A nostalgia-tinged look at the writer of the beloved Tales of the City series
Dir/scr. Jennifer M. Kroot. US, 2017, 91 mins.
Now 72, the author Armistead Maupin has been overlooked of late; once upon a time his name was a byword for sexual liberation in San Francisco where his Tales of the City characters lived, loved and lost in the onset of AIDS. In this comfortable amble through Maupin’s life, director Jennifer M Kroot (To Be Takei) gives his fans a quick recap of what they mostly already know, blandly shrugging off more contentious elements of the Southern-born author’s past (none of the people he forcefully outed back in the day turns up for a cozy chat, for example).
There are certainly more untold tales left at the end of Kroot’s doc
Then again, The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin is, on another level, a story of how sexual politics has radically transformed in the 40-plus years since the author began his newspaper serial about San Francisco in the swinging 70s where the gay and straight tenants of a boarding house were presided over by the transgender Mrs Madrigal. Tales has spawned nine books – the last of which was published in 2014 - and a wildly popular Channel 4/PBS show in the 1990s. Some of the stars of that series, including Laura Linney and Olympia Dukakis, turn up alongside Ian McKellan and Amy Tan to reminisce here.
Winner of the audience prize in the documentary category at the recent SXSW festival, The Untold Tales… should find a self-selecting audience on cable networks and LGBT circuits, skewing older. Burdened with dated graphics and a tryingly of-the-era score, this biopic of the man who wrote the story on which The Night Listener is based, alongside Lily Tomlin’s narrative for The Celluloid Closet, makes for safe viewing. Rheumy-eyed and never quite as convincingly avuncular as the documentary would like to suggest, Maupin himself seems subdued with age, a shadow of the “romantic gay man with the big slut side” who first put pen to paper back in 1974.
Certainly, TV footage from the 1970s shows a sprightly, liberated writer who already had a colourful past. The son of a white supremacist father, Maupin got his first job with the arch-Conservative scourge of the gay community Jesse Helms in 1969 and volunteered for Vietnam where he opposed John Kerry’s Vietnam Vets Against the War and met President Nixon.
Maupin didn’t burst out of the closet until he arrived in San Francisco at the age of 25, yet he didn’t hesitate to publicly out his one-night-stand Rock Hudson when the time came. These contradictions go largely unexplored, however, in a brisk run through Maupin’s past and his current marriage to Chris Turner, 30 years his junior, who found Maupin on his ‘Daddy Hunt’ website.
The tragedy of the exuberance of the original Tales of the City serial (one astonishing fact is that Maupin used to write it on a gruelling five-days-a-week schedule as a column in the San Francisco Chronicle) was what all that freedom presaged. AIDS was a catastrophe for San Francisco, and the documentary lightly ties that into Maupin’s life through the loss of his close friend. Somehow, that doesn’t quite feel enough either: there are certainly more untold tales left at the end of Kroot’s well-meaning and superficially enjoyable doc.
Production company/international sales: Tigerlily Pictures
International sales: The Film Collaborative, firstname.lastname@example.org
Editor/co-director: Bill Weber
Producers: Gerry Kim, Jennifer M. Kroot, Mayuran Tiruchelvam
Cinematography: Shane King
Music: Michael Hearst