Now that Hilary Swank has won the Best Actress Oscar, perhaps it’ll be easier to get people to see the difficult but rewarding film she’s in. Swank’s compassionate and detailed performance as Brandon Teena, the real-life Nebraska woman (born Teena Brandon) who posed as a guy and paid a tragic price, is far from the only reason to see Boys Don’t Cry, which should not need Oscar validation in order to get attention. But this is America, where the average moviegoer balks at the relatively mild American Beauty because it isn’t the usual comforting Hollywood pablum. This nail-tough yet poetic work may still have an uphill climb to find an audience.
When we meet Brandon, it’s 1993 and he’s already aroused the wrath of local louts, who chase him away, calling him “faggot” — a word that reverberates with irony and ambiguity in this case. Brandon sees himself as a heterosexual male who happens to have been born with female equipment. The way he sees it — and the movie agrees — he is male, so it’s not as coy as it may seem to refer to him as “him.” Brandon’s very name carries an aura of ’50s teen-heartthrob angst – Brando and James Dean, both also sexually ambiguous. Director Kimberly Peirce, who wrote the script with Andy Bienen, treats Brandon partly as an iconic image of freedom — a sort of rebel without a penis — yet the movie also has an edge of bitter ’90s realism.
Brandon flees to another town, where he sets about getting into hot water all over again. He goes home with Candace (Alicia Goranson of Roseanne), a young mother and bar waitress, but is drawn to one of Candace’s friends — Lana (Chloe Sevigny), a brooding girl who hates the rural life but lacks the energy to get out. Lana’s backstory is as tangled as a soap opera: her mother’s boyfriend John (Peter Skargaard), an amiable ruffian whose mood can turn from jolly to vicious on a dime, isn’t much older than Lana is, and she hangs out with him and his buddy Tom (Brendan Sexton III), getting stoned and waiting for something. Brandon, it turns out, is the something she’s been waiting for.
We can’t miss the irony that Brandon treats Lana more gently and reverently than any man Lana has encountered before; the movie suggests that only a woman can truly understand another woman’s needs, and yet Brandon is in boy mode. At times he seems to contain both genders at once, shifting like sexual mercury. Swank’s nervous ardor in her scenes with Sevigny is first-rate and touching, and Sevigny, in the less showy role, gives a fully alert performance as an unconscious girl who blooms under Brandon’s affections. When the flighty, skinny guy and the sleepy, fleshy girl come together, genuine erotic sparks fly. Yet we understand, sadly, that part of the excitement comes from the danger involved.
Wisely, Peirce doesn’t sanctify Brandon. He was pretty screwed up, and made a parade of big mistakes trying to capture the life he wanted. Most sane people would agree that recklessness (downright foolishness, at times) shouldn’t be an offense punishable by rape and murder, but that’s how Brandon’s short story ends. The movie pulls us where we don’t really want to go — the moment of discovery, the violence and pain. But this is not so much a morality or cautionary tale as a dark fairy tale about a prince who died for love. You’re left with a disturbing raft of “ifs”: If Brandon had lived somewhere else; if Brandon had found a support group, cleaned up his act, gotten on the path to gender-reassignment surgery or whatever he needed; or simply if Brandon had made it out of Nebraska with Lana. But what then? Boys Don’t Cry is a fable about the fragility of love and freedom; it says that the most precious thing about both is that they can end in a heartbeat.
Those who come to the 1998 documentary The Brandon Teena Story after having seen Boys Don’t Cry may be a bit disappointed: Life, after all, is not as shapely as art. For those who want the unadorned facts, however, the documentary is worth a look. For one thing, we learn that Brandon’s girlfriend Lana was nowhere near the scene of the crime when it happened; Lana was also far from the only young woman Brandon romanced, though she does seem to have been his favorite. Also, Kimberly Peirce’s movie leaves out Philip DeVine, who was also murdered along with Brandon and Lisa Lambert (represented in the Peirce film by “Candace”). And as scurvy as the actors playing John Lotter and Thomas Nissen are made to look, they’re Leonardo DiCaprio and Freddie Prinze Jr. compared with their real-life counterparts, who appear on camera in the documentary, frighteningly closed off from ordinary human feeling.
Of the two, I prefer Boys Don’t Cry, if only because Peirce found the lyricism and romance in this story (before it went horribly wrong). The filmmakers here, Susan Muska and Greta Olafsdottir, have only stark facts to work with. And much of The Brandon Teena Story feels padded out: Muska and Olafsdottir resort to many lingering shots of the Nebraska countryside, as well as sensationalistic or manipulative choices throughout (a trial account of the murders is played over photos of Brandon as a baby and a happy-looking teen, culminating in a brief and unnecessary glimpse of Brandon’s corpse). The filmmakers interview many of Brandon’s friends and family, along with the family of the murderers and their other victim Lisa Lambert (her father, and Brandon’s mother, are profoundly moving in their acknowledgment that Lotter’s death penalty can still never make things okay). Some of the people that Peirce’s movie didn’t have room for are especially interesting: John Lotter’s sister Michelle, a short-haired, deep-voiced, direct woman who’s more masculine than Brandon was; Brandon’s own sister, who looks more like Hilary Swank than Brandon did. The documentary seems split between those who refer to Brandon as “he” and those who don’t; he left behind a lot of confused, angry people — angry not necessarily because of what Brandon was, but because he lied to them. And their sadness at his death will always have that angry tarnish.
