Review: ‘On Broadway’ (2021), starring Ian McKellen, Helen Mirren, George C. Wolfe, Hugh Jackman, Tommy Tune, John Lithgow and Alexandra Billings

September 26, 2021

by Carla Hay

Ian McKellen in “On Broadway” (Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber)

“On Broadway” (2021)

Directed by Oren Jacoby

Culture Representation: The documentary “On Broadway” features a nearly all-white group of people (with one African American, one mixed-race person and one Asian) discussing the history of Broadway theater productions, from the 1950s to the 2010s.

Culture Clash: Broadway has weathered its share of ups and downs, including theater shutdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic and ibeing in crime-ridden areas; the AIDS crisis devastating the Broadway community; and criticism that Broadway shows are too elitist and too expensive.

Culture Audience: “On Broadway” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in a documentary that presents a very optimistic view of Broadway without delving too deeply into controversial subject matter.

Broadway theaters in New York City in “On Broadway” (Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber)

“On Broadway” is everything that you might expect a documentary to be that celebrates the history of Broadway shows from the 1950s to the 2010s. Expect to hear stories about Broadway’s highs and lows, but don’t expect to hear anything too scandalous. Directed by Oren Jacoby (an Oscar-nominated documentarian), “On Broadway” probably won’t be revealing enough for people who are Broadway trivia fanatics. This documentary is for people who want to see a selective history of Broadway, presented like a love letter instead of a scathing exposé of the dark sides of the business.

It’s a traditionally made documentary that mixes archival footage with exclusive documentary interviews. It looks like some of these interviews happened about 10 to 15 years before this 2021 documentary was released, while other interviews took place in or close to 2018/early 2019, when this documentary was completed. And a few of the people who were interviewed for the film have since passed away. For example, the documentary has exclusive interviews with celebrated playwright August Wilson (who died in 2005, at the age of 60) and Broadway producer/director extraordinaire Hal Prince, who died in 2019, at the age of 91.

“On Broadway” had its world premiere at the 2019 DOC NYC film festival, so this movie does not include any extensive coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on Broadway, when theaters were shut down from March 2020 to August 2021. However, the movie’s epilogue does have a brief mention of the pandemic shutdowns and New York City’s long-delayed plans to re-open Broadway theaters in September 2021. It fits the tone and messaging of the rest of the documentary: Broadway, also known as Great White Way, is also the Great Comeback Kid.

“On Broadway” begins with testimonials from actors and other creators who’ve made their marks on Broadway, which consists of a cluster of designated theaters in New York City’s midtown Manhattan. Tony-winning actress Helen Mirren (“The Audience”) says that the first time that she went to New York City to rehearse for her Broadway debut (a 1994 production of “A Month in the Country”), she remembers looking at the Manhattan skyline and thinking: “‘Will I conquer New York? Will I survive it, even?’ The whole concept of Broadway has this very romantic, very heroic, very legendary kind of feel to it.”

Alec Baldwin (who earned a Tony nomination for his portrayal of Stanley Kowalski in the 1992 Broadway production of “A Streetcar Named Desire”) has this to say about Broadway: “New York is a place that when 8 o’clock at night rolls around, the curtain is opening on some of the greatest performances around the world, in one city. It is almost incomprehensible the amount of talent that is on display at that one moment.”

Tony-winning actor Hugh Jackman (“The Boy From Oz”), who has also won an Emmy Award for hosting the 2005 Tony Awards ceremony, comments: “As a performer, Broadway is different from anywhere else on the planet. You feel the audience are leaning in, they’re wanting to have a great time, they’re ready to enjoy it. It’s the most palpable I’ve ever felt—that connection with an audience.”

The documentary includes the expected footage and commentary about how influential Broadway is to actors and actresses. Tony-winning actress Christine Baranski (“The Real Thing,” “Rumors”) says with great fondness: “‘Company’ was the first musical I saw on Broadway. And I just thought, ‘Okay, this is the New York theater!” The documentary has brief archival clips of several stars who starred in Broadway shows before they became famous for their work in movies, such as Lithgow, McKellen, Mirren, Viola Davis and Courtney B. Vance.

Tony-winning director George C. Wolfe (“Angels in America: Millennium Approaches” and “Bring in ‘da Noise/Bring in ‘da Funk”) says that Broadway is more than just a bunch of buildings. “Something that ends up resonating with people ends up inhabiting those buildings. And it creates a kind of strange, odd, wonderful energy.”

