[Editor’s note: This week we’re thrilled to introduce a recurring film review column by esteemed critic Chuck Wilson.]
Queers know from icons, and we don’t discriminate. As three terrific documentaries releasing this week demonstrate, artists and performers don’t need not be gay to win our love, they just need to be original, and fierce in their desire to jam nine lives into one.
Playing the title role on the Roman gladiator series, Spartacus: Blood and Sand, the late Andy Whitfield instantly set gay (and straight) hearts aflutter. He was crazy handsome, but he also gave that silly show a soulfulness no one had expected. He wasn’t just a pretty face. As season one wrapped, Andy and his wife Vashti, with whom he had two children, were exultant, but then, suddenly, the 38-year-old Welshman was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
In the documentary, Be Here Now, director Lilibeth Foster is given intimate access to Andy’s final 18 months of life, and the wonder is that a film isn’t sad, but joyous. Andy never wavers in his conviction that he’ll survive, and even when the test results finally prove him wrong, he doesn’t crumble. He lives the moment fully, which turns out to be the enduring lesson of this brief, beautiful life: “The good stuff is what’s going on right now.”
Another man who never wasted a second was photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, who died of AIDS in 1989, at 42, just as a traveling exhibit featuring his sexually transgressive photographs was igniting a nationwide debate about art and censorship. In HBO’s superb Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures, directors Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato demonstrate that becoming a photographer was never Mapplethorpe’s plan, but it may have been his destiny. Friends and lovers became his models, and through them, Mapplethorpe created a photographic technique that was intensely personal yet formally austere, and unlike anything that had come before. Not bad for a guy who never learned to develop his own film.
Why do we revere Gloria Vanderbilt? Is it the Vanderbilt fortune, and the “poor little rich girl” custody battle that made her world famous during the Depression? Or her skin-tight designer jeans that swept the nation in 1979? Or is it simply that Gloria is the mother of out gay news anchor Anderson Cooper?
In HBO’s Nothing Left Unsaid: Gloria Vanderbilt and Anderson Cooper, filmmaker Liz Garbus finds the 48-year-old Cooper quizzing his 91-year-old mother about her storied life. There were multiple careers, famous affairs, and four marriages. Gloria had four children, all boys, including Anderson and his older brother, Carter, who killed himself, at age 23, by jumping from his mother’s high-rise balcony, even as she was reaching out to stop him.
This is a haunting documentary, but there’s one odd note: despite the film’s title, and his willingness to reflect deeply on himself in other ways, Anderson Cooper never asks his mother — even briefly — how she felt when she found out he was gay. She’s Gloria Vanderbilt; she probably didn’t mind a bit, but in a film built around a say-everything conversation between mother and son, the topic not raised feels like a lost opportunity.
Watch trailers and find viewing information below.
Be Here Now: The Andy Whitfield Story opens in New York April 5 and in Los Angeles April 15
Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures is currently airing on HBO
Nothing Left Unsaid: Gloria Vanderbilt & Anderson Cooper premieres April 9 on HBO