Movie Review - Thirsty (Portland Film Festival)

Scott Townsend aka Thirsty Burlington, a Cher impersonator, joins a very exclusive club with this movie. He joins the club of people who star as themselves in a movie about their lives. Jackie Robinson did it in The Jackie Robinson Story (1950). Bob Mathias did it in The Bob Mathias Story (1954). Audie Murphy did it in To Hell and Back (1955). The Beatles did it in A Hard Day's Night (1964). Arlo Guthrie did it in Alice's Restaurant (1969). Muhammad Ali did it in The Greatest (1975) and Howard Stern did it in Private Parts (1997).

Obviously, there are plenty, if not hundreds of films where real people will appear as themselves. John Malkovich did it in Being John Malkovich (1999), but those movies typically aren't autobiographies or biopics of that person's life. Being John Malkovich is not about how John Malkovich grew up and became the person that he is. Joaquin Phoenix plays himself in I'm Still Here (2010), but that movie isn't really about his life. It's a fictional scenario in which Phoenix is pretending is real. That's not the case with this movie.

Townsend is playing himself here and this movie is literally about how he grew up and how he became who he is. It even features real people from his life. Director Margo Pelletier does this probably for one big reason. A lot of the movie features musical performances of Thirsty impersonating Cher and singing her songs. It would seem silly to get someone to do an impersonation of an impersonator when you can simply hire the impersonator himself. It removes a complicated layer that doesn't need to be there. Unless Pelletier was going to hire the actual Cher to play Thirsty, there was probably no one who would've been able to do Thirtsy justice. Plus, most Cher impersonators don't actually sing. They probably lip-sync like most drag queens. Thirsty has the actual chops and the vocals, so why not use him?

Pelletier and co-writer Laura Kelber make this movie a bit of a triptych. They show us Thirsty as he is today. Thirsty is probably around the same age as Cher who despite being 70 looks damn good for her age. So does Thirsty who seems like he could be John Cameron Mitchell's doppelganger, and Mitchell is about 20 or 30 years younger than Cher. Yet, Pelletier shows us Thirsty at age 11 dealing with his alcoholic mother, as well as neighborhood bullies. Pelletier also shows us Thirsty in his 20's or so, as he discovers himself and who he wants to be.

We start with Thirsty as an 11-year-old and then jump forward and backward, getting glimpses of key or instrumental moments in his life. It opens with this idea that despite being a boy, there was always this feminine persona that Thirsty always had in his mind, which represented what he wanted. That persona, despite being a girl, was stronger, tougher and freer. Many things in his childhood worked to suppress that persona, whether it's the neighborhood bully, Chicky, played by Christopher Rivera, who looks like he could be part of the Sharks from West Side Story (1961) or whether it was his mean drunk, military father, Virgil, played by Keith Leonard.

Thirsty's only respite comes in the form of singing. First, his Uncle Gene, played by Michael DiGioia, encourages him as a child to sing the song "The Way I Want to Touch You" by Captain & Tennille. Later, his lesbian friend and beard, Tina, played by Julia Ehrnstrom, encourages him to audition for musicals like Jesus Christ Superstar. His final push comes in his 40's or so after coming out of a screening of Mermaids (1990) and recognizing his affinity for the Goddess of Pop.

All the while, there is a constant tug-of-war between Thirsty's tendency toward that feminine persona and those who would oppose it. That tug-of-war includes basic homophobia or intolerance of gender nonconformity, an intolerance that isn't limited to straight people. Thirsty's boyfriend, Christopher, played by Natti Vogel, shows that even gay people can be intolerant. It starts with the cliché of a boy wanting to play with Barbie dolls, a cliché that Thirsty later acknowledges and accepts about himself, but it's funny seeing that cliché get subverted when those same Barbies are turned into a weapon.

Pelletier perhaps perfectly captures that tug-of-war with a scene set at a gun range. In one moment, we see Thirsty in a pose that in one person's perception is that of James Bond. In Thirsty's perception though, it's that of Charlie's Angels. Pelletier underscores the blurring of gender in the following scene where Thirsty is standing on the street of either Provincetown or Catskill and trying to get people to see his show. He says that when he's in drag, people know he's a man, but when he's not in drag, people can't tell. It's meant to be ironic and funny, but it's probably one of the few true commentaries about gender and the blurring of gender lines that people like Thirsty force us to see.

Not Rated but contains language and sexual situations.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 37 mins.

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