This week, LGBT filmgoers in D.C. will have the chance to see two indie movies about two very different men named George.
The first is “To Be Takei,” a documentary about the omnipresent George Takei. In a rather scatter-shot manner, filmmaker Jennifer Kroot chronicles the turbulent life of the actor turned activist. It will be screened Tuesday and Thursday at the AFI Silver in Silver Spring.
The pieces of the life are fascinating. As a child during World War II, Takei and his family were held in an internment camp for Japanese Americans. As an adult, Takei starred in the musical “Allegiance” inspired by his experience. As a fledgling actor, Takei was often typecast in stereotypical Asian roles. That changed when he was cast as Hikaru Sulu in the classic “Star Trek” series and became a hero to a new generation of Asian-American actors. But, on the advice of his agent, he followed up his iconic role with a demeaning appearance in the Jerry Lewis farce “On the Way to the Front.”
Also on the advice of his agent, he stayed silent about the true nature of his relationship with his “business partner,” Brad Altman. Takei came out of the closet in 2005 after then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed same-sex marriage legislation. He and Altman were finally married in 2008. Today they travel the country speaking about internment camps, advocating for marriage equality, attending “Star Trek” conventions (an autograph costs $35, plus $5 for the photograph) and managing Takei’s Internet stardom (he has 7 million followers on Facebook).
It’s been a fascinating life for the 77 year-old Takei, but the impact of the film as a whole is far less than the sum of its parts. The film jumps from moment to moment in no particular order and with little momentum. There are delightful testimonials from contemporary queer activists (including actor B.D. Wong and advice guru Dan Savage) and Takei’s “Star Trek” colleagues (the gracious Michelle Nichols, the bemused Leonard Nimoy and the befuddled William Shatner), but unfortunately a clear portrait of the sometimes prickly artist and activist never emerges.
The other George is played by Alfred Molina in “Love Is Strange,” which opens today at Landmark Cinemas E Street and Bethesda Row with other regional screenings scheduled as well. Directed by Ira Sachs and co-written by Sachs and Maurice Zacharias, the movie also stars John Lithgow as George’s long-time partner Ben, a retired painter. The plot, such as it is, is set into motion when George and Ben decide to get married. George is summarily fired from his job as a music teacher at a Catholic high school and the two men are forced to sell their apartment. Unable to find a new apartment in their price range, they seek refuge with friends and family.Ben moves in with his nephew Eliot and his novelist wife Kate (Marisa Tomei) and their teenage son, Joey (Charlie Tahan). George moves in with the gay couple downstairs, two cops whose odd social life mixes games of Dungeons & Dragons with all-night multi-ethnic dance parties.
The film features some outstanding performances. Lithgow and Molina brilliantly capture the quirks and creative passions of two talented artists and the love that has kept them together for 39 years. Their stolen moments together (especially their date at a historic gay bar and the night they spend together in the bunk bed George usually shares with his great-nephew Joey) are tender, amusing and deeply moving. Tomei is dynamite as a writer desperately trying to juggle the demands of her new book and her newly expanded family. Tahan turns in a powerful performance as a decent but troubled kid trying to do the right thing in a difficult situation.
Unfortunately, the rest of the cast are wasted in underwritten roles, especially Harriet Harris as a supportive friend who vanishes from the film after the opening scenes, and all of the performances get lost in an implausible plot (especially George’s failure to anticipate his firing and the decision not to stay with Ben’s niece who has room to spare in her Poughkeepsie home). Lithgow and Molina’s richly nuanced performances are well worth seeing, but it’s a shame the overall film is so flimsy.