In a time when the political administration is threatening to erase LGBTQ people, documentaries dedicated to preserving our stories are more important than ever. This year featured many such productions — one chronicled the hidden queer history of Hollywood, another took aim at ongoing stigma in the sports world, while others celebrated figures like Alexander McQueen, Whitney Houston, and more. See below for the year's most stellar documentaries.
It's no surprise to most of us that the stars of old Hollywood were not universally heterosexual, but still there are some amazing stories in Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood, Matt Tyrnauer's documentary about Scotty Bowers, who arranged liaisons for many of Tinsel Town's biggest names from the 1940s on. Bowers, now in his 90s, operated from a gas station on Hollywood Boulevard. He claims to have fixed Katharine Hepburn up with 150 women, and that her supposed love affair with Spencer Tracy was a cover for the gay tendencies of both. He also talks about arranging a tryst between Cary Grant and Rock Hudson, sending tricks to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and his own sexual adventures with both men and women — he tells of having a three-way with Ava Gardner and Lana Turner, and about assignations with other big stars (Bette Davis, Vivien Leigh) and government bigwigs (J. Edgar Hoover). “You know me. I’m up for anything … anytime,” Bowers says in the film.
Jeff Kaufman directs this documentary about the life and career of playwright Terrence McNally that is absolute catnip to theater devotees. With McNally as the central interview subject, the film charts his beginnings as a gay boy growing up in homophobic Corpus Christi, Texas, to his move to New York City and his increasing success in the theater world amid the LGBTQ civil rights movement and the AIDS epidemic. The film is peppered with archival footage of some of McNally’s greatest work such as Master Class and Love, Valour, Compassion! The film features interviews with acting greats including F. Murray Abraham, Christine Baranski, Rita Moreno, Nathan Lane, Tyne Daly, Angela Lansbury, and the list goes on and on.
Last year, The Advocate chose a documentary about Whitney Houston, Whitney: Can I Be Me?, to be on our list of the year's top documentaries. The film was a revelation because it explored the singer's bisexuality and her relationship with her childhood friend and one-time manager, Robyn Crawford. This year, another doc, Whitney, was released. Created in collaboration with the Houston estate, it makes for a fascinating companion to the Showtime documentary, since it offers never-before-seen photographs, archival materials, and interviews with the singer's family members and close friends. This new film focuses less on Houston's sexuality and more on the circumstances that led to the decline and demise of one of the music world's brightest stars. As America struggles with a crisis to drug addiction, Houston's story of addiction and what enabled it is not only heartbreaking but necessary to see.
This documentary on the gay British fashion designer Alexander McQueen, who died by suicide in 2010, explores the cost of creativity and brilliance. "I was sure of myself and my sexuality and I've got nothing to hide. I went straight from my mother's womb onto the gay parade," McQueen once said, and this film is a peek under the hood into how hard the traffic was to navigate. His story is told through exclusive interviews with those closest to the designer, recovered archives, and of course, stunning fashion.
One of the original badasses of Rock-n-Roll, the documentary based on Joan Jett’s killer song “Bad Reputation,”from director Kevin Kerslake, offers access to the legend herself as she regales the audience with stories about her early days in the business when chick rockers were met with hostility and violence. The film weaves together vintage concert footage from Jett’s early days with The Runaways with talking head interviews with the likes of Jett, Iggy Pop, Kathleen Hanna, Billie Joe Armstrong, Kristen Stewart (who played Jett in 2010’s The Runaways), Laura Jane Grace and many more. While Jett has never been one to proclaim her sexual identity in the form of labels, her queerness is inscribed in the story from start to finish.
Fashion icon André Leon Talley is just the kind of towering figure who deserves his own documentary. Filmmaker Kate Novack charts his life beginning with his relationships with his beloved grandmother and with the black church as a child. It goes on to highlight his career as a fashion guru at publications including Women’s Wear Daily, W, and Vogue. The film features commentary from such luminaries as Anna Wintour, Tamron Hall, Tom Ford, Marc Jacobs, Diane von Furstenberg, Whoopi Goldberg, Valentino, Manolo Blahnik, Maureen Dowd, Fran Lebowitz, Eboni Marshall Turman, and Will.i.am.
Director Jamal Sims trains his lens on one of the largest groups to participate in "bucking," a form of dance that was cultivated by queer people and people of color in the Deep South. The film shows how the passion for bucking, the Southern equivalent of New York ballroom scene, leads many of the Atlanta group's members to risk jobs and personal lives for the sake of the art form they love. Teeming with drama, history, and energetic dance numbers, When The Beat Drops is a must-see.
In Making Montgomery Clift, the actor’s nephew attempts to reframe the narrative the Hollywood press had shaped for him throughout his lifetime. Often portrayed as brooding, depressive, and tortured by his attraction to men and women, Robert Clift and his wife Hillary Demmon shine a light on Clift as someone who indeed had a lust for life. A mega-movie star from the ‘40s – ‘60s, Clift is known for his roles in The Misfits, A Place in the Sun, Red River, and Suddenly, Last Summer. He’s also known for his abiding, life-long friendship with Elizabeth Taylor. Through archival footage and talking head interviews, the filmmakers dispel some of the rumors about the Hollywood matinee idol.
British Olympian John Curry melded classical dance with athleticism, forever altering men's figure skating. His particular brand of artistry was on full display on the world stage in 1976 when he became the world champion and the Olympic gold medal winner at the Games in Innsbruck, Austria. But as director James Erskine’s documentary about the champion examines, his win at the Olympics was overshadowed by the press’s obsession with his sexuality. And he was outed by the German press. Curry, who grew up in Birmingham, England with a brutal father, was tormented for being gay and carried that with him. The documentary celebrates the life of the singular athlete/performer who captivated the world and also chronicles his eventual HIV/AIDS diagnosis and death at 44 from complications from AIDS.
Directed by T Cooper and produced by Téa Leoni, star of Madam Secretary, Man Made is a documentary that follows the participants of TransFitCon, the world’s only transgender bodybuilding competition. The focus of Man Made is certainly bodybuilding and self-transformation as a whole, but more than that, it looks at how trans people evolve just as others do — and how all our lives undergo natural metamorphoses. “The lives you see unfurling before you on the way to the bodybuilding competition, to me, are quite universal to the human experience,” Cooper told The Advocate.
Natalie Metzger and Michael Rohrbaugh codirected and David McFarland produced Alone in the Game, a documentary that examines how a “culture of exclusion, bigotry and discrimination” continues to permeate sports at high school, collegiate and professional levels. The film interviews out figures like Gus Kenworthy, Michael Sam, Robbie Rogers, and Megan Rapinoe for their experiences encountering stigma. Portraits are hopeful, such as the case Trevor Betts, a transgender high school wrestler accepted by his peers; and heartbreaking, like the experience of Riley Tindol, a gay Division I football player who attempted suicide. There is not a single out player in all of major sports; and Alone in the Game, which premiered this year on the AT&T Audience Network, is a necessary production asking why.