has been determined to be psychological rather than innate or instinctual. No matter, it consumed me.

Even though Katherine’s mother abandoned her at the hospital and no blood relative initially came to the rescue, the process to adopt my daughter was a daily nightmare for nearly three years, coinciding with the most joyous days of my life as I balanced becoming a father with the relentless threat of losing my little girl.

Why? The grandmother of one of Katherine’s half-brothers had decided to wage a battle as soon as the courts began moving our case from foster care to adoption. Spouting vehement suppositions, she questioned why a single, white man would want to adopt a black baby.

If her team could verify a birth father, she could stall the process further so several possibilities were suggested—ranging form a wealthy lawyer to a dude in prison. At the final court appearance, the judge laughed out loud when the family desperately tried to conjure the identity of yet another potential birth father.

It was decided by the Los Angeles Superior Court, shortly before my child’s third birthday, that I was her sole and legal parent.

The good news was that her health, after a tumultuous entry into the world—no prenatal care, born two months premature, weighing less than three pounds, addicted to crack—was virtually indefectible. And with the advent of “miracle” drugs for HIV, so was mine.

Our family history continued to reveal itself even though the vagaries of being a single male parent could be disconcerting.

“Where’s mommy?” insensitive strangers at the grocery store would ask. “Who does her hair?” was a popular question, especially asked by black women we’d never previously met. Often after establishing the irrefutable fact that I was her father, someone would invariably ask, “Who picks out her clothes?” (Trust me, honey, no one trumps a gay man in choosing toddler apparel.)

I was mommy, too, encompassing all that implies, primarily the emotional and physical attentiveness that femaleness seemed to suggest far more than maleness—even though parental roles were decidedly evolving.



In the fifties, fathers changed tires, not diapers. My dad never kissed me, never held me when I was sad, never spoke to me about things that were considered intimate.

Did the shift begin with feminism? When moms decided to join the work force and pursue a career outside of the home, were daddies compelled to put on their mommy hat and share parental responsibilities? Or, in spite of skewed media depictions, did the feminist movement, in reality, create more Supermoms than Mr. Mom’s?

According to the 2000 Census, there was a considerable increase in the number of single-parent families headed by fathers during the 1990s, escalating by more than 60 percent, to 2.2 million. While many of those dads are likely gay, most are likely not, and the statistics aren’t including gay men who are partnered. Those facts confirm that a considerable part of America’s population in 2014 includes men who are raising children.

As someone living this double life of mom/dad full time, my perception is that the mommyizing of dads has become even more prevalent in the Twenty-First Century. In my neighborhood, there are now men (of indeterminate sexual persuasion) pushing baby strollers than there are women. They are demonstratively affectionate, expressing love with intuitive gentleness.

I sometimes wonder if the gay male baby boom (lesbians were way ahead of this curve) has anything to do with our straight brothers feeling more comfortable playing in both gender pools? With the blurring of sexual identity—for example, British diver Tom Daley who “fancies girls” while he’s in a relationship with a man—are men simply more at ease with expressing their female side, whether on the playground or in the bedroom? Just as straight men have copied gay male fashion—plaid shirts and cowboy boots in the Seventies, bald heads and muscles in the present—perhaps we have also inspired, as single dads and dads in partnerships (legal or not), an invitation to embrace a more connected, less rigid, fatherly stance?

Our friends on the right have politicized this softer version of maleness as part of the “feminization of America.” Their targets include homosexuals as well as millions upon millions of men who rebuke hypermasculinity in favor of something more completely human. Many of these “feminized” men are stay-at-home-dads who have switched gender stereotypes as the world turns. These guys take their kids to yoga classes, not shooting ranges. To insist that the feminization of men is unnatural is to imply being female is somehow less than. Only macho men need apply to the party of male white dominance.

Our indestructible father-daughter bond is characterized by deep understanding, mutual respect and inordinate amounts of fun. We've had the HIV talk, the period talk, the condom talk, the death talk—amidst laughter and tears.

