Not long after filmmaker Mike Mills’s mother died, his father, Paul, came out of the closet. He was 75.
“He didn’t think this was going to happen,” recalls the son. “He said, ‘I had to tell you all because I was afraid I was going to tackle the UPS man if I didn’t do something.’ It came from within. He had self-denied for so many years.”
And it came with a vengeance. “He ate the peach right away,” marvels Mills. “My mom had just died — I was in that mode. The last thing I expected was for him to have this revolution and to want to have sex so bad. It was the most punk, admirable, intense thing my dad had done in my life.”
When the elder Mills died of cancer a week before his 80th birthday, Mike, who’s straight but not narrow (he helped out friends in queer activist groups ACT UP and Gran Fury back in art school in the late ’80s), sat down and wrote a script fictionalizing his life, all while his late father’s Jack Russell terrier sat on the floor and stared up at him.
Imagined conversations with a Jack Russell are among the quirkier aspects of Mills’s movie Beginners. Soulful, raw and elegant, the film is a nonlinear account of a young man’s (Ewan McGregor) struggle with loss, memory, and love in the wake of his father’s (Christopher Plummer) coming-out and death.
Though Beginners is one man’s poignant story — and is actually more about the son than his dad — the movie opens a knowing window into a world rarely acknowledged on film, let alone in the gay scene: the life of a man who comes out in his declining years.
“I was trapped in a world I didn’t know how to get out of,” says “Murray Rapp,” an 85-year-old Los Angeles man who had some of the same experiences as Plummer’s character. Rapp divorced his wife of 26 years and came out of the closet in his 50s. Though he is out to the important people in his life, he asked that his real name not be published, out of respect for his ex-wife. “When you share children you never totally walk away from your ex. I feel that I cheated her in many ways,” he says. “Because I did not, could not be who I really am, I was an incomplete person who only let others see what I thought [they wanted to see]. It was a rather lonely life.”
Rapp’s growing awareness of dissatisfaction with his life led his wife to initiate a divorce. In the case of Mills’s parents, his father was unable to face his true self until his wife passed away. “Part of it was weirdly inspired by my mom,” says Mills. “When someone near you passes away, you are vividly aware of the shortness of your time on earth, and not in an intellectual way, but in a real in-the-gut way. I think that her death scared him and made him very aware of his fragility — if he does want to do this, he needs to do it now.”
“He was a fairly stodgy straight guy for so long,” Mills says, “and then all of a sudden [he was learning] the ways of the gay world at 75 and having all these crushes on, like, 40-year-old guys who don’t really want to reciprocate. It was amazing to watch.”
Finally, both Rapp and the elder Mills were able to pursue the lives they wanted, with limits. Rapp is active in Project Rainbow, a local social group for gay and lesbian senior citizens. Mills’s dad became a part of the gay community by getting involved with Prime Timers where he lived, in Santa Barbara, Calif. Rapp sees his daughter and grandchild once a week, but, he says of himself and his ex-wife, “Being good Iowa natives, we do not discuss [our] sexuality. We are prudish.”
In contrast, the sexual liberation of Mills’s father had a distinct impact on his relationship with his son. “Up until he died, my new gay dad was very interested in my straight romantic life,” says Mills, who was single at the time but has since married. “Like, ‘What are you doing, Michael? You should be with somebody.’ We’d talk about sex, erections — all the things dads and sons don’t usually talk about, especially when the dad’s between 75 and 80. He got way more in my business, which was problematic but great.”
Mills is deeply grateful for that time, and it shows in his film. “I’ll take the messy, crazy gay dad over the polite straight dad in the end,” he says.