[29 November 2007]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
I always thought that if I had a superpower, no way would I wear a mask and a costume.
“What else is there, you know?” asks Jennifer Gehrt. “Sure, a doctor saves lives, but is he remembered? Is he there for all times? People are still talking about Marilyn Monroe.” While she waits to become a movie star, Jennifer has another job: she spends her days standing outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre (not for Grauman’s, she adds, just in front of it) in a Wonder Woman costume, and posing for pictures with tourists.
Gehrt’s long-term goal isn’t exactly unique. The other folks posing as superheroes outside the theater also have big dreams, only some of them have been nursing those dreams for longer than others. In Confessions of a Superhero, four of them have a chance to speak, if not confess, their ambitions and disappointments, their histories and fictions. As Joe McQueen (who plays the Hulk), puts it, “It’s tough being out here by yourself, trying to be this actor. We’re like ambassadors to Hollywood Boulevard, but at the same time, we’re out there trying to sell ourselves to the media, the public, producers, directors alike.”
Not all the superheroes manage all these sorts of selling, all the time. It is tough, working for tips (and almost worse, having to tell tourists that’s what you’re doing before they set up for their pictures), though disappointments and unfulfilled desires are revealed gradually. Less an exposé than a graceful, sometimes sad, reverie, the documentary features gorgeous still photos, casual-seeming sidewalk footage, and fascinating talking heads (honestly, the interview settings, from a warehouse to a bedroom to several cluttered apartments, are both beautiful and apt). The colors are crisp and telling, the compositions frequently stunning, each segment suggesting more than it reveals, granting both subjects and viewers room to reflect—on costumes and aspirations, certainly, but also expectations and conflicts, and the ways they inform each other.
Unsurprisingly, tensions have to do with class and (corporate) image. Leron Gubler, President of Hollywood’s Chamber of Commerce, cites the characters’ value, their status as “entities unto themselves” and as emissaries for Hollywood. These characters—who include Wookies and Spider-Men, Elvises and Pinheads—aren’t regulated, the actors, who provide their own costumes and makeup, aren’t schooled in local ordinances. And, as much as someone like Superman (Chris Dennis) prides himself on his professionalism and friendly relations with street cops, inevitably some performers make trouble, wearing shoddy costumes or appearing too aggressive as they pursue their livelihoods. While they entertain visitors, some locals see them as panhandlers, and while they share tips and space, some also resent others’ success. They also all bring their own complex baggage to their roles.
While Dennis plays something like a mentor to newbies (explaining “dos and don’ts,” such as, superheroes don’t smoke, a point contested by Ghost Rider, who notes that he is, after all, made of fire), he’s sometimes called on to settle frayed nerves. Marilyn Monroe complains that she’s been working too long and hard this day to be stiffed on tips (“It’s like theft, as if you walk into a store and don’t pay”), her last straw being, “I took like seven pictures with these Orientals.” At home, Dennis shows why he’s respected by other players, in his dedication to the job and to his character in particular. His apartment is filled with Superman paraphernalia, from action figures to posters to souvenirs (as well as full ashtrays: he smokes a lot, out of costume). “I like to consider myself to be a historian of Superman and a keeper of artifacts,” he smiles, as well as a dedicated fiancé to Bonnie. They appear on Chris’ sofa, the wall eerily fluorescent behind them, her face pale, nearly luminous. Bonnie wears her hair long because Chris likes Crystal Gayle and is currently working on her PhD in psychology (“I see instances now,” she says, “When I think that he didn’t get maybe everything a child needs growing up, maybe the attention every child needs”).
In fact, Dennis appears both reluctant and eager to discuss his childhood—as Sandy Dennis’ lonely son, who promised his mother on her death bed that he’d give “the business” a go—a lineage disputed by the actress’ niece. When Confession director Matt Ogens asks Chris about this (“People think Sandy Dennis never had a son”), Superman sighs. “That’s their opinion,” he says, “I wasn’t that close to her, I was more of the troublemaker.” Having survived drug addiction (Chris describes his decision to kick crystal meth following a delusional episode, where he saw himself dead on TV). Now, he attends Superman events, competes in Best Costume contests, and during Confessions meets Margot Kidder. “I really don’t think we as people get to judge each other that way,” she tells Ogden. “There are a lot of awful things you can take too far. If you want to wear that outfit 24 hours a day, go for it.”
Chris’ obsession occasionally sets him apart from his fellow performers (Gehrt says, “He’s suffocating in the world of Superman; no, he has suffocated. He cannot breathe anymore…. But that’s part of his charm”), but he’s hardly the only troubled soul who has found structure and solace in his superhero. Max Allen, who plays Batman, takes the camera crew along to a couple of therapy sessions, during which he describes his own efforts to shape his “aggressive” tendencies, his black belt in Tae Kwon Do and history as a bodyguard and mob enforcer (going so far as to suggest he got away with murder). Now, he thinks he’s found a calling (inspired by friends’ telling him he looks like George Clooney), though he and his wife Sandra both profess the gig is unsteady and frequently frustrating.
McQueen has also been through his share of trouble. “The reason why I moved out here at a young age,” he says, “I had this acting bug. I sold my Supernintendo and bought a bus ticket.” When he first arrived, he remembers, the “Rodney King riots” were in full effect. “I was a scared young black man who saw all these cops undercover, busting all the looters. Being a country boy, I headed for the hills, ‘cause I know ain’t no looters gonna run up here.” Homeless “for approximately four years,” McQueen continued to audition for parts (“My hygiene wasn’t all that sometimes,” he admits, “Because I had to walk places. My worst experience was actually getting laughed at at an audition, and I wouldn’t wish that on anybody”). Playing the Hulk isn’t what he wants to do either. “I feel so much like a loser because I didn’t come out here to get in a costume and stand on Hollywood Boulevard to make chump change.”
While McQueen doesn’t talk about it, he is the lone black man in this group, though no one looking at the Hulk’s big plastic mask and pecs would know that. This very invisibility underscores the film’s insight into the costs of stardom and superheroics. Recently cast as a pimp named Leroy in Justin Lin’s Finishing the Game, McQueen’s horizon seems changed. In Hollywood, accommodating expectations—looking the part—is a first step. Toward what? That’s a question the provocative, respectful, and utterly enthralling Confessions leaves open.