Sunday, June 21, 2015

FRAMELINE 39: TAB HUNTER CONFIDENTIAL (2015)—Introductory Remarks by Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman; Frameline Award Acceptance Speech by Jeffrey Schwarz

Jeffrey Friedman recalled that he and Rob Epstein had just started working on their documentary The Celluloid Closet (1995) when they met Jeffrey Schwarz. He was a recent film school graduate who had made a short, sweet documentary Al Lewis in the Flesh (1993) about the actor who played Grandpa on the television series The Munsters. That was his calling card. He came to San Francisco from the East Coast, wanting to work in film. This was in the early '90s, which was not a great time in San Francisco. The city was still reeling from the AIDS epidemic. It didn't feel like a fun, gay destination. It felt more like a ghost town. So when this smart, talented, creative gay man made the conscious decision to move to San Francisco at that moment, there was something moving and hopeful about it. He felt like Jeanette MacDonald after the earthquake. But Jeffrey Schwarz was not just any young, creative, talented gay man; he was somebody who "got" the Jeanette MacDonald reference and someone who also made the mental cross-reference to Judy Garland's reference to Jeanette MacDonald in Garland's 1961 Carnegie Hall concert. "When a generation of gay men were disappearing," Friedman asserted, "Schwarz seemed to have the visceral need to cultivate and preserve our collective memory."

As Friedman and Epstein were working with Vito Russo on the film version of his pioneering queer history of the movies, The Celluloid Closet (1981, revised 1987), Schwarz's arrival in San Francisco at that moment felt like a gift from heaven. He was a compulsive student of film. His knowledge was encyclopedic. He was the kind of film buff who could tell you the names of bit players in screwball comedies from the '30s. As "a kid", he knew films that Friedman and Epstein had never heard of. When they interviewed Tom Hanks for The Celluloid Closet and asked him the first gay character he remembered seeing in a movie, Hanks described the scene from the 1971 film Vanishing Point. Schwarz was the only one on the crew that had—not only heard of the film—but seen it. Vito Russo died before The Celluloid Closet was completed. Years later, Friedman and Epstein felt it was fitting that Jeffrey Schwarz made the definitive film about Russo's life, as he has with so many other icons of gay history and film history. Above all, what Friedman wanted to say about Jeffrey Schwarz, is that he was a mensch whose decency and compassion shines through all of his films.

Agreeing wholeheartedly with Friedman, Rob Epstein stepped up to make a few additional remarks. He recalled that the first time he met Jeffrey Schwarz was at their then-office at 347 Dolores Street, which was a former convent and Catholic girls school. He came out of his office and there at the copy machine was a "really cute guy." He thought, "Hmmmm, who's that?" Michael Lumpkin, the producer of The Celluloid Closet, said, "That's Jeffrey Schwarz, our new intern." In fact, Schwarz's internship was short-lived because he quickly made himself indispensible to the project and was hired to be an apprentice editor on the film. He taught himself the Avid and ultimately edited the scene that became the finale of The Celluloid Closet. "We can't lay much claim to Jeffrey's success," Epstein told his capacity Castro crowd, "but he can make some claim to ours."

It was with "great privilege, pleasure and pride" that Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman awarded Jeffrey Schwarz the 2015 Frameline Award.

Acceptance Speech

Jeffrey Schwarz: When we screened my film Vito in this theater a few years ago, there was a kid in the audience—he was right over there—and he was decked out in rainbows from head to toe. He was probably about 17. He was just coming out and his mother brought him to the Castro to introduce him to our community. Maybe some of you were there, to remember this? It was amazing. He said that before the screening he had never heard of Vito Russo and now he had a new hero. That was such an incredible moment. You can feel the joy in this theater. You can feel everything come full circle. Tonight, here at the Castro Theatre, with this award, it comes full circle for me as well.

This city has meant so much to me, especially when it was my home in the early '90s. I had just come out to my friends and my family, including my grandmother who said she had "already guessed" because I moved to San Francisco. That's all she needed to know. But prior to arriving here, part of my coming out process was devouring every gay book and movie I could get my hands on. Rob Epstein's Oscar®-winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk and Vito's book The Celluloid Closet were my two monumental touchstones.

Rob's film was a revelation and it presented Harvey—not frozen in amber—but as a passionate, funny and brave human being. For 90 minutes I watched that film, thrilled at seeing Harvey emerge as a leader, saddened at his death, and enraged at seeing justice denied; but, also learning that one person can change the world and inspire future generations.

Then there was Vito's book The Celluloid Closet, which introduced me to a world of images I had no idea existed and like many I responded to his righteous indignation at how LGBT people were portrayed on film. So when I read in The Advocate that Rob and Jeffrey were going to be making a documentary out of The Celluloid Closet, I called their office from my home in New York and begged for the chance to work with them. I guess the begging worked because a few weeks later I packed my bags and moved to San Francisco. Rob and Jeffrey welcomed me to their offices at Telling Pictures, which—as they mentioned—was located at a former nunnery on Dolores Street, which I'm sure was haunted, working the night shift was really creepy, there was nobody else in the building but me, and also it was right across the street from the location where Alfred Hitchcock filmed Vertigo, which was super cool.