We’ve traveled all over the world. In Madrid, while I was directing a play, she was in dire need of pads one morning. I’ll never forget my urgent trip to the Pharmacia. Unable to speak Spanish, I was forced, ala Lucy, to pantomime the meaning of “sanitary napkin.”

I recently spoke to my now nineteen-year old daughter, who is attending Bournemouth Arts College in England, on my cell phone while a friend hovered in close proximity. “My God,” he said, when the call ended. “You go from being mom to dad and back again with such agility.”

These dual roles have defined me—more than performer, writer, lover, friend. Sure, I’m admittedly a drama queen, but my life depended on being a mom/dad.




Thursday, March 27, 2014

I ACT THE BODY ELECTRIC

I ACT THE BODY ELECTRIC



Kearns in The Dirtiest Show In Town 


My body has always figured prominently in my work as an actor—from the hippie freedom of let’s-get-naked to express sexual liberation in The Dirtiest Show In Town (1972) to the darker regions of the diseased body’s emotionality in Jerker (throughout the Eighties and Nineties). After the turn of the century, nudity became organic in two new pieces, Comeback (2003) and Torch (2011). Over the decades, the canvas of my body has metamorphosed from boy’s white smoothness to man’s toughness to older man’s vulnerability while continuing to serve the craft of storytelling. I did love scenes in a few indies, without undies, having sex with either gender.

If there was initially a tinge of exhibitionism in the early work, it has become—as the decades unravel—increasingly less about me and more about the character I’m portraying. I just finished filming The Stonewall Nation, a short in which I play yet another character who’s defined by what his body (and voice) reveal and don’t reveal. As any actor knows, what the character verbally expresses provides only a partial blueprint in building the character’s fullness.

Don Jackson had a vision: to create a gay county, a utopia, in which homosexuals would live freely on a part of the land that they would govern. Part visionary and part missionary, Jackson is equally parts narcissistic and misogynistic. While his intentions are sincere, and some of his theories are revolutionary and seductively presented, he is also a wounded soul, a man who acknowledges “no relationships, only casual encounters.” (One of those encounters, not depicted in the film, involves his murder.)

Sille Storihle, a young Norwegian artist, emailed me several months ago to ascertain my interest in playing Don Jackson. The film would not, she said, be a straightforward narrative; rather, it would be molded with several artistic elements including a recreated interview of Don that had been shot “for archival purposes in 1986” when he was in his sixties, after his Stonewall Nation had floundered. My criteria for taking on an acting assignment  these days is based on one thing: Does the project allow me to access something I have yet to summon as an actor?

I auditioned, like everyone else. I was given access to the video of Jackson which I attempted to sponge into my consciousness (and subconsciousness) before I met with the filmmaker. There was a callback in which I went one step further and endeavored to capture Jackson in an improvised interview between Storihle and me. That was when my persona met Jackson’s and the melding of actor and character commenced its ineluctable marriage.

I got the part and was given more than twenty pages of script, extracted from the interview, which were to be learned, not precisely memorized, before our shooting dates. It was incumbent upon me to know Don’s interior mindset more than know my lines; to know how he would respond to questions regarding The Stonewall Nation that he championed.

Trona Pinnacles

Our first day of shooting took place in the Trona Pinnacles, an evocative part of California’s desert landscape that sprouts penis-like mountains with high testosterone levels. This aspect of the film was entirely generated by the filmmaker’s sensibility: Storihle’s way of finding the archetypical American cowboy that resided in Jackson’s body. In the interview footage, he is so still that he appears to be virtually imploded. But we know that his body, no matter how inanimate on screen, carries his history, his gay history of “casual sex” and desire and fear and longing and pain. Amidst the earth’s faux cocks, we “collaborated” (at Storihle’s insistence) on excavating Don in Michael’s body. Or maybe Michael in Don’s body.

After several grueling hours of mountain climbing, my emotions began to unwind in all directions, lifted by the gusting wind and my affinity with Don’s dreamy visions. We partnered with the light (it’s all about the light when you’re shooting a movie outdoors as the sun begins its descent); sunlight and sundown that created dramatic splashes of pink and streaks of orange amidst roller coaster clouds of fifty shades of blue.

