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HBO Max’s ‘Veneno’ a triumph of trans storytelling

Spanish import full of human truth that can help to sway hearts and minds

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Daniela Santiago stars in ‘Veneno.’ (Photo courtesy HBO Max)

November, among other things, is Trans Awareness Month and it probably goes without saying, unfortunately, that anybody who wanted to celebrate that by watching trans stories would have a hard time finding more than a handful of them.

Despite an increase in trans inclusion on television through shows like “Pose,” “9-1-1: Lone Star,” and even genre series like “The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina,” narratives that explore trans experience are still fairly few and far between, and if you’re looking for those that do it with an eye toward authenticity – by using actual trans talent, both in front of and behind the cameras, for instance – the list gets even shorter.

Fortunately for everyone, the folks at HBO Max are doing their part to help change that reality. The new streaming giant’s big LGBTQ docu-series from last month, “Equal,” devoted considerable screen time to real-life trans icons like Christine Jorgensen and Sylvia Rivera, and included among their many other offerings are trans-inclusive shows from HBO like “Euphoria” and the new documentary, “Transhood.”

Now, the platform has brought us what may be the most authentic, engrossing, moving, and yes, entertaining show of the entire crop – and it’s a reason to rejoice not only for trans people and their allies, but for anyone who loves good television.

“Veneno,” available on HBO Max starting Nov. 19 (the final day of Trans Awareness Week and the eve of the annual Trans Day of Remembrance), is an import from Spain, where it aired earlier this year on the streaming service Atresmedia Premium, and tells the story of Cristina Ortiz Rodríguez, a real-life trans pioneer better known by the name La Veneno (Poison).

La Veneno skyrocketed to fame in 1996 when a reporter from a popular late-night talk show plucked her from the streets of Madrid to appear in a segment about prostitution. Bold, brash, funny, and fabulous, her unapologetic no-holds-barred persona made her an instant celebrity in an era when the deeply ingrained cultural stigma around trans people was even more oppressive than it is today, and she parlayed her status as a TV personality into a successful career as a nightclub performer, a model, an actress (including both “legit” work and porn), and even a singer with two hit singles under her belt.

Like many trans stories from that era (or any other, for that matter), La Veneno’s was fraught with hardship, and her time in the spotlight did not mean that those struggles had come to an end. Convicted of arson and fraud in 2003, she spent three years in an all-male prison, thanks to having never changed her gender on her official identity documents; despite a brief comeback following her release, she subsequently struggled with anxiety, depression, and bulimia due to the weight gain she had incurred during her incarceration. She would eventually return to prison again for eight months in 2014, and in 2016 – less than a month after the publication of her memoir, “Ni Puta, Ni Santa (Las Memorias de La Veneno)” – she died after sustaining a traumatic brain injury in a fall at her home. The death was ruled to have been accidental, but she had allegedly received threats due to revelations she had made about well-known figures in the book, and not-unreasonable speculation abounded that she, like so many other trans women, had fallen victim to murder.

It’s a tale with its fair share of both triumph and tragedy, to be sure, with plenty enough of each to ensure all eight episodes of “Veneno” are packed with memorable moments. But one of the many things that makes the new show stand out above so many other biographical dramas is that it is not content to simply show us how things were – it goes a step further, tying its La Veneno’s story to that of Valeria Vegas, co-author of her memoirs and another real-life trans woman, drawing the parallels between their individual journeys and thereby tracing a line between past and present that not only reminds us of how much we owe to the legacies of those queer elders who came before us, but of how their struggles are given meaning by the benefits they have bestowed upon the generations to follow.

As envisioned by series creators Javier Calvo and Javier Ambrossi, “Veneno” unfolds in a style that is equal parts flight of fancy and gritty realism, exploding with color, passion, and humor. This fluid style, which is set up by the show from the start with an opening disclaimer pointing out that, like all stories from memory, it’s a blend of fact and fiction, also allows for a considerable number of creative, cinematic conceits in the series’ editing and narrative approach, ensuring that it remains a thrillingly wild ride from start to finish.

