The literature of growing up with a closeted gay dad is not exactly extensive. A few years ago, when Alison Bechdel was in town to talk about her graphic novel Fun Home, I waited in a long line to speak with her.
"My dad was secretly gay too!" I said.
"How was that for you?" she asked, barely suppressing a yawn. I had the sinking sensation that she'd heard it before, from a few hundred other children of closeted parents who were desperate to share a rare moment of literary bonding.
It's not surprising that these stories remain largely in the shadows. Ours are not the affirming, heart-warming "I love my gay dads" stories of the gayby boom. Rather, as Mike Mills' recent film Beginners captures so brilliantly, our stories are complex tales of generations affected by the closet, even after the triumphant moment of coming out.
Beginners weaves two intertwined stories that intersect in the experience of the main character, Oliver (Ewan MacGregor). In one plotline, Oliver's father, Hal (Christopher Plummer) buries his wife, comes out at age 75, and then learns that he has terminal cancer. In the other plotline, Oliver grieves his father, meets a mysterious actress named Anna (Mélanie Laurent), and attempts to build a relationship.
Writer and director Mike Mills conjures the sweet, awkward moments of an older parent's coming out. When Hal calls Oliver in the middle of the night to ask the name of the "wonderfully loud" music that he's just heard at a gay bar, I was reminded of the time that my own father called me from a payphone at 2 am.
"I'm in the Castro!" he shouted, jubilantly. "And I just saw Marky Mark!"
But while I loved the funny, tender moments in Beginners, I was even more compelled by the film's depiction of the emotional ripple effects of the closet. As probably any child of a formerly closeted parent will tell you, the habits of the hiding one's true self do not magically dissipate the moment that someone comes out. In Beginners, Hal can't bring himself to tell his new boyfriend (played by Goran Visnjic from ER) that he is dying. He puts his son in the awkward position of playing along with the fiction that his father will recover.
Themes of artifice and authenticity are highlighted by the fact that Oliver's love interest, Anna, is an actress whom he meets at a Halloween costume party. As their relationship progresses, Oliver struggles to be trusting and emotionally open with a woman who seems to have her own dark secrets. (Ultimately, Anna remains too much of a cipher to become a completely compelling character. Although I loved watching the beautiful Mélanie Laurent light up the screen, I sometimes felt myself longing for the moment when the film would return to the father-son plot.)
Beginners probes the family culture of the closet through flashbacks from Oliver's childhood. Oliver's mother (Mary Page Keller) prompts young Oliver to practice dramatic pantomimes in the way that other kids practice multiplication tables or spelling words. In several scenes from the parents' marriage, the film invites us to ruminate on the emotional maze of their relationship. As in Fun Home (and Richard Rodriguez's "Late Victorians," another classic text of the closet), architecture functions as a metaphor in these sequences, which are often shot in layered corridors and doorways.
In the end, the thing that I loved the most about Beginners was Oliver's obsession with the past, with context and history and documents. The flashbacks and montages of still photos reminded me of countless conversations with my sister, the two of us pouring over snapshots and recollected fragments, trying to put together the puzzle of a childhood with a secret at its center.
Excerpt from Fun Home courtesy of Wikipedia. Copyright Alison Bechdel 2006.