A day of rest (for me, not the rest of the film’s stalwarts) was followed by a change of location for my second day of shooting (the director’s prerogative). Instead of shooting the mock interview footage in front of a silken backdrop as initially envisioned, Storihle decided to place Don in a questionable motel on Hollywood Boulevard. The film is clearly intended to manifest our version of Don, not striving for verisimilitude but rather for the emotional truths of this forgotten man who is decidedly part of our history. We felt responsible to Don yet we also awarded ourselves artistic leniency.

“I always have to fall in love with the DP [Director of Photography],” I told the producer; in this case, the DP was a straight guy, presumably in his thirties, from a Hollywood family. Overhearing me, he said, “And vice versa.” He (or she) is the one who ultimately bores into your psyche with the camera’s technological powers.

As we shot the footage of Don’s interview—seated on the edge of one of the two double beds in the room, identically covered with a bland pastel flowery pattern—Michael left the room and Don made an eerie appearance. The camera did not stop for more than fifty minutes.

Not taking time to break the spell we’d created, Storihle gave me a few intimate directions to simply “be Don in the motel room, immediately after the interview, starting with looking out the window onto Hollywood Boulevard, then sitting down and taking off your boots.” She conferred with the DP and the sound man while I tried to remain living in Don’s body.

“Action.”
Michael/Don

On a conscious level, I don’t “know” what happened because I had taken up residence in a different stratosphere—a different body, if you will. But I do know that I tried to get comfortable in the bed; as Michael would, and I turned one of the pillows into someone I could hug tightly in an attempt to fall asleep. When that didn’t work, I removed my socks. Then my pants. My long-sleeved shirt and my t-shirt.

I was unaware of anyone else in the room. I found comfort in pulling on my dick, thinking of the boys I’d seen on the Boulevard with their shaved heads, flashy tattoos and muscles for sale. It was making Don hard; so hard that his cock inevitably grew beyond the confines of his jockey shorts.

I felt the DP’s knee next to me on the bed as his camera surveyed every inch of my body closeup. I entrusted my body to him, knowing he was also looking for Don’s imprint. I think that’s art.

I am indebted to this body in its current state, still able to serve me in creating a character of such depth and complexity.


I sing the body electric
The armies of those I love engirth me, and I engirth them;
They will not let me off till I go with them, respond to them,
And discorrupt them, and charge them full with the charge of the soul

Was it doubted that those who corrupt their own bodies conceal themselves;
And if those who defile the living are as bad as they who defile the dead?
And if the body does not do as much as the soul?
And if the body were not the soul, what is the soul?
Walt Whitman





Tuesday, January 14, 2014

ROLL HOLLYWOOD ROLL


Hollywood’s self-reverential collective social consciousness obviously left the room at the annual Golden Globe Awards. Three of this year’s awardees might have taken a moment to reflect on the content of their triumphant film work in order to enlighten the 19.7 million viewers of the ceremony. Oh, I forgot, this is entertainment, not politics.

When will I ever learn? Never—hear me?—never.

In accepting his Oscar for Philadelphia in 1993 (virtually the only mainstream “AIDS movie” ever made at that juncture), Best Actor Tom Hanks first acknowledged the issue of gayness by naming two gay men in his life “because they are two of the finest gay Americans, two wonderful men that I had the good fortune to be associated with, to fall under their inspiration at such a young age. I wish my babies could have the same sort of teacher, the same sort of friends.”

Mr. Hanks then went on to eloquently tackle the subject of AIDS: “I know that my work in this case is magnified by the fact that the streets of heaven are too crowded with angels. We know their names. They number a thousand for each one of the red ribbons that we wear here tonight. They finally rest in the warm embrace of the gracious creator of us all. A healing embrace that cools their fevers, that clears their skin, and allows their eyes to see the simple, self-evident, common sense truth that is made manifest by the benevolent creator of us all and was written down on paper by wise men, tolerant men, in the city of Philadelphia two hundred years ago.”

