Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Book review: Portia de Rossi's memoir

I admit I was not expecting much from Portia de Rossi's new memoir, Unbearable Lightness. Her meticulously documented marriage to Ellen DeGeneres notwithstanding, I just did not have a good grasp of who Portia de Rossi was. I never watched Ally McBeal. I have seen only a few episodes of Arrested Development. Therefore, Portia was a vague figure to me. I could never quite conjure what she actually looked like.

But since reading Portia's affecting memoir—which chronicles her harrowing eating disorder, her shame over being a lesbian, and her frantic drive to prove she was special—I now have a distinct impression of this remarkable woman. This impression took time to develop, however. In the first chapters I was frustrated because Portia was a nebulous character in her own memoir. I did not have a sense of her as a physical person moving through the world—and because I did not come to the book with a clear image of her, she was an elusive presence in the pages. At one point she gave a rare summary of what she was wearing—the uniform of a social outcast, she said. "A vintage Iggy Pop T-shirt, faded black denim jeans, and a pair of perfectly worn black leather engineers' boots." I grew to understand that this hazy presentation of her physicality was likely the author's strategy. Portia de Rossi is clearly an intelligent person, and the writing is decent. Her use of the unreliable narrator device is effective as we experience life through her warped perspective. Her wispy presence is apt, not just because she is starving her body, but because—as a woman whose disorder spirals out of control as her career soars—she is hiding in plain sight.

I also admire that Portia is willing to give us the ugly details of what it means to binge and purge—memorably wiping vomit with her T-shirt after she forced herself to puke into a bag in her car. This is not glamorous stuff. As her disorder expands from bulimia to anorexia, she portrays self-starvation as tedious, disgusting, and frightening. Self-hating insanity. In fact, Portia modestly and, I think, responsibly, downplays her successful Hollywood career and instead concentrates on her personal hell. We clearly get the message that her obsession with her weight was a hindrance, not a help, to her career.

Another achievement of Unbearable Lightness is that we come away convinced that Portia is a good and kind person despite her self-centered obsession with the superficial throughout most of the book. She is loving toward her friends, discreet about her colleagues, and generous with those who contributed to her troubles. Her mother is no angel in this story, but Portia is apparently forgiving, as the evidence suggests Portia would have been within her rights to crucify her "Ma" in this book.

The comic skill that Portia brings to her acting surfaces from time to time in the memoir. In explaining why she changed her name from Amanda Rogers, she says she simply hated her birth name: "It was so ordinary, so perfectly average. It had 'a man' in it, which annoyed me because every time I'd hear someone refer to a man, I would turn my head, waiting for the 'duh.'"

Lastly, I was glad to read about Portia's journey toward coming out, as difficult as it was. Because she now is wed to Ellen, it's easy to forget the importance of her specific lesbian visibility. How many other conventionally beautiful and out Hollywood lesbians can you name?

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Jodie Foster's gay Thanksgiving

While you're home for the holidays this weekend, you might consider celebrating all that is dysfunctional about your family by watching Jodie Foster's second directorial effort, the hilarious Home for the Holidays. This film should be considered a classic holiday comedy alongside A Christmas Story. But we should also recognize its gay theme, which, in 1995, was far from common. Mind you, this was two years before Ellen came out and ten years before Brokeback Mountain. For all the impatience we have with Jodie for refusing to publicly acknowledge that she is a lesbian, we should at least appreciate the importance of Jodie Foster making a film in 1995 which addressed homophobia within the family dynamic and which featured a positive—if not triumphant—gay character. Robert Downey Jr. plays the gay brother who arrives for Thanksgiving unexpectedly in his muscle car and simultaneously connects and disrupts the household. Holly Hunter plays the weary protagonist who, while wearing a hideous borrowed pink winter coat, is trying to get through the weekend without falling to pieces. In a particularly funny scene, we get to see her in the shower: "I swear to God, Tommy, I am naked in here and I am too old..." I get the feeling that Home for the Holidays is Jodie's examination of what is likely a fascinating subject for her: Normal family life in America. Jodie has said many times in interviews that her experience as a child prodigy left her with the sense that she grew up as a freak (a theme examined in her directorial debut, Little Man Tate). And many of us queers can very much relate to the film's exploration of feeling like an outsider in our families of origin. Holly's character asks, "When you go home do you look around and wonder, 'Who are these people? Where do I even come from?'"