Wolfe continues, “And all of a sudden, those buildings become kind of a church that attracts these devotees who become empowered by what’s on that stage. But at the same time, it’s a commercial landscape. And every day, you have to pay your rent. That’s the key to Broadway.”

The debate over art versus commerce certainly applies to Broadway, which is a tough business for a production to make a profit. Most Broadway productions end up being money-losing investments. The Broadway shows that run for years are the ones that are like winning the lottery.

In addition to having a narrative history of Broadway, the documentary includes an all-access profile of “The Nap,” a British imported play about snooker players that debuted on Broadway during the 2018-2019 season. “The Nap” (which had a limited run from September to November 2018) was considered financially riskier than a typical Broadway show, since it didn’t have any big-name stars and because snooker is a game that’s largely unfamiliar to American audiences. “On Broadway” followed the Broadway production of “The Nap” from its rehearsals to opening night.

The documentary includes interviews with “The Nap” playwright Richard Bean, “The Nap” Broadway director Daniel Sullivan and “The Nap” co-star Alexandra Billings, who made her Broadway debut in the show. As one of the first transgender actors to portray a transgender character on Broadway, Billings expresses gratitude and amazement at how far she’s come in overcoming personal setbacks (including drug addiction and homelessness) to end up starring in a Broadway show. She says, “The Broadway journey: There’s so much history attached. We need to remember our history.”

“On Broadway” takes viewers through a chronological history of Broadway with an impressive array of archival footage and various commentaries from Broadway insiders. The 1950s through the mid-1960s are described as the Golden Age of Broadway. Business was booming, and Broadway shows often influenced pop culture in music and in movies.

However, by the late 1960s, with the counterculture movement becoming a major force in society, Broadway was considered old-fashioned and out-of-touch by many people. In addition, the streets of midtown Manhattan’s Times Square, where almost all Broadway theaters are located, became increasingly crime-infested. As a result, by the mid-1970s, many Broadway theaters were shut down, and Broadway experienced a major slump. New York City was also on the verge of declaring bankruptcy.

Tony-winning actor John Lithgow (“The Changing Room” and “The Sweet Smell of Success”) remembers, “The theater district in those days: You can’t believe how different it was. It was so down on its luck.” The documentary mentions that Broadway attendance dropped from 10 million people in 1969 to 4.8 million people in 1972.

However, during this economically depressed period of time for Broadway, new talent emerged that pushed Broadway to new levels of creativity. Musical composer Stephen Sondheim and the aforementioned groundbreaking producer/director Prince are named as the two luminaries who had the most influence on the new and original Broadway shows that emerged from the late 1960s through the 1970s.

Prince and Sondheim worked separately for most of ther projects. However, their collaborations included “Company” and “Pacific Overtures,” which are named as examples of Broadway musicals that were reactions to criticism that Broadway was outdated and playing it too safe. Plays and musicals began to include topics that were once considered taboo on Broadway, including war protests, the feminist movement, LGBTQ rights and abortion.

The documentary notes how the majority of the theaters were dominated by three theater owners in the 1970s: The Shubert Organization, the Nederlander Organization and Jujamcyn Theaters. Out of financial desperation, the Shubert family let attorneys Gerald Schoenfeld and Bernard B. Jacobs take over the Shubert Organization in 1972.

The leadership change at the Shubert Organization led to a rethinking of investment strategies, by doing something that was groundbreaking at the time: Giving more freedom to the artistic people in Broadway, such as allowing them to spend time workshopping a production instead of just rehearsing. Broadway icons such as director/choreographer Bob Fosse and choreographer Michael Bennett were among those who benefited from this strategy.

Nederlander Organization managing director Elizabeth McCann says of this period of time when Broadway was in an economic decline: “They were all desperate for product.” One of the first new productions that Shubert invested in was Fosse’s “Pippin,” because the company believed in him.

New York City’s slow but eventual clean-up of Times Square led to closures of strip clubs and porn theaters and the arrival of more family-friendly businesses. In 1995, the Walt Disney Company began leasing the New Amsterdam Theater in a deal that’s considered a game changer in Broadway. In collaboration with the 42nd Street Development Project, Disney agreed to renovate the theater, which re-opened in 1997. As part of the deal, the New Amsterdam Theater is the exclusive home of Broadway productions that are based on Disney intellectual property.