Twenty years later, Hollywood honors Matthew McConaughey for his performance in Dallas Buyers Club, portraying Ron Woodroof, an HIV-positive infected heterosexual who smuggles anti-viral medications into America and makes a business of his procurements. Might McConaughey have mentioned the “A” word? (And I don’t mean “acting.”) Oh, sorry, I keep forgetting that AIDS is over; AIDS is so yesterday; AIDS is so gay.

What AIDS continues to be is a disease that kills millions of people worldwide, many of whom—even in America, honey, even in Hollywood, darling—have no access to antiretroviral meds. Nearly one-third of those infected with HIV in America are unable to get life-saving drugs (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/social-issues/endgame-aids-in-black-america/why-some-with-hiv-still-cant-get-treatment/).
The numbers is Sub-Saharan Africa stagger: well into Twenty-First Century, more than half of the millions of individuals infected with AIDS live in Africa with far less access to antiretrovirals than Americans, as the number of AIDS orphans continues to mount. But why should McConaughey mention any of that when he can reference one of his former films, Dazed and Confused?

And Jared Leto, also a Golden Globe winner—for his role as a meth-addicted transsexual with HIV in Dallas Buyers Club—used his acceptance speech to reference his butt rather than give a nod to the valiant community of transsexuals who are routinely bullied, and sometimes even murdered, for simply being who they are. Thanking transsexuals for “inspiration” is not enough, Mr. Leto.

Oh, and did I mention that both Mr. McConaughey and Mr. Leto lost tons of weight to play their roles? Lucky for them, they can gain the weight back. Oh, I should stop being so snarky—actors aren’t spokespeople for causes, for Chrissake. Actors talk about their asses.

Oh, and then there’s Michael Douglas’ win for playing Liberace, a tragic victim of both Hollywood homophobia and AIDS, in Behind the Candelabra. Mr.Douglas chose to keep any mention of AIDS behind the candelabra in his acceptance speech; he did, refreshingly, mention “sequins” and “mincing.” Silence, Mr. Douglas, still equals death.

Oh, yah, Liberace was from another era, and everyone “knew” he was gay, so what’s the big deal? Hmmm. Well, last time I checked, there is a Liberace type who also makes frequent glittering appearances in Las Vegas and is emphatically in the closet.

And if we’re to believe that AIDS has finished targeting celebrities, think again. Besides, Mr. Douglas is speaking to an international audience where any mention of AIDS would be potentially constructive. But the Golden Globes are all about getting drunk; not getting serious.

Referring to Mr. Leto and Mr. Douglas, J Bryan Lowder of Slate writes: “Moreover, it cannot be lost on them that some significant percentage of the recognition these films—and by extension, they—are enjoying is due to the accrual of liberal cred, queer people being the current favored minority of the left. It’s jarring, then, to witness people who are in no small part on stage because they were, in a professional sense, lucky enough to play a femme gay man or transgender woman—real figures whose existences in this world remain very precarious—treat those roles like a little light-hearted drag, easily accomplished with a day at the spa or a bit of studied lightness in one’s loafers.”

That Mr. Lowder must be a real party pooper.

I can’t go without mentioning that it was my nineteen-year old African-American daughter who alerted me to the insensitivities from those particular Golden Globes awardees. She also pointed to the exigencies to make the black experience manifest in film. Undoubtedly, those winners will use their precious speeches to reference their offscreen trials and tribulations.

Steve McQueen, the brilliant director of 12 Years A Slave, which won the Golden Globe for Best Picture, referenced “Roll Jordan Roll” in his acceptance speech. The John Legend song, written for the movie, is inspired by Eugene D.Genovese’s book of the same title: a testament to the human spirit that shows how slaves forced their owners to acknowledge their humanity through culture, music, and religion.

My nineteen-year old sees the connective tissue that binds all persecuted minorities. But she is a teenager and should be unconsciously partying—like those actors at the Golden Globes.


Roll Hollywood Roll.