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.
“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.
“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.”
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.