The documentary singles out several Broadway productions as groundbreaking in their own ways. In the 1970s, “A Chorus Line” broke Broadway box-office records at the time and was the first Broadway show to be owned by a nonprofit group: the Public Theater. “Ain’t Misbehavin'” broke racial barriers on Broadway for having African Americans as a majority of its cast. “Annie” broke the stereotype that a Broadway show needed a rave review from the New York Times to be a long-running hit. The smash hit “Nicholas Nickleby,” with its eight-hour running time, broke the conventional practice of limiting a Broadway show’s running time to two or three hours.

By the late 1970s, Broadway was in full comeback mode, aided by the “I Love New York” ad campaign that featured Broadway shows. Popular shows on Broadway, such as “Grease” and “The Wiz,” were made into movies. Broadway in the 1970s and the 1980s had a British invasion, led by composer/producer Andrew Lloyd Webber and producer Cameron Mackintosh. Separately and together, Webber and Mackintosh brought numerous hits to Broadway, such as their collaborations on “Cats” and “The Phantom of the Opera.” (The documentary includes brief clips of an interview with Mackintosh.) The 1980s also saw a rise of acclaimed Broadway plays by and about LGBTQ people, most notably Harvey Fierstein’s “Torch Song Trilogy.”

The 1990s ushered in a resurgence in Broadway’s popularity with young people, thanks largely to Jonathan Larson’s “Rent.” “Angels in America” (from playwright Tony Kushner) and “Rent” also brought frank depictions of the AIDS crisis into major storylines for Broadway shows. The 1990s was also the decade where the Disney-fication of Broadway began to take hold in the trend of turning movies into long-running Broadway musicals. The smash hit “The Lion King” was an obvious standout. Also in the 1990s, a Broadway trend began that isn’t going away anytime soon: jukebox musicals built around the hit songs of famous music artists. “Mamma Mia!,” based on ABBA songs, is considered the first blockbuster in this jukebox musical trend.

Even with several Broadway hits being churned out that are based on pre-existing entertainment, the phenomenal success of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” proves that Broadway audiences are still hungry for completely original productions. In the documentary, “Hamilton” is credited with bringing more multiracial audiences than ever before to Broadway. “Hamilton’s” race-swapping of historical figures and incorporation of rap/hip-hop are also cited as groundbreaking for a Broadway show.

“On Broadway” wants to have such a relentlessly “cheerleader” attitude about the Broadway industry that it tends to ignore some uncomfortable topics, such as racism. Instead, the movie’s way of discussing Broadway’s race relations is to focus more on the accomplishments of Broadway’s prolific people of color (such as Wolfe, Wilson and Miranda) who were able to break racial barriers in the world of Broadway. Sexism and the #MeToo movement aren’t mentioned at all. The movie’s epilogue acts as if the abuse scandals that led to the 2021 downfall of Broadway mega-producer Scott Rudin just didn’t exist. The documentary gives no acknowledgement that Rudin’s fall from grace was big news that shook the Broadway industry.

Although the documentary does acknowledge the devastation that the AIDS crisis inflicted on the Broadway community, one of the movie’s flaws is that it could have had more coverage on what the Broadway community has done in response to the AIDS crisis. The documentary gives more screen time to Broadway people protesting and crying over the 1982 demolishment of the Morosco Theater, the Helen Hayes Theater and the Bijou (to make way for the Marriott Marquis in Times Square) than it gives to Broadway people doing something about the AIDS crisis. For example, “On Broadway” could have had a segment about the work of the nonprofit group Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. It’s a glaring omission.

Although “On Broadway” overlooks several social justice issues that directly impact Broadway, the documentary gives some recognition to the fact that Broadway gets a lot of criticism for being overpriced and elitist. At the same time, Broadway has also gotten backlash from the other end of the spectrum: Some people think that Broadway is catering too much to unsophisticated audiences, by relying heavily on movie adaptations and jukebox musicals for new Broadway shows.

Broadway producer Robert Fox comments on overpriced Broadway tickets: “I find gouging people unappealing. And I think people are being gouged. The amounts of money that people ar being asked to see things are insane. But it’s not called ‘show charity.’ It’s called ‘show business.'”

“The Nap” Broadway director Sullivan says that the high cost of putting on a Broadway show and the high risk of the show being a money-losing failure are aspects of the business that won’t change anytime soon: “Paying the kind of money you have to pay to put anything on a Broadway stage is almost foolhardy. But the excitement can’t be about the money. The excitement is about finding fascinating new work and taking that chance of putting it before the public.”