It’s also a show that, true to the spirit of La Veneno herself, delights in its own over-the-top, boundary-pushing excesses. Thanks at least in part to its Spanish origins, “Veneno” loves to titillate us with nudity and sex, often presented with a kind of feigned nonchalance that only serves to surprise and shock us more; but instead of seeming exploitative, this approach instead translates as sex-positivity at its fiercest, and it’s just one of many ways in which the series authentically captures the lifestyle and attitudes of the trans characters it presents.

The thing that brings the greatest measure of authenticity to “Veneno,” of course, is its cast. Portraying La Veneno herself are three genuine trans actresses – Jedet, Daniela Santiago, and Isabel Torres – who each give dazzlingly honest performances; Jedet, who plays the youngest adult version of the character, even went through the process of transitioning during the making of the series. In addition, real-life trans actress, model and activist Lola Rodríguez delivers a sensitive, endearing portrayal of Vegas, whose own transition is informed by the process of writing La Veneno’s life story.

The real Vargas, incidentally, was part of the creative team on “Veneno,” bringing a pedigree to the show that can only come with direct lineage from its inspiration. It’s icing on the cake, really, since the show is so skillfully – and lovingly – executed that it earns its laurels firmly on its own merits.

“Veneno” is a limited series – only eight episodes – but it has the potential for making a far more lasting impact than most shows running 10 times that long. After all, as La Veneno’s own story proves (and as the series itself explores in considerable depth), the media have vast power in shaping the thoughts, beliefs, and opinions of an entire culture, and the story this proud Spanish import tells is full of the kind of “warts-and-all” human truth that can help to sway hearts and minds in the direction of empathy in a way that a thousand impassioned speeches cannot.

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New doc sets the record straight about ‘Fauci’

Film offers humanizing overview of hero’s life

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The good doctor himself in "Fauci." (Photo courtesy of National Geographic)

For those who lived through the AIDS epidemic, the onset of COVID-19 in early 2020 was accompanied by an inescapable air of déjà vu. There were plenty of reasons for this, of course: it was a terrifying new disease, not much was known and even less understood about how it spread, there was no effective treatment or cure available, the government’s response to it sparked a political firestorm, and—most significantly—lots of people were dying. As if all that weren’t enough, right in the middle of the public conversation about it was the same familiar face, none other than Dr. Anthony Fauci himself.

For many who worked as activists during the peak years of that earlier epidemic, Fauci was the adversary. Then, as now, he found himself in the crosshairs of a whole angry sector of society, bearing the brunt of the anger that arose from their fear of an uncertain future and becoming, once again, one of the most polarizing public figures in American politics, without even being a politician. Ironically, this time around, instead of being perceived as the face of government inaction and establishment obstructionism, he has been elevated to the status of progressive icon.

To understand how that seeming transformation is possible—as well as to look past the surface parallels between cultural response to the two plagues and see the profound differences instead—it’s necessary to look past the broad strokes of the headlines and the two-line bios that make up most of the knowledge most Americans have about AIDS, COVID and Fauci, and get a more detailed knowledge of the history that links them all together. Fortunately, a new National Geographic documentary, which began streaming on Disney Plus on Oct. 6, is here to provide exactly that.

The film came about when two filmmakers, Emmy-winners John Hoffman and Janet Tobias, joined forces after being separately inspired to make a film about Fauci, who, for those who have been in an isolation module for the past 40 years, was appointed director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) in 1984 and has advised seven presidents on domestic and global health issues during the decades since. Aided by unprecedented access to their subject, who was not only supportive but fully cooperative, along with access to decades of deep archival material and a wide array of prominent public figures eager to participate, the result of their collaboration is an impressive piece of cinematic journalism titled, simply, “Fauci.”

Starting out with a humanizing overview of Fauci’s early life, the film offers us a protagonist whose dreams of a private Park Avenue practice gave way to a passion for the study of infectious diseases, and whose enduring marriage to Dr. Christine Grady began with a “meet-cute” that would have been right at home in a Hollywood rom-com. It then tracks his professional career, not just the two epidemics that have bookended his time in public service to date, but details from the intervening years that most people have either forgotten or never known, like his efforts in stemming the threat of Ebola when it began to appear in the U.S., and his role in ensuring global action to the AIDS crisis that was unfolding in Africa and the Caribbean.

