Based on a Truly Gay Story 

By David Colman

Originally published on Advocate.com August 05 2009 12:00 AM ET

In 1969 a
pamphlet called the “Gay Scene Guide” bluntly
warned visitors of a potential hazard of looking for
love in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village.
“Do not confuse the ‘hippy set’ with
the ‘gay set,’ ” it warned.
“There are many hippies in this area, who while they
may dress in a ‘gay’ fashion, are
actually quite opposed to any gay advances.”

That spring
Elliot Tiber needed no such warning. Though the
then–34-year-old decorator was a Greenwich Village
habitué, he had almost no interaction with or
interest in hippies -- their values, their clothes,
their music. The only fragment of culture shared by the two
factions was, he recalls, “maybe a Janis Joplin song
on a jukebox in a gay bar.”

Then summer
rolled around. Its first real weekend began innocently
enough with drinks at the Stonewall Inn, his favorite
Christopher Street bar, he says. But when the police
showed up for a routine raid, Tiber says, he and the
other patrons started to rebel, sparking a riot that brought
hundreds of young gay men into Sheridan Square, throwing
bottles and overturning police cars. The night changed
his life forever.

By contrast, the
other happening that summer that Tiber also helped bring
to life -- the three-day congregation of hippiedom known as
Woodstock -- seemed to change the world before it even
began. The panicked weeks and mounting insanity
leading up to the concert, during which Tiber --
through a series of stranger-than-fiction circumstances --
came to the festival’s rescue by offering a
last-minute venue and permit, were the subject of his
charming if scattered 2007 memoir, Taking Woodstock.
Now, with a script by Focus Features CEO James
Schamus, the tale has been adapted into an intriguing
new film of the same name directed by Ang Lee. Cutting out
Stonewall and Tiber’s gay city life but
reframing the hippie free-love credo to include gays,
the film melds the spirit of the two disparate events into
one moving tale. Starring breakout comic actor and
writer Demetri Martin as Tiber, the film opens August
28.

The film
completes a kind of gay trilogy for Lee and Schamus, both of
whom, incidentally, are happily married to women. Lee
directed The Wedding Banquet and Brokeback
Mountain
; Schamus’s Focus Features produced
Brokeback and Milk. But it wasn’t the
memoir’s gay main character that first drew Lee
to the project, it was Tiber himself, whom Lee first
encountered on an early-morning news show.

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“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
.

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“Americans
like heroes,” he says. “Americans like people
who take sides. That’s not so true for me. I
identify with these characters trying to keep an
absolute balance, who tolerate a lot to keep things safe and
all right. These characters cannot make decisions.
They’re unable to offend anyone. That’s
their charm and their weakness.”

The idea of the
music festival as a comedic and miraculous deus ex
machina appealed to Lee, who had first started seriously
researching Woodstock and the culture that sparked it
when he made his 1997 film The Ice Storm, which, set
among jaded liberals in a Connecticut suburb in 1973,
he came to think of as “kind of a hangover from
1969.”

But reading about
Tiber’s experience made him want to explore the
idealism that the event represented. In the summer of 1969,
Lee was 14 and living in the highly repressive culture
of Taiwan. He recalls kids with long hair being forced
off the street to have it shorn. In this world Lee was
only dimly aware of hippies and Woodstock, but he had his
own growing feelings of being trapped inside and outside of
tradition. These feelings only intensified when he
decided to be a filmmaker, which won him no approval
from his scholarly family. ”It was kind of a
disgrace,” he says. The unfairness and hypocrisy of
the system were what he took square aim at with his
early comedy The Wedding Banquet.

Now, having
re-created the festival (on a limited budget and with the
help of computer animation that turned 6,000 extras into
500,000), Lee says he still feels the infectious
hippie optimism, even more than before he started the
film. “They planted the seeds for many good things
and pointed out a lot of issues that we take more
seriously today,” he says. “The fact
that half a million people were there and there was no
violence is amazing. Something like that will probably
never happen again. The idea that the world can be
changed overnight, that’s the naive part. But
the heart and the intention that held it together was quite
incredible.”

KELLI GARNER, DEMETRI MARTIN, PAUL DANO TAKING WOODSTOCK X390 (KEN REGAN) | ADVOCATE.COM
   

Still, for all of
the festival’s good points, and for its coincidental
timing with the Stonewall rebellion, Lee says he’s
aware that the demographics and values of
Woodstock’s attendees had very little overlap
with those of the gay rights movement. Only this year, in
the revival of the 1967 free-love Broadway hit
Hair, has the character of Woof been rewritten
to be clearly gay. And only recently did the
musical’s cocreator James Rado reveal that he
and his writing partner for the show, Gerome Ragni,
were lovers in the 1960s.

Over breakfast in
a posh West Village café the morning after Gay Pride,
Tiber recalls that when the film was completed, Lee and
Schamus organized a screening for him. Schamus and Lee
waited outside the screening room for Tiber, and after
he exited with his face wet with tears, they asked,
“Don’t you like it?” Tiber remembers.
“I said, ‘Are you kidding? It’s so
beautiful and so moving and so touching.’
That’s when they told me that they were
grateful to tell this story of this gay man with all these
problems who not only survived but came out on top and
changed the world.’”

At the end of the
film, Elliot, played with wonderful restraint and
subdued eccentricity by Martin, bids adieu to his parents
and heads off to San Francisco, the land of Harvey
Milk and the future of the gay rights movement. In
real life Tiber bought a Cadillac and moved to Los
Angeles to get a job in the movies. The film’s
rendering of him is certainly less flamboyant than the
true-life man. Sure, the truth is more real -- it
always is. Though the anger of Stonewall and its bricks and
bottles are not in the film, its spirit of liberation is
very much felt. As if answering a call, the anarchic
joy of Woodstock swoops down to bestow a kiss on a
lonely gay frog prince, and it sets him free. However
you slice it, it’s an awfully nice fairy tale.