Coinciding with the publication of “Logical Family,” a memoir by the San Francisco-based author best known for “Tales of the City,” is Jennifer M. Kroot’s adulatory documentary “The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin.” The film offers extended interviews with the author as well as his celebrity friends, including Laura Linney and Olympia Dukakis — both of whom starred in the PBS and later Showtime miniseries of “Tales”—as well as gay actor Ian McKellen. Writers Neil Gaiman and Amy Tan, among others, praise the “quirkiness” and “honesty” of the author’s writing.
Maupin himself guides viewers through key moments in his early life. He grew up as part of the Southern aristocracy, trying, mostly in vain, to please his conservative father. He was a teenage Republican, and even worked at one time for Jesse Helms at a North Carolina TV station. (The future senator would speak out publically against PBS’ airing of Maupin’s “Tales of the City,” complaining that government funds were being used to promote homosexuality, nudity, drugs, and other threats to family values). Maupin also once shook hands with President Richard Nixon.
These stories, which include Maupin’s description of not losing his virginity until age 25, may be familiar — rather than untold — in the estimation of anyone who has read interviews with the author over the years or even glanced at his Wikipedia page. Still, they flow from the author’s mouth with ease and will hold viewers in rapt attention. Kroot knows it is best to simply turn the camera on Maupin and let him speak because he is such an engaging raconteur. The filmmaker sometimes includes images from the “Tales of the City” miniseries, photos from Maupin’s life, and archival clips of San Francisco in the 1970s to break up the talking heads, edits that neither enhance nor detract from the narrative.
Maupin explains — for anyone who doesn’t know—how he came to write “Tales of the City,” as a serial in what was then the staid San Francisco Chronicle. Many fans of the books or the miniseries might well wish they could have read the “Tales” as they originally appeared in print and hung on every word and every break in the action. Maupin describes creating Mary Ann Singleton, Michael “Mouse” Tolliver, and the mysterious Anna Madrigal, and the challenges the gay and transgender characters posed to the Chronicle editors and readers. One of the film’s highlights has Maupin’s reading some of the newspaper’s letters to the editor responding to his work.
But “The Untold Stories of Armistead Maupin” is also about how Maupin became comfortable in his own skin. He describes his struggles with the demands of masculinity growing up. He eventually accepted his sexuality and came out when he moved to San Francisco. He talks about his relationships with his friends and partners, and eventually meeting his husband, Chris Turner on DaddyHunt. Maupin is candid about his personal life — his previous partner ,Terry Anderson, was HIV-positive, and Maupin and Turner have an open relationship — but there is not much personal dirt, though perhaps some of the ugliness in the story of his father or a family suicide should be counted.
Kroot separately delves into some controversies surrounding Maupin, such as his famous outing of Rock Hudson, after the actor had been hospitalized in France for an AIDS-related illness. Maupin’s recollection earlier in the film of a fumbling pass (or two) Hudson made is somewhat unsatisfying, given the lack of juicy — and, come on, necessary — details. McKellen counters any scandal viewers might attach to Hudson’s outing by recounting how Maupin and his then-partner Anderson encouraged the British actor to come out publically in 1988.
Kroot shies away from being be too critical of her subject, emphasizing the joy Maupin’s work brought to his fans and the positive LGBTQ role models the “Tales” offered in a popular culture that still rarely portrayed gay people in a positive light. When Maupin explains that his goal was to “put his life in the context of the rest of the world,” where gay and straight people can co-exist, it is poignant and affecting.
While the film briefly mentions Maupin’s other novels, “Maybe the Moon,” and “The Night Listener,” the focus here is on “Tales.” Kroot builds to a dramatic crescendo with Maupin and other interviewees reading aloud sections from Michael Tolliver’s coming out letter in the Chronicle, which doubled as the author’s coming out letter to his family. It is a terrific, emotional, and inspirational letter, especially when Maupin describes the response it receives from his parents.
“The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin” showcases the author’s talents as a writer. Clearly aimed at enchanting his fans — which it will — the film also serves as a 90-minute advertisement for “Logical Family,” should anyone want to know what Armistead Maupin has left to tell.
Armistead Maupin will attend the film’s screenings on October 1.
UNTOLD TALES OF ARMISTEAD MAUPIN | Directed by Jennifer M. Kroot | The Film Collaborative | Opens Sep. 29 | Metrograph | 13 Ludlow St., btwn. Hester & Canal Sts. | metrograph.com