August 11, 2017 at 9:21 pm PDT
by John Paul King
For a certain generation of gay men and women, the name Armistead Maupin will always strike a deep and richly satisfying chord in the soul.
His serialized “Tales of the City,” which ran throughout the late ‘70s and early ‘80s in the pages of the San Francisco Chronicle (and later the San Francisco Examiner) before being widely published as a series of popular novels, captured the heady atmosphere of its exciting time, and through the intertwined sagas of its assorted characters – gay, straight, and in between – it encouraged its readers to embrace their own queerness and live an open and authentic life.
Nearly 50 years later, Maupin’s beloved stories are as relevant as ever. With three successful TV miniseries having brought them to an even wider audience (and a fourth reportedly in the works), the lives of Mary Ann, Mouse, Mona, and Mrs. Madrigal are as famous and familiar to many of us as our own – much more famous and familiar, in fact, than the life of their creator.
That may soon change.
Maupin has penned a memoir, “Logical Family,” which will be published in October. Around the same time, a documentary, “The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin,” is due to hit screens after a tour of film festivals across the country – including a recent showing at Los Angeles’ own Outfest.
Directed by Jennifer M. Kroot (also responsible for 2014’s documentary, “To Be Takei”), the new film takes audiences on a tour of Maupin’s storied career, of course, but it also delves into the life he lived before becoming one of the foremost literary voices of the LGBTQ community.
Born into a North Carolina family with roots in the aristocracy of the American South, Maupin grew up in a deeply conservative environment. He became interested in journalism while attending the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and spent time after his graduation working for future U.S. Senator Jesse Helms, who managed a TV station in Raleigh. Subsequently, he served multiple tours of duty in the U.S. Navy (one in Vietnam) before returning to the states to begin the newspaper career that would ultimately take him to San Francisco.
He remained closeted throughout all this time. Though he knew he was gay from an early age, he never acted on it until he was 26 years old. The details of that encounter are among the many biographical anecdotes Maupin shares in interviews throughout Kroot’s movie.
A considerable portion of the film’s 90-minute run time, in fact, is made up of interview footage, but this never feels like a cop-out. This is largely due to the way Kroot pieces together her movie; instead of placing events in a chronological sequence, she separates them into sections devoted to particular subject matter, cross-referencing between time periods to make connections and underscore recurring themes in the author’s life and work – and by extension, in the history of the LGBTQ community.
This process is facilitated by the use of archival footage, a wealth of photographs capturing the rich history of San Francisco, and even animated sequences that serve as transitions between the movie’s various chapters. There is liberal use of excerpts from the televised adaptations of “Tales,” which astutely illustrate the parallels between the author’s real-life story and the events and characters in his writing.
Even so, the movie’s strongest appeal comes from hearing Maupin speak for himself, which he does with disarming wit and candor; his expansive persona comes across onscreen with so much easy-going familiarity that one walks away from the film with the impression of having spent the time with him in person – not as an audience member, but as an intimate friend.
It doesn’t feel like artifice, either.
Though he carries the air of a genteel “southern gentleman” (there’s still the slightest hint of that accent), and though he displays a well-mannered delicacy even as he talks openly about his own sexual exploits, there is no arrogance or pretense here. He comes across as the genuine article, a product of his past who approaches life with an open heart.
Though Maupin’s interviews form the bulk of the film’s “talking head” footage, there are a host of others offering their insights as well. Appearances from Neil Gaiman, Amy Tan, Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, Olympia Dukakis, Margaret Cho, and several others help to illuminate the far-reaching impact made by the author – not just through his work, but through his connections and influence as a core figure in LGBTQ culture. Though he maintains a tasteful humility, the film makes it clear that Maupin is as big an icon as any of the famous names with whom he has rubbed elbows.
As interesting as all this biographical information may be, though, Kroot’s film does not use it as an end in itself; rather, it helps her to impart a much deeper revelation about her subject. For by tracing Maupin’s path through the past five decades in the history of gay life, she shows just how much he has given back to the community that made him a success.
After all, he made his name by giving voice to the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of millions of his fellows; and in doing so he provided a touchstone for them all, a sort of emotional road map by which they could chart their own journeys through the changing social and sexual attitudes of the era. Quite simply, he united them into a sort of extended family.
This point is driven home in what is perhaps the movie’s most memorable sequence, in which Maupin relates how he came out to his family through one of his most beloved characters. In “More Tales of the City,” Michael “Mouse” Tolliver writes a letter to his mother telling her that he is gay, in a chapter expressly written by the author with the intention that his own parents would read it and understand that it was his personal message to them. Kroot then splices together segments of the letter being read (and sung) aloud, powerfully illustrating how Maupin’s work gave words to the hearts and minds of an entire community – and providing an unexpectedly moving culmination to her film.
Powerful climax notwithstanding, “The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin” is largely a light affair; though it necessarily travels down a few dark roads (after all, the author’s history runs straight through the middle of the AIDS epidemic), it is marked throughout by a tone of wit and positivity – fully in keeping with the good-natured personality of its subject. It flies by and leaves you hungry for more, like a coffee date with an old friend with whom you can never spend enough time. It will likely inspire you to revisit “Tales of the City,” or even better, to discover some of Maupin’s other writings. Perhaps it will even inspire you to live more freely, like the denizens of 28 Barbary Lane.
Whatever it inspires you to do, you will find it to be time well spent.