The Real Ellen Story. – television program reviews

Alan Frutkin

Directed by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato * Premiering September 30 on Bravo

Who said it was easy to document the life of a gay icon and maintain the objectively needed to portray that icon–warts and all? Certainly no one in the gay press says so. We are constantly accused of either eating our own or kowtowing to the gods of political correctness. That said, filmmaker Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s insightful documentary on the rise and fall of TV’s first sitcom with a lead gay character, The Real Ellen Story, valiantly attempts to walk the objective line with a subject that continues to spark debate inside and outside of gay circles. And for the most part it succeeds.

Using Ellen’s 1997 coming-out episode (also known as “The Puppy Episode”) as its focal point, The Real Ellen Story chronicles the events that led up to its airing as well as the factors that persuaded ABC to subsequently cancel the series. Although the filmmaker secured the cooperation of Ellen DeGeneres–whose comments shed new light on her coming-out process–they were unable to do so with either ABC or Disney. Yet by seeking out sources close to production (ranging from writers-producers on the series to publicists), they provide an in-depth portrait of the gargantuan effort it took to air this groundbreaking episode.

It is when Bailey and Barbato turn to the series’s cancellation that they side-step some key issues. And if anyone suffers here, it’s Chastity Bono. The filmmakers play up her alleged “it’s too gay” critique of the series. But even though they allow DeGeneres to respond to those comments, they fail to offer that courtesy to Bono.

Granted, a more pointed criticism may have included the phrase “too myopic.” Once DeGeneres came out, the series seemed to hinge on all things gay. It was evident she was experiencing the “high” of her own liberation–a phase to which most gay people can related. However, most straight viewers couldn’t understand her virtual obsession with this newfound freedom. And many gay viewers didn’t care. Besides, a sitcoms success depends on a broad topical palette. Could Mad About You thrive if its plots concerned only Paul and Jamie Buchman’s parenting travails? No. That’s why subplots exist. Not to mention supporting casts.

And DeGeneres lost sight of her cast. Since its inception in 1994 (its original title was These Friends of Mine), Ellen was a sitcom in search of itself. After several ensemble changes in the show, the star seemed to find strong support in Joely Fisher, Jeremy Piven, David Anthony Higgins, and Clea Lewis. Yet in the series’s final season, they were all but abandoned for Ellen Morgan’s new love interests, Laurie, played by Lisa Darr.

Bailey and Barbato neglect to address any of these issues, furthering the perception that DeGeneres was a victim solely of corporate homophobia. Without examining all of the factors that contributed to the series’s demise, The Real Ellen Story winds up looking more like just part of the story.

COPYRIGHT 1998 Liberation Publications, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group

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