While “old school” Broadway people might gripe about the increasing number of movie adaptations and jukebox musicals that end up on Broadway, the general consensus by people interviewed in the documentary is that these adapted Broadway shows won’t replace the need for original content. Tony-winning actor James Corden (“One Man, Two Guvnors”) comments: “You’ve just always got to keep an eye on what’s new, what’s fresh, what’s going to inspire the next kid who thinks, ‘Oh my God. I’m going to write a play.'”

“On Broadway” includes interviews with people representing a cross-section of various jobs in Broadway—mostly people who are actors, producers, directors and theater officials. Among those interviewed are director/producer Lynne Meadow, director Jack O’Brien, the Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis, producer Manny Azenberg, director Nicholas Hytner, producer Sonia Friedman, producer Albert Poland and producer Nelle Nugent. Other people interviewed include playwright David Henry Hwang, theatrical ad agency director Nancy Coyne, city planner Carl Weisbrod, lighting designer Natasha Katz, former Jujamcyn Theaters president Rocco Landesman, The New 42nd Street founding president Cora Cahan, Sardi’s maître d’ Gianni Felidi, and theater journalists Michael Riedel, Jeremy Gerard and Michael Paulson.

Even though “On Broadway” glosses over many of the ongoing problems in the business of Broadway, the documentary is entertaining and can be informative to people who have limited or average knowledge of this great American platform of performing arts. Broadway has been written off as “dead” many times, but the message of the documentary is that when Broadway is in a rut, Broadway should not be underestimated to climb out of that rut to thrive once again.

Tony-winning actor/director/choreographer Tommy Tune sums up the resilience of Broadway by saying: “Broadway is like some old 42nd Street hooker. She just keeps plugging. And sometimes, she has new shoes on. And sometimes, she has old, broken-down shoes.”

Kino Lorber released “On Broadway” in select U.S. cinemas and in virtual cinemas on August 20, 2021. The movie’s release date on digital and DVD is on October 19, 2021.

Review: ‘Disclosure,’ starring Laverne Cox, Chaz Bono, Lilly Wachowski, Jen Richards, Yance Ford, Candis Cayne and Mj Rodriguez

June 19, 2020

by Carla Hay

Laverne Cox in “Disclosure” (Photo by Ava Benjamin Shorr/Netflix)

“Disclosure” (2020) 

Directed by Sam Feder

Culture Representation: The documentary “Disclosure” has a racially diverse group of entertainers and activists (white, black, Asian and Latino) discussing how transgender people are depicted in movies and television.

Culture Clash: The documentary examines damaging bigotry that leads to confusion, hatred and untrue or misleading stereotyping of transgender people.

Culture Audience: “Disclosure” will appeal mainly to people who care about the rights of transgender people, but the documentary is also worth viewing for people who need to be more educated on why movies and television have a major impact in how transgender people are treated by society.

Chaz Bono in “Disclosure” (Photo by Ava Benjamin Shorr/Netflix)

When the documentary “Disclosure” (directed by Sam Feder) premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, it was subtitled “Trans Lives on Screen.” That subtitle was removed when the film made its way to Netflix. And it’s too bad the movie no longer has this subtitle, since this description needed to be displayed loud and proud to announce the documentary’s subject matter. By stripping the documentary of its original subtitle, “Disclosure” just sounds like a generically vague movie, based on the title.

Title changes are usually made by the movie’s distributor for marketing reasons, in order to appeal to as wide of an audience as possible. Perhaps whoever decided on this title change thought that having the word “trans” in any part of the documentary’s title would scare off potential viewers. If that was the main reason for dropping the subtitle “Trans Lives on Screen,” then it’s an ironic choice, since the entire movie is about de-stigmatizing and de-mystifying what it means to be a transgender person, as it relates to how trans people are portrayed in movies and on television.

