Monday, May 9, 2011

Reverend's Preview: From Chastity to Chaz

Even though I was just a few years older than she was, I vividly remember little 2-year old Chastity Bono sending all us viewers a good night kiss at the end of her parents' hit 1970's TV show, The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour. Her mother, of course, went on to become an acclaimed solo singer and Academy Award-winning actress. Her father was a sometime actor (including a role in the original Hairspray) before serving as mayor of Palm Springs and, a few years later, dying tragically in a ski accident.

And little Chastity? Well, she is now a he in the wake of successful gender-reassignment surgery and hormone therapy that began in 2009. Having legally changed his name to Chaz Salvatore Bono (the middle name was his father's birth name), the now-son of Sonny and Cher is the subject of an eye-opening documentary, Becoming Chaz. It is scheduled to premiere on OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network tomorrow night, but Reverend got an advance look at the film.

"I've hated my body since puberty," Chaz says on camera of his pre-op state. "In high school, I often went to bed praying I would wake up as a boy." He started considering transitioning from female to male in the late 1990's as he saw cultural acceptance growing, partly due to the acclaimed movie Boys Don't Cry. Chaz gratefully recalls Sonny encouraging him to dress and act like a boy following his parents' divorce when Chaz was four years old.


Years prior to the decision to transition, Chastity had come out publicly as a lesbian. Jennifer Elia, Chaz's longtime partner, plays an integral part in the documentary. A recovering alcoholic, Jennifer's sobriety is put to the test during the "exhausting process" of Chaz's surgery and recovery. Chaz's own, 10-year addiction to prescription painkillers proved its own challenge, resulting in a low tolerance to the drugs intended to give him comfort during and after his initial operation and following six years of abstinence.

"I believe this happened when it was meant to happen," Chaz says of his transition. The post-op Chaz appears much happier in the documentary than he does before surgery, whether he is playing video games with good friend RuPaul, buying a suit for the premiere of his mother's movie Burlesque, or serving as a role model/consultant to trans children and their parents. On bravely going public with his decision to transition, Chaz reveals, "I'm doing this to try to put a public face on a serious issue."

Becoming Chaz also helps to answer a long-standing question on the lips of many: what has been Cher's reaction to her only daughter's decision to become a male? (She has a biological son by fellow singer Greg Allman.) Cher was initially silent but allows this film's accomplished directors, Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato (who previously made 101 Rent Boys, Party Monster and the wonderful The Eyes of Tammy Faye) to interview her extensively.


"I wasn't happy," Cher says of her first reaction to Chaz's decision to go public. She later recounts hearing Chastity's (female) voice for the last time on her answering machine. "That's when it hit me." Whereas Jennifer does call Cher from the recovery room following Chaz's surgery to assure her everything had gone well, Cher apparently couldn't bring herself to be there personally.

One scene in the film shows Chaz watching his mother's appearance on Late Night with David Letterman in late 2010, and being moved by Cher's first public or private reference then to Chaz as a "he." Cher clearly continues wrestling with her child's decision but seems to be coming along. Be sure to watch through the end credits of Becoming Chaz to see Cher's and Chaz's face-to-face reunion at the Burlesque premiere.

Immediately following tomorrow's broadcast of Becoming Chaz on OWN, Rosie O'Donnell will interview Chaz and the filmmakers about their experience making it on The Doc Club with Rosie O'Donnell.

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Blade California.

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