Based on a Truly Gay Story 

Forty years ago this summer, two momentous events happened just 100 miles apart, but they might as well have been on different planets. Now the Brokeback Mountain filmmakers have adapted Elliot Tiber’s memoir, Taking Woodstock, and imbued Woodstock with the spirit of Stonewall in a controversial new film -- and it’s a comedy. 

BY David Colman

August 05 2009 12:00 AM ET

JAMES SCHMAUS X390 PAYAM) | ADVOCATE.COM
  

“I had
done six tragedies in a row,” Lee says. “The
last straw was Lust, Caution -- that took a lot of
out of me. For years I had been wanting to do
something more warmhearted, a comedy, and it just
happened that when I was promoting Lust, Caution in
San Francisco, Elliot Tiber was the next guest, and he
gave me this two-minute pitch and gave me the
book.”

The director
didn’t bite right away, though -- and he lost the
book. And when Tiber didn’t hear back from him,
he tracked down Schamus instead and won him over.

Tiber’s
tenaciousness is easy to imagine. Though he spent a good
deal of the past 40 years living alternately in New
York and Belgium with André Ernotte, a Belgian
playwright and director who died in 1999, Tiber, now
74, still comes across as both a born-in-Bensonhurst New
Yorker and a curious hybrid of Mae West and Mel
Brooks. His outsize life and personality jump off the
pages of his book as well, with tales of studying
painting with Hans Hofmann, S/M sex with Robert
Mapplethorpe, and an ambiguously amorous evening with
Marlon Brando, all cropping up before his story even
gets upstate. The book contains, as Schamus dryly
says, “enough for 20 movies.”

But Schamus and
Lee decided to focus only on the central thread,
dispensing with many of the most blatantly Jewish and gay
facets of Tiber’s story. (Imagine what the MPAA
would have done with a scene of Elliot, who is Jewish,
going home with Mapplethorpe from a leather bar to
find a mammoth Nazi banner hanging in the
photographer’s loft—and then still
staying the night.)

The story that
emerged is like that of Norman Bates with a happy ending:
Miserable, eccentric gay man with a crippling sexual
self-hatred is saddled with a domineering mother --
and her bankrupt hotel -- but still ends up saving the
day. The similarity to real life ends there. In 1969,
Tiber worked in New York City as a decorator and painter and
spent his weekends in White Lake, N.Y., in an effort
to keep his parents’ failing motel afloat with
various schemes -- a pool! An amateur theater troupe!
An annual music festival! All flopped. The motel was on the
verge of foreclosure in July, when Tiber happened to
read that an actual music festival had just lost its
permit in Wallkill, N.Y. So Tiber, who already had a
permit for festival he was planning, picked up the phone and
offered his help. That first phone call set off a chain of
occurrences: His neighbor’s farm became the
venue, and his parents’ motel was taken over
(and the mortgage cares erased) by the event’s
planners, who made it their headquarters. So too did
VW busloads of free spirits, who started arriving in
White Lake weeks before the festival’s kickoff. The
film is essentially a 1930s-style screwball comedy
about a drowning man who called for help -- and
Woodstock showed up.

“The
Elliot Tiber in the movie, played by Demetri, was something
I think I created with [Schamus],” Lee says,
explaining how Tiber’s campy persona was
transformed for the film version into what comedians call
the “straight man.” Not a hetero, mind
you, but an average guy the audience can identify with
as the madness of Woodstock mounts. “We love the idea
that our hero is a kind of everyman,” Schamus says.
“Can’t gay men be everymen too?”
Lee found a familiar character in the source material, one
with whom he is well-acquainted: the passionate but
ambivalent person forced by circumstance to make a
move or a stand or a choice he doesn’t want to,
like Bruce Banner filled with radioactive rage in
Hulk or the conflicted cowboy lovers in Brokeback
Mountain
.

Tags: Film

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