Everyone knows of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City but maybe not so much about the man who created the wacky characters and wonderful stories that make up the series of novels based in San Francisco in the late Seventies and early Eighties. Now a new film, The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin, examines the life and work of one of the world’s most beloved storytellers, following his evolution from a conservative son of the Old South into a gay rights pioneer whose novels have inspired millions to claim their own truth. Jennifer Kroot’s entertaining documentary about the creator of Tales of the City moves nimbly between playful and poignant and laugh-out-loud funny.
Maupin offers a disarmingly frank look at the journey that took him from the jungles of Vietnam to the bathhouses of San Francisco to the frontline of the culture war in Reagenite America. Anecdotes from some of Maupin’s friends, including Laura Linney, Olympia Dukakis, Sir Ian McKellen and Amy Tan, as well as from his sister, offer some interesting insights on the author.
Maupin was born in Washington, D.C. in 1944 but grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina. After graduating from the University of North Carolina, he served as a naval officer in the Mediterranean and with the River Patrol Force in Vietnam. Enlisting was his way of keeping the lid on his sexuality His mother had told him that he had a Lawrence of Arabia complex. His first job was working for ultra- conservative and notorious homophobe Jesse Helms, which delighted Maupin’s father. As it turned out, in the Eighties in the height of the AID crisis, Helms and Maupin became each other’s nemesis. Maupin then worked as a reporter for a newspaper in Charleston, South Carolina, before he was assigned to the San Francisco bureau of the Associated Press in 1971. As a gay man, he was in the right place at the right time.
San Francisco was the contra-cultural hub on the United States at the time; gays, hippies, artists, writers, musicians all gravitated there. Here he undertook what he calls his Bathhouse Baptism. In 1976, he began writing his ground-breaking Tales of the City serial in the San Francisco Chronicle, and his world and ours were never again the same. Maupin became one of the first gay writers to attain crossover status, authoring nine novels, including the six-volume Tales of the City series, as well as a memoir, Logical Family. In the film, Maupin expounds on how gay people often have to leave behind their biological family to find their logical family, the ones created in order to survive.
Tales of the City was really the first time queer people could see their lives portrayed in any kind of mainstream media. In fact, it was the first time many ordinary American’s gained a glimpse into the life of gay Americans. Maupin describes the column and the subsequent books as a Trojan Horse as they were in many ways subversive.
Maupin was not afraid to address AIDS during a time of fear and official denial. He discusses his acquaintance with the deeply closeted Rock Hudson whom he met when he first arrived in California and how he was compelled to controversially out him when it was clear that Hudson had AIDS. He suffered a backlash, but now that a famous person had AIDS, the administration finally began to address the issue.
One of the more interesting parts of the documentary is Maupin’s reminiscences of his conservative father. He was clearly disappointed in his son, especially in the way Maupin came out to his parents, which was via a letter written my one of the protagonists in his novels. They were eventually reconciled and the old man became particularly fond of Maupin’s very much younger husband.
Untold Tales is a documentary as much about Armistead Maupin as it is about the LGBT community of his dearly beloved San Francisco. The old film footage from the Seventies of a city living in gay abandon before the advent of AIDs is particularly poignant. The film is a heart-warming and uplifting historical document of the man, his place and his people.
The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin has been doing the rounds of the international film festival circuit where it has gathered many awards. It can currently be seen in South Africa on Netflix.