Jeffrey Schwarz may not be a household name, but he makes movies about people who are.
The out filmmaker has always gravitated toward celebrities as the subjects for his movies. As a student at New York’s SUNY Purchase Film Department, his senior thesis was a short film called “Al Lewis in the Flesh,” in which he profiled the actor-turned-restaurateur who was known and beloved for playing Grandpa on “The Munsters.”
Since then, he has built a niche for himself as the creator of a series of documentaries covering the lives of famous icons of the LGBT community.
He sees it as a responsibility.
“I feel like, as a gay person, it’s part of my job to be visible personally,” he says, “and to incorporate LGBT themes into my work.”
He’s certainly done that. His films – such as “Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon,” “I Am Divine” and “Tab Hunter Confidential” – have gained progressively more exposure and popularity, and garnered him not only a reputation and a fan following, but an award in 2015 from San Francisco’s Frameline Film Festival for his “major contribution to LGBT representation in film, television, or the media arts.”
It’s an honor he shares with a list of other illustrious awardees; but there’s a special symmetry in the fact that the first recipient of the Frameline Award, in 1986, was Vito Russo – the noted film historian and AIDS activist whose book, “The Celluloid Closet,” had awakened Schwarz’ interest in LGBT presence in cinema and had later been the basis for the film which began his own career.
“I’ve always loved movies,” he says, “and when I first came out I read Vito’s book. It opened me up to looking at them in a way I had never thought about, at how LGBT people were represented on film. I went through that book and tried to see every movie I could.”
A few years later, as he was finishing college, he heard that filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman were planning a movie based on Russo’s book, and he knew he had to get on board.
“I called their office and said, ‘I’ll do anything, I’ll sweep the floors.” He laughs, “That’s practically what I did, at the beginning.”
He was hired as an assistant editor, essentially continuing his education by learning from Epstein and Friedman, as well as editor Arnie Glassman. He also got to know all about Vito Russo.
“All his materials were there in Rob and Jeffrey’s office, so I just did a deep dive into his life, and later I decided to make a film about him.”
It was a project that was close to his heart, but there was also a bigger purpose.
“There are huge swaths of gay people that have no idea who he was. He made such a huge contribution to the movement through his writing and his activism – he was one of the founding members of ACT UP. He left such an incredible legacy, and I thought it was criminal that so many people didn’t know who he was – he had such a great, inspiring story.”
It’s this sense of transmitting history – the history of LGBT culture, an underground narrative often unknown and unsung by all but the few who were there to witness it firsthand – that Schwarz has tried to infuse into all his work.
“I always look for subjects that highlight people or events in the past that people might not be aware of, that I think should be recognized.”
There are other requirements, too.
“Primarily I look for a great story, and a hero you can root for,” he explains. “I look at documentaries like any other movie – it’s a story, these are primarily entertainments. If you can learn something along the way, all the better, but it has to keep the audience emotionally engaged. You can’t really do that with just anybody – these people have to be bigger than life in some way.”
His choice of subjects reflects this; Jack Wrangler, the gay porn icon who went on to marry singing legend Margaret Whiting; Glenn Milstead, the chubby actor who never identified as a drag queen but became a legend as Divine; Tab Hunter, the closeted screen heartthrob who abandoned the movies to live his life in the open; and, most recently, Alan Carr, the flamboyant pop impresario responsible for an array of era-defining entertainment milestones in the seventies and eighties.
“Some of these subjects might have been familiar to people who lived through those periods – but not necessarily to younger people. Someone like Alan Carr – you mention his name and they might not know it, but they definitely know the cultural touchstones that he left behind. You mention ‘Grease,’ and they say, ‘Oh, he’s responsible for that?’ and they get interested and they get curious.”
The Carr documentary – “The Fabulous Alan Carr” – made the rounds of film festivals in 2018 and is now available on demand from a number of streaming services, but no sooner was it finished when the prolific Schwarz began work on his next project.
“It’s called ‘Swanson on Sunset’ – the story of Gloria Swanson’s attempts to make a musical version of ‘Sunset Boulevard’ in the 1950s, decades before Andrew Lloyd Webber even thought of it. She worked with a pair of young songwriters who were also a gay couple – the whole project got derailed when she developed a crush on one of the young men and a love triangle ensued. It’s juicy stuff.”
It’s a departure from Schwarz’s usual format of profiling well-known gay icons – although Swanson certainly qualifies as a cultural touchstone for the community, as does “Sunset Boulevard.” Nevertheless, he says, it fits his agenda of passing on queer history that might otherwise go untold.
“Most people probably know who Gloria Swanson was, but it’s also highlighting these two men, Dixon Hughes and Richard Stapley, who are completely unknown. They had this fascinating encounter with her that is a stranger-than-fiction kind of story, and I’m very excited about it.”
So who does he see in today’s pop culture that would make a good subject for a future documentary?
“I’m really interested in Jake Shears, and, of course there are people like Harvey Fierstein, Dan Savage – the list goes on. But we don’t know yet – we’ll find out in the future, when people will be making movies about the times we’re living through now.”
As for Schwarz himself, he shows no sign of stopping. With the Swanson film still to come, and a hefty slate of future projects planned after that, it seems likely that he might be the one making those future movies himself.