“Disclosure” does a very good job overall of covering these issues by giving the entire narrative to trans people. Everyone interviewed in the documentary is a transgender entertainer and/or trans activist. (“Disclosure” director Feder is also transgender.) People interviewed in the movie include Laverne Cox, Angelica Ross, Brian Michael Smith, Yance Ford, Zeke Smith, Lilly Wachowski, Mj Rodriguez, Michael D. Cohen, Chaz Bono, Jamie Clayton, Alexandra Billings, Jen Richards, Tiq Milan, Nick Adams, Tre’Vell Anderson, Trace Lysette, Rain Valdez, Zackary Drucker, Marquis Vilson, Chase Strangio, Sandra Caldwell, Candis Cayne, Susan Stryker, Alexandra Grey, Jazzmun, Ser Anzoategui, Elliot Fletcher, Bianca Leigh, Leo Sheng, Mickey R. Mahoney and Hailie Sahar.

However, the documentary (which has a traditional format that blends interviews with archival footage) doesn’t do an adequate job of explaining variances along the gender spectrum. There are many people in society who get confused between being transgender and doing drag. It’s a confusion that the documentary further muddles by bringing up examples of drag impersonations in movies and television and putting them in the same category as transgender representation. Some of the documentary’s examples include Dustin Hoffman in 1982’s “Tootsie” and Robin Williams in 1993’s “Mrs. Doubtfire,” as well as female personas created by male comedians Milton Berle, Flip Wilson and Jamie Foxx on comedy TV series.

Here is what “Disclosure” should have done from the beginning before going into the flashy montages of film and TV clips: Educate people on the different identities in the gender spectrum.

The documentary assumes that people watching the film already know what “cisgender” means. The definition of “cisgender” is when someone identifies as the biological gender assigned at birth. The majority of people in the world are cisgender and use the pronouns “he/him” if they identify as male and “she/her” if they identify as female. Most cisgender people are heterosexual (attracted to the opposite sex), while other cisgender people identify as “queer” (attracted to the same sex, both sexes or any gender) or “asexual” (not interested in any sex at all). It depends on the individual.

Transgender people are people who identify as the opposite of their biological gender they were assigned at birth. Transgender people have their own unique journeys on how and when they decide to present themselves as the gender they are. Many transgender people, for various reasons (usually pressures from society or family members), are forced to present themselves as the gender that is opposite of who they are.

Transgender people all over the world are fighting for the rights to be gendered correctly and to openly live their lives as the gender with which they identify, without being discriminated against for it. A transgender woman should have the pronouns “she/her” and a transgender man should have the pronouns “he/him.” Just like with cisgender people, sexuality for transgender people depends on an individual: Transgender people can be sexually attracted to any, all or no people on the gender spectrum.

Transgender people are often misidentified as doing drag. And that is a common misconception that the documentary really should have pointed out better. Drag is dressing up as the opposite sex. For transgender people, their gender identity isn’t “doing drag,” like a costume someone can put on and take off when they choose. The documentary really missed an opportunity to clarify between “doing drag” and “being transgender.”

Likewise, people can get confused over what “trans” means when there are transsexuals and transvestites. Transsexuals are transgender people who undergo gender confirmation surgery. Transvestites are cisgender people who dress up as the opposite sex. Transvestites are a subculture of drag culture, because transvestites are usually people who identify as straight or bisexual. None of that is explained in the documentary.

Also not mentioned in the documentary: There are some people who identify as “gender-fluid” and present themselves as male and female, depending on the situation. When gender-fluid people present as male, they want their pronouns to be “he/him,” and when they present as female, they want their pronouns to be “she/her.” Gender-fluid people are not to be confused with nonbinary people, who don’t identify as any gender and use the pronouns “they” and “them.”

Maybe the “Disclosure” filmmakers thought all of this information would be confusing to viewers. But a lot of people in the world don’t know that there is a gender difference between RuPaul (a cisgender gay man who does drag as a woman) and Laverne Cox (a transgender woman). A movie like “Disclosure” could have done a better job of educating people who are ignorant of these differences, instead of assuming that everyone who watches the film already knows what the differences are.

That being said, “Disclosure” has an impressive compilation of film/TV clips and personal stories from transgender entertainers who talk about how images on screen influenced (for better or worse) how they felt about themselves as transgender people. “Disclosure” also responsibly acknowledges the additional prejudice that transgender people can face from other members of the LGBTQ community.

There are also disproportionate levels of racism and sexism that transgender women of color experience, compared to cisgender queer white people. (Most hate crimes against transgender people are crimes against transgender women of color.) And because white transgender people get more representation on screen than transgender people of color, it causes limited stereotyping that can stifle the careers of transgender people of color. Actress/producer Valdez (who is of Filipino heritage and was raised in Guam) says in the documentary she’s spent her entire career trying to convince people that she can do roles other than the Asian “M. Butterfly” stereotype.

