When I heard an interview by NPR’s Terry Gross with filmmaker Mike Mills about his new film Beginners, I knew I’d run across a topic for this month’s column.
This movie – still in quite wide theatrical distribution – is the charming story of an early middle-aged man (Oliver) whose 75 year old father (Hal) bursts out of the closet after the death of Oliver’s mother.
The son always knew there was something a little off about his parents’ 44 year marriage. Now he watches Hal, played by Christopher Plummer, blossom within a new circle of gay friends. Getting to know each other anew is not always a smooth process and Oliver has plenty of his own difficulties achieving an intimate relationship – hence the film’s name.
The father soon develops cancer and eventually succumbs surrounded by his gay buddies. Viewers are left to wonder whether the son can engage in more complete relationships than the father achieved during most of his life.
Apparently the story of Hal closely parallels Mike Mill’s actual experience. He told Terry Gross both how truthful that aspect of the script is and how challenging it was to live through.
”… the dad’s part, I do like to call it a portrait because I feel like the word ‘portrait’ sort of implies this subjective nature of it, you know, and it’s sort of my version of my dad.
“…so when he came out, it wasn’t totally a surprise to me and you know, he was an art historian who wore cravats and bought all my mother’s clothes. So on some levels, you know, it’s not totally shocking.
“But yeah, wanting to have sex. It’s just weird to think of your parent that way…You know, this is a man who sort of defused himself, who tamped down his desires and was very sweet, very kind, very conscientious father but kind of vague and distant.
“And when he came out, it was the beginning of his becoming so much more vivid and hot and like really present, which was all quite often messy but always wonderful.
I found the portrayal of Hal bursting out of the closet extremely believable. The raw joy with which the Plummer character leaps into gay culture is very much how coming out often looks. Within a short time, he is dancing the night away when not earnestly promoting a gay candidate for office and insisting that his son appreciate gay culture.
All that is very sweet. Also all too believable are the scenes in which his gay friends support Hal as he is dying. That generation of gay men has seen a lot of death; they were winnowed by AIDS. They often know how to nurse the sick and how to keep laughing in the midst of pain and inevitable decline.
Developments like New York State’s recent legalization of gay marriage probably mean that we’re in the last generation in which stories like this – stories of gay parents of either gender coming out to their children – will continue to be lived. As stigma and practical obstacles to our relationships are overcome, there will be fewer heterosexual marriages undertaken by people whose core orientation is to their own sex.
We live today in a moment when such stories are quite commonplace. I’ve known people in the midst of at least half a dozen of these jarring changes. Sometimes the younger generation takes the gay eruption well, but sometimes it can be terribly painful to envision their parents in such a different way.
What seems to make all the difference is whether the parents are able to reach an amicable, respectful parting and re-orientation. If one of them feels deceived or wronged, it can be awfully hard for their (usually adult) children. If, on the other hand, when there had been honesty throughout the relationship (and I’ve known a couple of those), the younger generation may be less surprised and more able to welcome the sight of their parents maturing in their full selves.
It’s not just kids who “grow up.” I believe we’re all still at it until the day we die! At least that’s how I want to live.
Here’s the trailer for Beginners. If you don’t enjoy anything else about the movie, I’ll wager you like the dog!
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Joanne Zimmerman: Tissue Issue