Rating: (4 out of 5) Saturday, 10/18/2008, 9:00 PM Feature presentation, $10 at Goethe Institut Inter Nationes
THE WIZARD OF Oz led us all to believe that it’s best to pull back the curtain. It doesn’t matter that we’ll learn the Wizard is a fraud, the truth is always best. In general, it’s a good rule. But if you love the male mystique, be warned: Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon may be an unwelcome slap of reality.
Dubbing Jack Wrangler an ”icon,” arguably the man who in the 1970s cast the mold for every gay-porn superstar to follow, is no overstatement. This was the guy who tightly rolled his plaid sleeves to the middle of his tanned biceps, his tight blue jeans faded and bulging, and who swaggered into endless fantasies.
When he ditched gay porn to make a bigger name for himself in straight porn, that was odd — but mysterious. The reality is not so exciting, certainly not as mysterious. Possibly still odd, though.
Director Jeffrey Schwarz pulls back the curtain on Wrangler’s life and career — with Wrangler seemingly as enthused with dissecting himself as Schwarz is — and we see that Jack Wrangler is not sex.
This is not a story of pornography. It is not a story of a May-December relationship — though Wrangler’s wife, Margaret Whiting, is some 20 years his senior. It’s the story of an entertainer, a showman, a person who needs the spotlight, who relates best to the world when he is in the spotlight or creating something for public consumption. Wrangler, nee Stillman, was not the product of smoky, sling-filled backrooms, though he was likely no stranger to them. He was the product of growing up in Beverly Hills. Jack Wrangler is showbiz.
”It’s a character that was created,” Wrangler says during an interview in archival footage.
What we learn through the interviews Schwarz presents is that Wrangler is a Beverly Hills kid who had been performing from a young age, whether it was a church TV show, college-age plays, or today as a man who writes and directs theater. He married Whiting, a woman from the same Hollywood background, out of a genuine love that transcended age and sexual orientation. Their shared show-business roots and culture, Whiting coming from the same neighborhood as Wrangler and a famous singer herself, they were soul mates.
It’s all a little peculiar, but if you pull back the curtain on anyone’s life, there are bound to be peculiarities.
Schwarz interviews dozens of people, primarily Wrangler, to fill out the story. That’s where the documentary gets both its strength and a bit of a distraction. For the most part, Wrangler does what a good documentary does: It educates. Schwarz may show footage that illustrates how iconic Wrangler is. Interviews with Micheal Musto, Chi Chi La Rue, Bruce Vilanch or so many others give context. Some of the interviews, however, beg for more exploration. When Sharon Mitchell, another porn actress, slams the response of the straight porn industry to its gay counterpart at the advent of AIDS, for example, we want to know more. We don’t get it.
It’s a tiny criticism. It’s among the bits too provocative for Schwarz to delete, but a director can’t follow every side street if he’s going to get to the end. It’s a straightforward film, light on artistry, heavy on information. No one will be blown away by the depth of emotion or soul-quaking cinematography — and definitely not by Wrangler’s ”smoggy city” song. But anyone who sees Wrangler will undoubtedly have a greater understanding of gay identity, the porn industry and a life lived on the stage.
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