“Disclosure” offers a fairly comprehensive historical account of how transgender lives have been depicted in movies and television. The documentary includes examples of movies all the way back to the silent-film era. Two silent films released in 1914 are singled out in particular: director D.W. Griffith’s “Judith of Bethulia” and director Sidney Drew’s “A Florida Enchantment.”

But this is where “doing drag” and “being transgender” can get confused, since both films don’t really specify if the characters are really transgender or if the characters are cisgender people doing drag. For the first half of 20th century, the terminology just didn’t exist to make the distinction between the two types of identities.

Adding to the confusion is that many films from the silent-film era had shameful and degrading portrayals of women and people of color, with white men acting in those roles because white men were the ones usually allowed to get those roles in the first place. The practice of male actors dressing up as women goes back centuries before film was even invented, when women were not allowed to be actors.

Movies allowed roles for women, but early silent films still had a lot of men portraying women, simply because there weren’t enough women who were allowed to be actors. That doesn’t necessarily mean those characters were written as transgender or queer. It’s something that “Disclosure” should have put into better historical context.

However, actress/activist Cox (who is one of the executive producers of “Disclosure”) makes this noteworthy comment: “I think it’s fascinating that some of the earliest moving images were cross-dressed images. When you watch, it feels very much like womanhood is silly and is to be mocked.”

Oscar-nominated “Strong Island” director Ford says that he’s not surprised that movies from early filmmakers such as Griffith presented anyone who wasn’t a straight white male in a demeaning manner. Ford comments that he’s glad he didn’t go to film school because he would have walked out if they showed him Griffith’s pro-Ku Klux Klan film “Birth of a Nation,” which is often taught in films schools as one of the most influential movies of the silent-film era. “The Matrix” filmmaker Lilly Wachowski puts it bluntly when she says of Griffith: “You racist piece of shit.”

Transgender representation in films obviously became more pronounced in the latter half of the 20th century, when transgender identities and gender confirmation surgeries became more openly discussed in society. Some of the films mentioned as being influential for transgender representation include 1992’s “The Crying Game,” 1999’s “Boys Don’t Cry,” 2013’s “Dallas Buyers Club” and 2015’s “The Danish Girl,” which were all nominees or winners of Academy Awards. For documentary films, 1990’s “Paris Is Burning” is praised as one of the most influential of all time for transgender representation.

However, even some of those films had problematic issues, according to some of the “Disclosure” interviewees. “Boys Don’t Cry,” “Dallas Buyers Club” and “The Danish Girl” all had cisgender actors portraying transgender people. Transgender activists have been advocating for filmmakers and TV showrunners to hire transgender people for transgender roles. “Dallas Buyers Club” (which was based on a true story) also got some criticism in “Disclosure” because some people think that Jared Leto’s fictional Rayon character (a transgender female) was written for the movie to make the straight male protagonist of the story, Ron Woodroof (played by Matthew McConaughey), look like the “heterosexual savior.”

In the “The Crying Game,” when transgender female character Dil (played by Jaye Davidson, who is transgender in real life) revealed that she has a penis, it caused her straight male love interest Fergus (played by Stephen Rea) to vomit. “Disclosure” criticizes films that resort to this negative and often unrealistic vomiting reaction whenever a cisgender person finds out that someone is transgender. The 1994 comedy “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,” starring Jim Carrey, is cited as an example of this derogatory stereotyping.

The 1975 bank robbery film “Dog Day Afternoon,” starring Al Pacino, is mentioned as a mixed bag for transgender representation. This dramatic movie is based on a true story of a man who held a bank hostage in New York City so that he could get the money to pay for gender confirmation surgery for his transgender female lover. The documentary points out that in real life, the transgender lover definitely presented herself as a woman in the way she looked, acted and dressed. But in the movie, the transgender lover was played by a very cisgender male-looking Chris Sarandon, who wasn’t even dressed as a woman in the movie.

Many people in “Disclosure” point to the Buffalo Bill character from the 1991 Oscar-winning film “The Silence of the Lambs” as an even more distasteful and offensive representation of a transgender person. The Buffalo Bill character is named as the embodiment of the worst negative stereotypes that movies have in portraying transgender women as homicidal people who act as vultures to femininity and hate cisgender women. It’s part of a shameful legacy of many transgender people being written in movies and TV shows as either criminals or tragic figures with medical problems. It’s also why so many transgender characters end up dying in these movies and TV shows.