So I became an apprentice editor on The Celluloid Closet, worked the night shift, digging through hundreds of LGBT films, looking for just the perfect clip for Rob and Jeffrey to incorporate into the film. Vito's dream was that a film would be made of his book and now—only three years after his death—his vision was becoming real. His spirit very much guided the making of that film.

San Francisco also opened my eyes to the idea of a gay community, which was something I had never really experienced before. I felt at home here. I started to see what it meant to be part of a community. When a co-worker at a temp job here asked me if I was "family", it took me a minute to understand what he meant by that. I don't think people say that anymore, but I loved that. When the plumbing needed fixing at the office, the office manager called the Gay Yellowpages. Even hiring a plumber would be kept in the family.

The men and women that I met in San Francisco shared a common history of struggle and triumph, of incredible loss, but also of healing. I went to my first Frameline Film Festival in this theater and that year I saw films like Gus Van Sant's Mala Noche and the late Richard Glatzer's Grief. For the first time I was watching movies with a gay audience. You haven't lived until you've seen The Wizard of Oz with a Castro audience. For that matter, Can't Stop the Music, which came out 35 years ago today. Showgirls, I saw that here. Or a terrifying scream fest like Mommie, Dearest. Seeing movies in this theater felt like coming home and it still does.

Vito felt the same way. In fact, from where I am right now I can see his favorite seat, which was right in the middle of the first row on the balcony. If you're in that seat, you're lucky. Working on The Celluloid Closet, I felt more passionate than ever about the power of movies to entertain, to educate and to inspire. I got to witness and participate in what is now considered a queer documentary canon. I soaked up as much as I could watching Rob and Jeffrey practice their craft and worked closely with their brilliant co-editor Arnie Glassman, and with Frameline's former festival director Michael Lumpkin whose passion for the project led him to produce The Celluloid Closet. The film was completed in 1995 and—armed with everything I'd learned from working on this all-star team—I decided to pack up and move to Los Angeles.

Twenty years ago this week Rob and Jeffrey sent me on my way to what I hoped would be a new adventure in the movie capitol of the world. One of my early jobs was working as an editor on a behind-the-scenes documentary about the making of Gus Van Sant's Psycho remake, which led to a decade-long adventure producing DVD extras for the Hollywood studios. Once in a while, I got to smuggle in queer content without telling anybody. We did an interview with members of Queer Nation about the protests that happened here over the making of Basic Instinct for the DVD. We talked to trans activists about their critique of The Silence of the Lambs. And we recorded Harvey Fierstein's audio commentary for Torch Song Trilogy.

But the desire to make films about our history, the family history, was what really propelled me. I've been able with film to celebrate people whose lives serve as inspiration to anyone's who felt like an outsider and then seized power for themselves, like Jack Wrangler who transformed himself into a 1970s porn caricature to give himself confidence and to provide a fantasy figure for newly-liberated gay men. Or Divine, who terrorized midnight movie audiences with a screen persona that might be called "Godzilla meets Jayne Mansfield"; but, as outrageous as he was, his message was always, "Love yourself. Don't let society's standards of beauty keep you from being what you were always meant to be: fabulous!" And, of course, the film about Vito Russo, along with his brothers and sisters in the gay movement, who were able to overcome homophobia, depression, and a shrunken visibility, to liberation.

Tonight, you'll meet Hollywood's boy-next-door, Tab Hunter, and share his journey to self-discovery and acceptance. I'm driven to celebrate these people—whether porn star, drag queen or rabble-rouser like Vito Russo—and today a new generation of LGBT youth is coming of age without knowing about our pioneers and how they helped make it possible for us to live proudly and openly in the world. When we were making Vito, we hoped that the film would find its way into high schools so kids could learn about our history. Now, thanks to Frameline's Youth in Motion program, that dream is a reality. Thanks to Frameline, gay-straight alliances around the country can request a free copy of the film, along with tools to help the students channel Vito's philosophy into their own 21st century activism. Thank you, Frameline.

When Frances Wallace called me to tell me I would be receiving this award, and that Rob and Jeffrey would be presenting it, I was stunned because the list of previous Frameline Award recipients reads like a Who's Who of the last three decades of queer cinema. So once I picked up my jaw off the floor, and this all sunk in, I just have to say this means the sun, the moon and the stars to me. I'm grateful and honored to accept this award. I also want to thank my family—my Mom and Dad are here—they always believed in this mission. Thanks to my boyfriend; he's here too. Making movies can be all-consuming and he's the godsend that keeps me grounded and present. He's real cute, too.

But I really want to thank all of you for embracing the films that I've made. Thank you for coming to see these movies at film festivals. Thank you for championing queer film and queer artists. Thank you for supporting us when we come begging for cash on Kickstarter. Hollywood is not going to give you these movies. It's up to us as a community to support the films that we want to see get made. We have to keep telling our stories and we don't need to ask permission from anybody to do it. To tell a story, you do not need a film school degree. People ask me all the time, "I didn't go to film school. How can I make a movie?" You just need passion and tenacity and definitely insanity to channel your obsessions onto the screen. I'm so proud of our community and so honored to be part of it. This award is for you, to all of you for all of your support, and to quote Harvey Milk, "Thank you, San Francisco." Thank you.

August 19, 2015 UPDATE: The video is finally available (for those who don't like to read).

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