Robert Opel made Academy Award history when he famously ran naked past presenter David Niven at the 1974 Oscars, which led Niven to quip, “Isn't it fascinating to think that probably the only laugh that man will ever get in his life is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings?" To show how far we haven’t come, this streaking stunt was decades before Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl “Nipplegate,” which seems almost quaint in comparison, yet Jackson’s areola ignited much more rabid Right Wing mouth-foaming than Opel’s penis. Opel even got invited to The Mike Douglas Show where the host serenaded him alongside Bea Arthur.
Uncle Bob (available on DVDthis week), as you might guess from the title, is a tribute to the man who gained national fame in an instant, made by his namesake and nephew Robert Oppel. The film is a fascinating look at a man who was a pioneer in gay rights political action, as well as an erotic photographer who created images as controversial as Robert Mapplethorpe’s. Sadly, Uncle Bob was murdered in 1979 in his San Francisco gallery called the Fey-Way Studios by thugs demanding drugs and money. The younger Oppel spends the film trying to make sense of how and why his uncle was gunned down in front of witnesses.
Oppel mixes archival footage with recreations of events where he plays his uncle, including his murder, and the effect is sometimes effective and sometimes too over-the-top and badly acted. Opel’s death occurred shortly after he staged an “execution” of Harvey Milk’s Twinkie-loving killer Dan White while dressed as “Gay Justice.” Director Oppel (seen, like his namesake in archival photos, frequently full frontal during the course of Uncle Bob) uses a heavy hand to explore the possibility that this act of performance art enraged the San Francisco Police Department, and that they somehow orchestrated his uncle’s murder.
This tangent, with scenes of cops yelling “Kill! Kill!” into the killer’s ear in a jail cell, isn’t necessary, though, because Uncle Bob was a fascinating man who interviewed and worked with the likes of Divine and the infamous Cockettes. The interviews with those close to Opel provide an engrossing look at life in the 1970’s Castro District of San Francisco, and more specifically a moving portrait of a man who led a radical and trail blazing life who was cut down in his prime.
Review by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.