The strength of The Brandon Teena Story is that it briefly lets us hear Brandon speak for himself, on a recording made when he was making a rape complaint against Lotter and Nissen. Hearing his broken voice — broken in all senses of the word — your heart goes out to him (and you realize that Hilary Swank, re-enacting this moment, didn’t overplay Brandon’s numb misery). The weakness, as in any after-the-fact crime documentary, is that this often seems less like the Brandon Teena story than the John Lotter and Thomas Nissen story. Susan Muska and Greta Olafsdottir had access to the trials, and the movie is weighted in favor of how the murderers were proven guilty. (One grace note does come of this: transgendered writer Kate Bornstein standing outside the courthouse, faltering as she describes Thomas Nissen’s cold-blooded testimony.) Still, the documentary seconds what Peirce’s movie suggested: that Brandon, who at 21 still didn’t quite know himself, was and is unknowable — a void surrounded by deception of the most desperate and touching kind, deception that seeks to shape dreams into truth.
I certainly wouldn’t make the mistake of drawing an elaborate parallel between Brandon Teena and GG Allin, the ferociously vomitous punk-rock icon at the center of Hated: GG Allin and the Murder Junkies (a 1993 documentary now available on DVD). Brandon would have taken one look at the bloody, shit-smeared GG and run the other way, but GG might have looked at Brandon and seen a fundamental likeness. Both were outlaws and outcasts; both pushed their lives to extremes and pushed against a society that wouldn’t let them be what they wanted to be — though Brandon sought to assimilate, while GG was all about confrontation and alienation. Brandon wanted to be part of society, as a man; GG wanted no part of it, and preferred to be an animal.
Directed as an NYU student project by Todd Phillips (who went on to make the controversial Frat House and the summer teen comedy Road Trip), Hated chronicles some time in the public life of GG Allin and his band, the Murder Junkies, as they embark on a “tour” (thus violating GG’s parole). For much of the movie, Phillips adopts a neutral, deadpan stance towards GG that’s often scabrously funny. Watching GG’s antics — slashing himself with a razor, pounding himself in the head with a mike, beating up audience members and yanking women around by their hair, shoving a banana up his ass and tossing the chunks at an appalled NYU audience, rolling around in his own shit onstage — safely in your own home, you can enjoy the lowbrow apocalypse as surreal theater. His bandmates (including his brother Merle, who seems to have a little more on the ball than GG, but not much) explain to us that, of course, GG’s act is a statement on the violence in society and the lack of “sweetness” in the world. But watching some of GG’s fans, mostly drunk or stoned, and obviously hungry for a freak-out experience they can talk about later, you wonder whether anyone who listened to him actually got that message.
Apparently GG Allin wasn’t just a monster onstage — he lived the role constantly, though we have to take that on faith, since it’s always difficult to tell how documentary subjects behave when there’s no camera around. But what did it all amount to? Unlike the Sex Pistols, who roared into America on a wave of spit and left behind one great album, the Murder Junkies remain unknown to anyone outside, say, New York or the underground music scene (or those who see this film). Reportedly, GG put out some 20 albums since 1979, but do you know anyone who owns or has even heard one of them? GG failed to make any meaningful mark (he had promised to kill himself onstage on Halloween 1992, which might have secured him a spot in the margins of rock history), perhaps because, aside from his onstage terrorism, he and his band sounded like a dozen other gutter-rant, thrash-metal bands of the same period. Hated gives us a peek at the squalid outskirts of music, which is usually good for a few laughs (a surprisingly articulate GG fan named Unk is pretty funny, sometimes unintentionally) until it becomes depressing.
The DVD comes with 50 extra minutes of footage — GG and the band “practicing” before a “show,” the show itself (which lasts maybe two songs before it ends due to a combo of sound snafus and rapidly fleeing audience members), and GG and his cohorts roaming the seedy side of New York in search of heroin. Which, we’re told, is what killed him the very next day. You don’t know whether to laugh or cry at this: GG Allin, the furious punk animal who yearned to die onstage and live forever in music history, dying of something so mundane as an overdose — and alone. The extra footage is highly fast-forward-worthy, but if nothing else it shows you that GG probably wouldn’t have made his Halloween 1992 deadline anyway; it’s a wonder he didn’t die a lot sooner. Still, Hated by itself (it runs only 60 minutes) is an indelible, cathartic essay on the pure nature of rock. GG Allin may have had no talent aside from venomous sideshows, and it’s difficult to draw a line connecting him and Elvis, but for a short while he embodied the fear, loathing, and passion that true rock should be about.