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The Front Row
“No Ordinary Man,” Reviewed: Portrait of an Artist Enduring Transphobia After His Death
The filmmakers Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt challenge the public record about Billy Tipton, a trans jazz musician who died in 1989.
By Richard Brody
July 16, 2021
Despite the tone of the reporting on him soon after his death, Billy Tipton (right) quickly became a hero for trans people.Photograph courtesy Oscilloscope Laboratories
The formula for biographical documentaries is obvious and ubiquitous: some interviews in a studio, some archival footage of the subject, some other archival footage to approximate places and times, still photos deftly zoomed in on, and maybe a voice-over read by a celebrity with no personal connection to the subject. Any filmmaker who departs from the script earns points for originality. In “No Ordinary Man,” the directors Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt go fascinatingly, probingly further, to question the very prospect of making a biographical film about their subject, the trans jazz musician Billy Tipton. “No Ordinary Man,” in that sense, is a genre unto itself, a meta-biographical film about a musician who earned his place in history posthumously, for reasons that he carefully avoided revealing throughout his life.
Tipton, a singer and pianist, was mainly an itinerant musician, with local gigs largely in the West and Midwest. He made two albums for a major label but, when a bigger offer came his way—from Liberace—in 1958, he walked away from his musical career. He moved to Spokane, Washington, with his wife, Kitty, and became a talent agent. They raised a family of three adopted sons and lived uneventfully out of the public eye. Then, in 1989, he died, suddenly, in the company of his son Billy Tipton, Jr., and when first responders arrived at the scene and attempted to resuscitate him they discovered that he had typically female anatomy. Billy, Jr., did not know that his father was assigned female at birth, and neither did Kitty or their other two sons; Tipton had scrupulously avoided revealing his body to them. It’s unclear who informed the media, but the Tipton family quickly became the target of prying journalists. Much of the reporting about Tipton was prurient, skeptical, and derisive. In clips from television talk shows on which Kitty and Billy, Jr., appeared, hosts and audience members, ignorant or dismissive of the very notion of trans identity, interrogate them with a prosecutorial zeal about Tipton’s body and their relationships with him, and framed his life as a fraud and a lie.
“No Ordinary Man” is only scantly a biographical investigation into the facts of Tipton’s life. There’s no voice-over narration. The filmmakers conduct many interviews, but few with people who knew him. (The crucial one with someone who did is with Billy Tipton, Jr.) Instead, the film features the text of a drama about Tipton, written by Chin-Yee and Amos Mac, that recreates key moments from his musical career. The filmmakers and writers gather in a rehearsal studio and audition actors who are trans men in scenes from the play, and then interview the actors about the depiction of Tipton—and the effort to play his role—in relation to their own observations and experiences. The film also includes interviews with trans scholars and activists, who discuss Tipton’s legacy and consider earlier media representations and misrepresentations of him in the light of the current politics of trans identity.
The major existing biographical work on Tipton is a book, “Suits Me,”published in 1998, by Diane Wood Middlebrook, and the film features several participants who, although praising her research, take issue with her interpretations of his identity. Middlebrook, they say, contends that Tipton, who began to move through life as a man in 1933, at the age of nineteen, did so for practical reasons: because it would have been impossible for him to pursue a career in music as a woman. “No Ordinary Man” features audio clips of a recorded discussion between Middlebrook and Kitty, which reveal that the two had a contentious relationship. In their conversation, Middlebrook asserts that Kitty was aware that Tipton “was a woman,” and Kitty speaks in anguish of the dynamic of biographer to subject. “You got the power and you know it; now, you can create me any way you want to, I can’t stop you,” she says, and adds, “How sad for me, how sad for my husband, how sad that the world is gonna know me through your eyes and not the truth.”
