By Caryn James | James on Screens May 11, 2011 at 6:58AM
Becoming Chaz, which follows Chastity Bono though hormone therapy and the surgical removal of her breasts until she physically and legally becomes a man named Chaz, is a remarkably intimate, unsentimental view of that transition.
Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s film, the first in the ambitious series called the Documentary Club on Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network, premiered last night (and will be repeated several times). And it would have been even more eye-opening if I hadn’t seen so much of it and heard so much from Chaz on The Oprah Winfrey Show the day before. You might also have caught him on Nightline or Good Morning America; it’s possible to promote something so much you undercut the main event.
If you haven’t caught the publicity blitz, though, Becoming Chaz is fascinating, if overlong. Early on, we see two-year-old Chastity trotted lovingly out on her parents, Sonny and Cher’s, TV show, her face unmistakable as Chaz’s today. He tells his story compellingly, at times talking directly to the camera in set-piece interviews, more often letting cameras follow him around. He explains how he always felt uncomfortable in his own body, and hated his breasts because they seemed alien.
His is also a story of fame and media. As the child of celebrities, their careers always got more attention than he did. And as he said in his Oprah interview, he was living as a lesbian when he saw Boys Don’t Cry and began to gain a greater awareness of his true gender identity – proof of how life-changing and personal a film can be.
He has also said that people find his girlfriend, Jen, with him all the way through on screen, as the way into the film. They were in a relationship before his change, and still are. Frankly, I find her baffling. For most of us the guide will be the person we know best, Cher, who had a hard time understanding Chaz’s transition but never wavered in her love even when she was flummoxed by whether to call her child he or she. It’s touching when she describes hearing Chaz’s old voice on an answering machine, the daughter’s voice she’ll never hear again. And when she says that she loves being a woman so much that if she woke up in a man’s body she’d run to the doctor, that , as Oprah might put it, is the film’s “Aha” moment.
At the Sundance Film Festival, when Oprah announced the Doc Club, she said she hoped to do for documentaries what her book club did for books. There’s a huge difference, though: Oprah herself doesn’t introduce or do the post-film discussions on the struggling OWN. That job went to Rosie O’Donnell, who did her first post-show Q&A with Chaz, Jen and the filmmakers, with questions from the audience and phone callers.
Where Becoming Chaz and Chaz himself come across as honest and unsentimental, O’Donnell is perpetually upbeat. That puts her firmly in the weird Oprah comfort zone that mixes artistic ambition with the all-purpose inspirational agenda that can undermine and soften art. O’Donnell did ask why Chaz borrowed money from friends for his surgery rather than from Cher; when he said he knew it was hard for her and he didn’t want to put her in that position, O’Donnell’s spin was he was taking care of his mother. Oh, please. Oprah is a far better interviewer, but even she didn’t ask about Chaz’ conspicuous bulk: is his extra weight a side effect of hormones? Whatever, it looks unhealthy.
As the doc series moves ahead, its selections may not be as high profile, which means they need a boost even more. In June there will be Sons of Perdition, a terrific film I saw at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival about boys who have escaped from polygamist Mormon compounds. (No cheery Big Love or Sister Wives scenarios there.) July brings the first doc made especially for OWN, Serving Life, narrated and executive produced by Forest Whitaker, about a hospice program in a maximum security prison. With or without O’Donnell chirping, they’re definitely films to see.