‘The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin’ is essential viewing

Armistead Maupin at the San Francisco Chronicle. Contributed by KQED

I’m not a gay writer. I’m a writer who happens to be gay. 

That quote, from an archival interview in the 1970s, is one of the first things we hear from Armistead Maupin in Jennifer Kroot’s new documentary about his life. It’s almost hard to imagine now how incredibly shocking it was for a voice like his to be celebrated at the time his career took off.

Raised in a highly conservative family in North Carolina, Maupin rose to fame as a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. He somewhat controversially launched a serialized story called “Tales From The City” that was published by the newspaper starting in 1976. Determined to reflect the diversity of lives in the city, his characters and the situations that they found themselves in were not always exclusively heterosexual.

Blending fact and fiction, one of the installments of the series essentially served as Maupin’s own coming-out letter to his parents back home (who subscribed to the paper from afar). Kroot turns the spotlight on this piece, which Maupin himself considers to be one of his most essential, by having it read aloud in the movie by many of his friends interviewed on camera including Olympia Dukakis, Laura Linney, Jonathan Groff, Sir Ian McKellan and others.

Over the years, “Tales From The City” was turned into a series of well-received novels, and the first volume was adapted into a PBS miniseries in the early 1990s (starring Linney and Dukakis) and eventually was followed up with sequels that aired on Showtime.

The film is split into chapters but doesn’t adhere to a strict chronological timeline. It jumps around to different parts of his life story, from his time as a teenage Republican to losing friends and lovers during the AIDS crisis to when he met his now-husband Christopher on a website called “Daddy Hunt.”

Such candor is par for the course with Maupin, and I appreciate his willingness to lay it all out there for the sake of history. At one point, he refers to himself as a “big romantic with a slutty side.” Not long after, he’s detailing how some of his earliest sexual encounters were actually with Rock Hudson, including once when he had a threesome with Hudson and his partner in their hotel room. But of course, that’s just one small (although unquestionably notable and, as his puts it, “dreamy”) part of his life.

This is a man who wrote about much more than the gay experience. He worked hard to place his life into the larger context of the world. His writing was groundbreaking and inspired countless people to come out of the closet.

Heartwarming. Funny. Sad. Vital. This is essential gay history. I’m thankful that this film will help preserve it and turn new generations on to his work.

“The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin” screens again at 8:00 p.m. on Wednesday at the Alamo South Lamar.

 

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