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The film’s participants make clear that, despite the tone of the reporting on him soon after his death, Tipton quickly became a hero for trans people. In an interview in the film, the writer Thomas Page McBee spotlights the paradox of Tipton’s posthumous celebrity: “Billy probably never would have even been a person we even knew who he was if the media hadn’t made him a tabloid story.” Several of the participants say that Tipton was “outed”; the scholar and filmmaker Susan Stryker says that, at the time, it was “such a common story to sensationalize the reveal” about a person’s genitals, or, as the scholar and writer C. Riley Snorton says, trans people often get attention only after their death, by way of “retroactive titillation about their anatomy.” Yet Tipton’s secrecy, as the artist Zackary Drucker says, was no matter of shame or doubt but of fear, since“trans people’s survival throughout history was based on invisibility”—and that element of fear comes to the fore in one of the movie’s most extraordinary moments. It is an audition with the actor Marquise Vilsón, a Black man, who plays a scene in which Tipton encounters an after-hours club owner named Buck Thomason, who was also a trans man. The scene, which is based on real events, involves the impending arrival at the club of Duke Ellington (the film includes a photograph of Tipton with him), and Buck tells Billy, “I heard a rumor,” to which Billy responds, sarcastically, “That it’s time for you to retire? I heard that one, too.” Vilsón interprets Billy’s response as a terrified one, lest the rumor be about Billy himself—at the sound of the word “rumor,” Vilsón says, “my heart was in my asshole.”
According to Billy Tipton, Jr., the element of fear gripped Tipton to his very death. The filmmakers intercut a television clip of Billy, Jr., from about three decades ago, with their own recent interview with him, about the day that Tipton died—in his trailer, refusing to see a doctor, likely because he was unwilling to expose his body. (As the writer and activist Jamison Green says, trans people often suffered humiliation and rejection at emergency rooms in the nineteen-eighties.) What’s more, as the writer Amos Mac relates, after Tipton’s death, his bindings were never found at his home: “To me, that says that he was fully aware that he was dying, and that he was doing whatever he had to do to get rid of things that would make people question or wonder.” The actor Scott Turner Schofield imagines the terror of Tipton’s last days, saying “In your last moments, to know that you—that your life is out of your own control.”
The documentary’s meta-ness has its limits. Although crew members are seen at work, “No Ordinary Man” doesn’t dwell on the cinematic process, on the behind-the-scenes methods and decisions involved in its production. The interviews don’t unfold at leisure. The movie’s composition, brisk and condensed, reflects a sense of urgency. Interviews and other footage are edited together into a fervent and intricate mosaic that intertwines past and present, and combines the interview subjects’ experiences with their understanding of Tipton’s life. Schofield says, “When I encountered Billy Tipton, that was the first time I encountered trans masculinity. . . . He didn’t consent to that visibility, which sucks, but I’m grateful.” Many participants discuss the crucial significance, for their own sense of identity, of seeing trans people’s lives acknowledged. The musicologist Stephan Pennington presents the salutary reminder that trans people, long depicted as exceptions if mentioned at all, have always been active and central to cultural and civic life, despite their silencing and invisibility. He refers to the necessity of making that past visible, of establishing a foundation of tradition, saying, “If we erase that history, then you think that you have no ground to stand on; that you are rootless and homeless, and that you’re only here as a guest in a place that is not your own; but this is our place as well.”
“No Ordinary Man” challenges the very basis of cultural production, eschewing the familiar accumulation of biographical and historical information and instead questioning the process by which such information is gathered. The filmmakers ask many of the interviewees what questions they would ask Tipton if he were present. The responses center on treating his gender as unexceptional and discussing his life in its full spectrum of activities and emotions—his artistry, his “joys,” and the musical scene in which he participated. McBee’s idea is to “shine a light back on cis people. . . . Why are you asking these questions, why are you so invested in this story, and is there a way we can create a partnership where we can talk about gender together rather than we are the metaphor and you’re the status quo.”
The cultural shift that “No Ordinary Man” demands is also essentially an aesthetic and intellectual one. The form of the film, its departure from the habits of documentary filmmaking, are its preconditions; changes of practice are the premise of changes of mind. Its corrective to the public record is, first of all, a corrective to the assumptions on which, to this day, the creation of that record depends. Billy, Jr., is a strong and burdened presence in the film, who is seemingly weighed down by his experiences in media after his father’s death, and by the portrayals of Tipton that resulted, but he offers moving testimony of the power of Chin-Yee and Joynt’s methods. In bearing the memories of his father, he has felt “lonely, very lonely,” and tells the filmmakers, “I’ve answered these questions thousands of time but you’re asking in such a way that I’m like, ‘Oh, wow.’ ” What surprises him most, after the aggressive and sardonic questioning that he’d endured in the mainstream media, is to learn of Tipton’s place of pride in the minds of trans people today. “It’s really great to talk to people that actually like what he did,” he says. “And I’ve never, until now, have never ever known anything about that. I thought I was, like, totally alone in this.”
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Richard Brody began writing for The New Yorker in 1999. He writes about movies in his blog, The Front Row. He is the author of “Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard.”
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