But once again, “Disclosure” confuses “transgender” with “drag” when it goes off on a tangent to have people discuss movies like 1982’s “Victoria/Victoria,” 1983’s “Yentl” and  1985’s “Just One of the Guys”— each film had the main character doing drag, not being transgender. Although it’s interesting that some of the interviewees in this documentary were influenced by these films, the cross-dressing characters in those movies were cisgender, not transgender. As the saying goes about not causing confusion: “Don’t get it twisted.”

Many of the interviewees say that the TV industry has been more progressive than the movie industry, when it comes to representing transgender people, but there is still room for improvement. Christine Jorgensen (the first widely known transgender American woman to have a gender confirmation operation) is considered a pioneer for transgender representation in the U.S. media, since her transgender journey was a big story in TV news in the 1950s, and she was a frequent guest on TV talk shows and news programs for years afterward.

And the LGBTQ activism of transgender women Silvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson that began in the 1960s—although not as frequently covered on TV as the activism of their white cisgender male counterparts—is mentioned as highly important and underrated. Some of the interviewees in “Disclosure” say that bigotry within the LGBTQ community has a lot to do with why transgender activists are often held back and overlooked in their own community.

The Emmy-winning FX drama series “Pose” (about New York City’s drag/trans ballroom culture in the late ’80s/early ’90s) is cited by many people as the gold standard of all transgender TV shows, in terms of accurate representation. But “Pose” (which debuted in 2018) is an anomaly, since it’s the first and so far only scripted TV series to have a transgender-majority cast. “Pose” co-star Rodriguez says that the show has had a tremendous positive impact in how people view the transgender community.

Janet Mock, who is a “Pose” writer/director, is not interviewed in “Disclosure,” but she’s mentioned as an important trailblazer for transgender people who work behind the scenes in television. In 2019, Mock signed an exclusive first-look deal with Netflix to be the showrunner of TV programs, becoming the first transgender person to get this type of TV deal. “Disclosure” includes some archival clips of TV interviews that Mock has done.

Other TV shows that are mentioned as having positive representations of transgender people are Netflix’s 2013-2019 dramedy series “Orange Is the New Black” (which had Cox as one of its cast members); Amazon Prime Video’s 2014-2019 comedy series “Transparent”;  and the TLC reality show “I Am Jazz,” starring transgender female Jazz Jennings, who was 14 when the show premiered in 2015.

ABC’s 2007-2009 primetime TV soap opera “Dirty Sexy Money” had Cayne as the first openly transgender character in a U.S. primetime TV series, but she says that this milestone was marred when the decision was made to lower her voice octave in the show’s audio, to make her sound more “masculine.” Cayne says she was horrified when she saw the show’s premiere and found out that her voice was changed without her permission.

The documentary also points out that writers and producers are capable of evolving and improving representation of transgender people. “Pose” co-creator Ryan Murphy (an openly gay man) was also a showrunner of FX’s 2003-2009 drama series “Nip/Tuck,” which had a disturbing episode in 2004 that featured lead character Christian Troy (played by Julian McMahon) raping a transgender woman named Ava Moore (played by cisgender actress Famke Janssen) and finding out during the sexual assault that Ava is a post-operational transgender woman. In “Disclosure,” Cox gets emotional and teary-eyed when she remembers what it felt like to watch that “Nip/Tuck” rape episode.

The reason why Ava got the operation is also problematic: She previously lived life as a gay man, but got the operation to become a woman so that she could to try to get the love of a heterosexual man who wasn’t in love with her. It’s unlikely that Murphy would put that type of transgender storyline in any of his shows today.

“Disclosure” briefly mentions Caitlyn Jenner’s reality show “I Am Cait” and her coming-out journey on the reality show “Keeping Up With the Kardashians.” But the documentary also mentions that within the transgender community, Jenner is a controversial figure because she is an outspoken conservative Republican who supports political candidates who are against civil rights for the LGBTQ community.

TV talk shows are mentioned as being very important in showing transgender people on television. A transgender man named Reno, who was a guest on “The Jerry Springer Show” in 1998, is named as someone who was influential in particular to black transgender men, according to actor Vilson. “To see this image [of a black transgender man] on TV was really empowering,” Vilson says. “The Jerry Springer Show” was notorious for people revealing controversial “secrets” to their lovers, in the hopes of causing a fight on TV. On the show, Reno revealed to his girlfriend at the time that his true identity is being a transgender man.

