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Television review: 'Becoming Chaz'

This honest, thought-provoking documentary tells the story of Chaz Bono's transition from female to male.

May 10, 2011|By Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times Television Critic
  • Chaz Bono in the documentary "Becoming Chaz."
Chaz Bono in the documentary "Becoming Chaz." (OWN )

Midway through "Becoming Chaz," the raw and revelatory documentary about Chaz (nee Chastity) Bono's physical transition from female to male, Chaz visits his Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor and her partner to show them the results of his recent chest surgery. The women, who loaned Chaz the money to have his breasts removed, have prepared a lovely brunch and while Chaz chows down, he eagerly describes the side effects of his transition, which includes regular doses of testosterone. Not only does he find himself increasingly unable to abide women's "gabbing," he tells them, his sex drive has increased enormously.

"It's a shame women can't feel it," he says, "and know how biological it is."

"Huh," says his sponsor. And while Bono, oblivious, continues to eat, the two women sit, frozen in a brief but excruciating pause. It all comes down to chemistry, after all.

"Becoming Chaz," which premieres Tuesday night on OWN, is undoubtedly one of the most thought-provoking films you will see on any screen this year, a frankly chronicled tale of Chaz's life as a transgender man that opens a more than occasionally mind-blowing conversation about the essentials of gender, and subsequently, sexuality.

Often likened to gay identity before the Stonewall riots, or women's lives pre-"The Feminine Mystique," the transgender experience is actually one of the few human conditions almost completely without cultural, literary or artistic landmarks. Over the centuries, poets and playwrights have expressed, albeit in veiled terms, the love that dared not speak its name just as women have had their say, and champions. But the idea that a person could be born into a body at odds with his or her sense of gender has only recently entered the public conversation, through films like "Boys Don't Cry" and talk shows like Oprah Winfrey's.

Transgenderism remains so foreign a concept to those who have not experienced it that its explanation falls totally to those who have. In Chaz Bono, the transgender community found its first celebrity spokesperson since Renée Richards. Not only is Chaz a man (the transgender male community, as the film says, is much less public than the female) but he was famous long before he identified as transgender.

It is a heavy burden, and one with which Chaz, a witty and articulate but non-attention-seeking individual, is not terribly comfortable; fame caused almost as much conflict in his life as his ill-fitting body did. But having committed to becoming a spokesperson for this marginalized community, Chaz tells his story with a graphic and stunning simplicity. The action begins as he is preparing to have his breasts removed, and documents his recovery from the surgery, his subsequent legal transition from female to male and the reactions of his longtime girlfriend Jennifer Elia as well as his friends and family.

Elia, like her partner, is breathtakingly honest, often hilariously so, whether popping a zit on Chaz's back at one point, or shaking her head over his emerging "swagger." Her struggle with sobriety is an ongoing tension in the relationship (Chaz is a recovering alcoholic and drug addict), as is the fact that she is a lesbian. Early on, when Chaz confides that the two never acted like a lesbian couple, Elia retorts, "What does a lesbian couple act like?" But Chaz's transition clearly has an impact on their relationship. Elia fell in love with a woman and Chaz is now a man, which prompts all manner of questions about the nature of enduring love.

And then there's the elephant in the room. Cher, like her son, is not one for mincing words. Other family members — Chaz's aunt and grandmother, stepmother Mary Bono and her children — offer unconditional, unquestioning support, but Cher, who publicly voiced her unhappiness when her then-daughter Chastity came out, is clearly ambivalent. Though the pain and distance Cher's reluctance inflicts on Chaz is palpable, neither filmmakers Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato nor Chaz portray her as a monster. Instead, she is seen as expressing the feelings of confusion and loss any mother might have. So when, while promoting her film "Burlesque," Cher actually uses the pronoun "he" and announces that she thinks Chaz is very brave, it is a moment of hope, if not triumph.

Miraculously, "Becoming Chaz" doesn't go much for triumph, at least not in the theatrical sense. Instead, the film presents life as ongoing and complicated, as it actually is, for the transgendered and non-transgendered alike. Becoming a man doesn't solve all of Chaz's problems, just his biggest one.

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