Directors Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt take us on a thought-provoking and emotionally potent journey as they track the life and legacy of trans masculine icon American jazz musician Billy Tipton, who enjoyed a successful career in the 1940s and 50s. When he died in 1989 his story was co-opted and sensationalised by the media, portraying him as a woman who had been living his pubic and private life as a man, particularly revelling in the detail that he’d even managed to “deceive” his wife and children. Written by trans magazine Original Plumbing’s co-founder Amos Mac along with Chin-Yee, No Ordinary Man, sees Tipton’s story revisited, reclaimed and reframed by prominent trans artists and commentators of today.
Part of the film’s approach is reminiscent of Kitty Green’s 2017 documentary Casting JonBenet, in that we meet a series of trans masculine actors who are auditioning to play Billy Tipton, such as Scott Turner Schofield, Carter Ray, Ryan Cassata, Morgan Sullivan and Hennessy. The auditions in No Ordinary Man serve as a device for the performers to explore Tipton’s story intimately, putting themselves in his shoes, resulting in a deep personal connection to him, discovering resonances with their own lives. Clearly the “audition room” felt like a very safe space for these artists to open up and we frequently see the actors interact with the filmmakers, sharing their thoughts on pivotal moments in Billy’s life such as him meeting the trans masculine Buck. One of the actors, activist Marquise Vilsón, is particularly insightful as he imagines how Tipton might have been feeling and his portrayal as he channels Billy is both sensitive and spellbinding.
Alongside the auditions runs a more traditional approach to biographical documentary filmmaking that’s nonetheless equally fascinating and well executed. Thanks in part to Aisling Chin-Yee’s editing, these two strands interweave beautifully, creating a rich, often poignant, tapestry of investigation and reflection. As well as archive photographs and interview material from those who knew him such as Billy’s wife Kitty and his son Billy Tipton Jr., we also hear from trans trailblazers such as Susan Stryker and Kate Bornstein who reflect on how the media’s agenda in the telling of Tipton’s story affected them. Stryker recalls it as another posthumous “gender reveal” as was commonplace in mainstream journalism of the time. “A woman trying to be a man,” Bornstein summarises the media’s take, “of course he died. He was a woman and he was trying to fool everyone, but he was finally found out.” The filmmakers include some horrifying headlines from the time, as well as TV coverage such as a clip from The Oprah Winfrey Show where Oprah interrogates Kitty about their years of living together. In a series of clips we see TV hosts repeatedly bemused, one even out right laughs as they abruptly cut to a commercial break, by Kitty’s use of he/him pronouns when she refers to the late Tipton. We also see Tipton Jr. face TV show audience members questions such as one woman asking him whether he sensed his father was “more delicate” than other men. As well as being an intriguing and shocking survey of the disgraceful way his identity was commented on, it also serves to make a compelling point about the importance of who gets to frame a narrative, and makes the film’s raison d’être all the more urgent.
Archive footage of Tipton’s biographer, the critically acclaimed writer Diane Wood Middlebrook, is included along with some riveting excerpts of audio interviews conducted by Middlebrook with Kitty as part of her research for the book. Not wanting to judge a book by its cover, which was by all accounts extensively researched, but the artwork and title tells you all you need to know about her take on Tipton; Suits Me: Double Life of Billy Tipton. During an interview to promote the book her summary of Tipton makes him sound something like Dustin Hoffman’s out of work actor character in Tootsie; unable to get work as a woman in the male dominated jazz world he presented himself as a man. To Stryker, Middlebrook’s work was “an emotionally violent book to read” and came off as “very well-heeled, very polite transphobia.” As the film explores, Tipton’s story as it has been told in the mainstream until now fits into the pattern of trans stories being framed around disclosure and death, as was also the case with the media’s coverage of Brandon Teena’s murder and the subsequent Oscar-winning film based on him, Boys Don’t Cry.
As well as hearing some of Tipton’s musical recordings throughout the film we also hear his voice in a touching 1974 Christmas message, and having heard so much speculation about his life it is powerful to hear him speak for himself. Also particularly impactful and moving is Tipton’s Jr.’s reaction to hearing his father’s narrative reframed through a trans lens and to hear him referred to as a hero. Captivating throughout, this a rich, poignant and at times profound work that expands from Tipton’s story to examine the trans experience and questions around identity, what happens when our stories are taken away from us and the power of reclaiming them. There must be countless other transcestors who deserve to be reexamined in this empowering way, I just hope that when they are it is done with as much imagination, artistry, love and care as the filmmakers and on screen contributors of No Ordinary Man deliver throughout this extraordinary film.
By James Kleinmann
No Ordinary Man had its World Premiere at the 45th Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) on September 10th 2020 and is in the the running for Best Canadian Film.