Speaking of controversy, “Disclosure” seems to want distance itself from scandal-ridden actors who portrayed transgender people on screen. “Disclosure” doesn’t mention any of the sexual harassment allegations against award-winning “Transparent” star Jeffrey Tambor (a cisgender man who played a transgender woman on the show), who was accused of sexually harassing women who worked on the show. Tambor denied the allegations but left the show in 2017.

Transgender actress Lysette (one of Tambor’s accusers, who guest-starred on the show) and “Transparent” co-star Billings (who is also transgender) are interviewed in the documentary but don’t mention the allegations. Either they talked about the scandal and it was cut out from the film or they didn’t talk about it all all. We might never know.

Also not mentioned at all in the documentary: the 2005 dramatic feature film “Transamerica,” starring Felicity Huffman as a transgender woman. Huffman (a cisgender actress) got an Oscar nomination for her role in “Transamerica,” but the “Disclosure” filmmakers probably don’t want people to be reminded that Huffman is part of transgender film history, because Huffman became a convicted felon in 2019, after she pleaded guilty in the college admissions scandal.

And speaking of transgender women on screen, “Disclosure” also mentions that there is disproportionately more representation of transgender women in American movies and TV than there are of transgender men, even though the number of transgender women and transgender men in the United States are about the same. Unfortunately, most of these transgender female roles in movies and TV are portraying sex workers, murder victims, sexual-assault victims or people going through some kind of medical drama. Transgender actor Smith has this theory: “I think we don’t see as much representation of trans men as trans women because people don’t think of trans men as sensational.”

The documentary points out that people’s attitudes toward trans people have a lot to do with traditional stereotyping of masculinity and femininity. Anything that challenges those stereotypes is often laughed at or despised. In 2011, transgender man Bono (whose famous mother is Cher) was the first transgender contestant on ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars.” In “Disclosure,” he talks about how most people were accepting of him on the show, but there was still considerable backlash that he experienced from bigots.

Showtime’s 2004-2009 drama series “The L Word” was the first American primetime TV series to have a transgender male character as part of the show’s cast. The character Max Sweeney (played by nonbinary actor Daniela Sea) started out as a “butch” lesbian but then transitioned to living life as a transgender man. Max’s coming-out journey on the show highlighted the prejudices that cisgender people (straight and queer) can have toward transgender people, as Max found that some of his lesbian friends had a hard time accepting his identity as a transgender man.

Some people in “Disclosure” say that the lesbian team of writers and producers of “The L Word” did a disservice to the transgender community because the Max character was portrayed as confused, and the female characters’ bigotry against Max was acceptable. Transgender people say that if a transgender writer or producer had been part of the show at the time, Max would probably have been written as transgender from the start, since most transgender people are not confused about their identity but are often forced to hide it because of pressures from society.

“Disclosure” also mentions how gender roles and race can intersect when it comes to black men in comedy. Cox points out that many black male comedians dress up as women to emasculate themselves in a society that often demonizes the masculinity of black men. “Putting a black man in a dress, in some people’s minds, takes away the threat,” says Cox.

Although Cox says that the Geraldine character from “The Flip Wilson Show” had a big impact on her, as one of the first cross-dressing characters that she saw on TV, it’s an example of confusing “doing drag” with “being transgender.” A better example of an influential black transgender TV character mentioned by Cox is the Edie Stokes character on CBS’s 1975-1985 comedy series “The Jeffersons,” played by Veronica Redd (a cisgender actress) in a guest-starring role in 1978. Edie was a character who actually lived life as a transgender woman instead of just playing dress-up.

“Disclosure” also points out that transgender people are often at risk of being ridiculed in being represented on screen. Actress/writer Leigh says, “As a trans person, you have the most sensitive radar to tell if you’re laughing with us or laughing at us.” Media maker/writer Milan adds, “If I’m not laughing, is it a joke?”

Actress/writer Richards (who is known for her roles on the TV series “Better Things” and “Mrs. Fletcher”) says: “There is a one-word solution to almost all problems in trans media—’more.’ We just need more [representation].” But as many people point out in “Disclosure,” more representation should also mean better representation. And that should also include educating people better about what it means to be transgender, so that being transgender is not easily confused with people dressing up in drag.

Netflix premiered “Disclosure” on June 19, 2020.

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