I’VE WRITTEN BEFORE about how wonderful it is when celebrities come out, allowing fans to be inspired, moved, and excited by their announcements. Beloved actors and singers wield tremendous influence, so taking those bold steps on such a massive stage can be a beacon of hope to legions of queer fans, some who might be young, lonely, and confused.
In recent months, there’s been an exciting new trend in the sphere of queer celebrity: Elderly stars coming out. Joel Grey recently became the first out Oscar-winning actor, and Barry Manilow made headlines when he married his longtime manager. The news might not be particularly surprising in either case (though it’s never fair to assume, as it risks reinforcing stereotypes), but it’s certainly exciting. For older generations, the time to come out is here.
The elderly queer community has had to face a life that we younger people cannot possibly understand. Sure, there’s still plenty of hate and intolerance out there, but the tides have changed and acceptance is on the rise. I’ve dealt with a rude comment here and there, but I’ve never been persecuted or attacked for who I am. For most older gay and transgender men and women that is probably not the case. Many of them had little choice but to stay in the closet in their younger days, and perhaps feel alienated in a community that fetishizes, even idolizes, ideals of youthful beauty. Recently, films like Beginners and Before You Know It have tackled what it is to be old and queer, warts and all.
This year has already yielded an impressive crop of queer films: I’ve loved the bisexual rom-com Appropriate Behavior, the bold transgender romance Boy Meets Girl, and the complex story of evolving love between a man and his youthful lover in Eastern Boys. But the best queer film I’ve seen this year, the one that touches on this growing movement of elderly people coming out, is Justin Weinstein and Tyler Measom’s An Honest Liar.
An Honest Liar isn’t immediately an obvious entry in the queer documentary canon. It chronicles the life and work of famed magician James Randi, whose career spanned decades and included appearances on The Tonight Show and Happy Days. As his career progressed and the world became increasingly fascinated with the supernatural and unexplainable, Randi changed gears. He became an exposer of frauds, explaining how various illusionists, psychics, and televangelists pulled off their seemingly magical feats. Magic, he insists, should entertain. Magicians should admit that they are tricking their audiences, rather than dupe them out of their money (and senses).
An Honest Liar is full of additional twists and turns – it’s almost a thriller – but by the end, it’s most affecting as a queer film. It’s a portrait of anxiety that gives way to love, despite whatever circumstances are in the way. It celebrates honesty and authenticity in a world that rarely recognizes it, that perhaps cannot handle it except in moderation. Most importantly it shows how love endures, edifies, and enriches lives. As a documentary, it’s rightfully packed with these sorts of personal yet universal truths, and one comes away better for having seen it.