Published May 03, 2011In the post-screening Q&A at Hot Docs, Fenton Bailey revealed that Chaz Bono (formerly Chastity, before her sex change), son of Sonny and Cher, had approached Bailey and Randy Barbato about directing this documentary as a tool to raise transgender awareness and not the other way around.
The resulting film (the first doc to air on Oprah Winfrey's new TV channel) arrives the same year as Bono's upcoming book about his experiences as a post-op transsexual. Perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise that Becoming Chaz isn't a terribly compelling piece of filmmaking; it's simply one of Bono's tools in a larger campaign to raise transgender awareness.
It's hard to fault a movie with such honourable intentions, but the frustrating thing about Becoming Chaz is that there's a better film lurking beneath the rather bland infomercial we're watching. The doc follows Bono, living as a man in a live-in relationship with the very supportive Jennifer Elia, going through the first stage of a sex change procedure. The film is agreeably candid in its depiction of the process (we see Bono's new male chest, and we see hormone injections), but it glosses over Elia's confusion and exasperation by the changes in Bono's personality.
We hear that he relapses into alcoholism, for a time, but both these points are dropped quickly after they're brought up, only to be tied up in a final scene slightly more elegantly than if they used an "It all worked out in the end" title card. Why don't we see more of this?
What about the pressures of growing up under media scrutiny? This topic is only briefly addressed, and Chaz's entire childhood, early adulthood, early sex life and drug addiction are given a similar rapid checklist treatment. What about the potential dangers of the operation? Chaz is shown hesitating over undergoing treatment to create a penis and we are briefly informed of the potential side-effects of the hormone shots, but Bailey and Barbato spend more time emphasizing how the injections increase Bono's sex drive.
The film is also sketchy about Bono's relationship with his mother, who is seen only in an interview session and on David Letterman's show, still frequently referring to her son as "she," although the way her vaguely disapproving presence lingers over the film is one of Bailey and Barbato's more effective and subtle touches.
Bailey and Barbato's other credits include didactic, shallow porn doc Inside Deep Throat; inevitably, Becoming Chaz is better than that film, but the directors remain more interested in delivering simple, clear messages than in ambiguity. Maybe the question they should ask themselves is: are they filmmakers or propagandists? (World of Wonder)