Friday, November 19, 2010

Acerbic, brilliant, dandy dyke

Did I ever tell you the story about running into Fran Lebowitz on the street in the West Village? It was on a corner not far from the basketball courts near the Waverly Theater. I don't remember exactly which street. It was a nice day. I was wearing a blue seersucker jacket, which I remember because I wondered if Fran, the dandy, liked my seersucker jacket. Anyway, as I was walking along with my girlfriend, I recognized Fran. (Facial recognition is my superpower.) I approached Fran with my hand extended for a handshake, saying, "Fran, it's so nice to see you out!" She looked at me like she was trying to gauge where I fell on the weirdo spectrum: dangerous lunatic or odd friendly person. Fran, if anything, is a streetwise New Yorker. Nonetheless, she shook my hand. Still with the suspicious look, but she was game, and I got a hint of a smile. Was it the seersucker? What on earth did I mean by "so nice to see you out"? In hindsight, it is a loaded choice of words, since Fran, whom everyone seems to know is a lesbian, has never officially come out, according to Michael Musto in the Village Voice. In any case, we can see a lot more of the brilliant Fran Lebowitz on Monday, Nov. 22, when Public Speaking, the Martin Scorsese-directed documentary about her view of the world, debuts on HBO. In the preview, Fran says she does not necessary promote public speaking, but rather, "As a general directive, I would really advise public listening."

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Royal swashbuckler

I admit, I am a sucker for a good story about the royals. The happy news of Prince William and lovely Kate Middleton this week got me thinking about Queen Christina, the Swedish cross-dressing lesbian who ruled Sweden in the 17th century. At birth, she was mistaken for a boy because she was covered in hair and cried in a strong, hoarse voice. She was consistently described as masculine, and she preferred men's clothes. Sound like anyone you know? She was also quite skilled as a horseman and at other traditionally male pursuits. Her father, King Gustavus Adolphus, was struck by his daughter's bright intelligence—which, in that era, was not considered a female attribute—and ordered that she be raised as a prince to become the future monarch. She never married. When she abdicated the throne in 1654, she shed her regalia, left the country, and rode as a man on horseback through Denmark. Don't you just love a swashbuckling dyke?

Greta Garbo, another queer Swede, played Queen Christina in the 1933 motion picture. The film did not accurately portray Christina's life—which was extraordinarily eventful—but did offer sexy tomboy Garbo kissing another woman on screen.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Sapphist Gazetteer worldwide community

I thought I'd let you, my beloved readers, know that when you read the Sapphist Gazetteer you are part of a community that spans the globe. Not to sound too lofty. But I'm always fascinated to check the stats of this site and find hits coming from all parts of the world. This week alone there are multiple readers in each of the following countries: France, Argentina, the UK, South Africa, Latvia, Malaysia, Brazil, Switzerland, and India. I'm also proud to say that I occasionally get hits from Iran, where, I imagine, lesbians have a great need to find community. Welcome, sisters!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Imagine Me and You in Tokyo

I know we all need a break after these crazy freaking elections. For your well deserved respite, I recommend watching Love My Life, a sweet Japanese film in the romantic tradition of Imagine Me and You or Loving Annabelle, if Loving Annabelle had had a happy ending, for the love of God. Love My Life was made in 2006, but had somehow escaped me. (Had anyone seen it? Why is it I don't hear about these things, hmm?) It is adorable and funny and has a strong story. And it's such a relief to listen to another language for a while. So different, and yet they play out their dyke drama in the street just like the rest of us.