Still, it’s inevitable that the documentary concentrates most of its attention on his most famous contributions—spearheading the fights against AIDS and COVID in America—and it does so by highlighting the aforementioned parallels between the two epidemics while also giving us a Fauci’s-eye view of how each played out. Throughout, we go back and forth across the decades, with the help of news footage and extensive interviews, to gather insight from the defining moments of each of these historic public health battles; we are reminded that, while Fauci was seen as the opposition by ACT UP and other AIDS activist organizations seeking to speed up the availability of drugs and treatment for HIV. He also listened to their concerns and learned from them. Bucking resistance from his colleagues, he gave activists and community members directly affected by AIDS a seat at the table and opened the door for their participation in designing the clinical trials that would ultimately bring the life-preserving drug cocktails that stopped a positive diagnosis from being a death sentence. While social media feeds over the past two years have been full of anti-Fauci posts reminding us of his early obstructionism in the AIDS fight, few have bothered to include the rest of that story, but “Fauci” sets the record straight.

In focusing on this end of history, however, the movie gives us a refresher course—as if one was needed—on the unprecedented level of opposition Fauci faced from the very administration it was his job to serve in the campaign against COVID. It reveals the pressures put on Fauci and his family by the vitriolic hatred of his detractors, the hardships imposed on his life and routine by the security protocols enacted in response to the death threats that come as a natural consequence of being used as a political scapegoat. And it makes quite clear that those who protest his methods this time around are working from a very different motivation than the one that drove the heroes of ACT UP.

More important than any of this, perhaps, is the chance “Fauci” gives us to get to know the man himself. The filmmakers position him squarely in his rightful place at the center of their movie, allowing us a look past the professional veneer that has become a fixture on news broadcasts and at press conferences. What we see there is the man we know, amplified by the freedom to let his compassion, his humanity, his intelligence, and yes, his sense of humor show. It’s a winning portrait that never rings false, and the eager participation of a widely varied crowd of interviewees to sing his praises—from George W. Bush to Susan Rice to Peter Staley to Bono—only reinforces its sincerity.

Of course, those who dislike Fauci are unlikely to be swayed by the sympathetic portrait offered by Hoffman and Tobias’ film—which, though it, like Fauci himself, is candid in acknowledging his missteps along the way, offers little in the way of negative commentary about its subject—and will doubtless brush it aside as “woke” propaganda. To answer that phenomenon, it might be best to offer a quote from the good doctor about why he is so hated by his critics.

“I represent something that is uncomfortable for them. It’s called the truth.”

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‘Evan Hansen’ is better than you think – and that’s too bad

Platt’s artificiality, film’s tokenism hard to get past

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Ben Platt and Kaitlyn Dever in ‘Dear Evan Hansen.’ (Photo courtesy Universal Pictures)

It’s always a let down when a movie doesn’t live up to your expectations.

Take, for example, “Dear Evan Hansen,” Steven Chbosky’s new film version of the Tony-winning Broadway musical that made stars of its lead actor (Ben Platt) and songwriters (Benj Pasek and Justin Paul). Based on the less-than-favorable buzz – especially around the choice to let Platt reprise a role for which he was now a decade older – that dominated online conversation around it in the weeks before its release, I walked into the theater fully expecting to see an appallingly terrible movie.

To my deep disappointment, it was not. Don’t get me wrong – it wasn’t a great one, either. It just wasn’t the so-bad-it’s-good disaster I was looking forward to hating.

If you’re unfamiliar, “Evan Hansen” is the tale of a teenager (Platt) returning to school for his senior year after a traumatic summer experience. Struggling with severe social anxiety, he lives with a divorced mother (Julianne Moore) who works extra shifts to make ends meet. Assigned by his therapist to write himself encouraging letters every day, his life turns upside down when a classmate named Connor (Colton Ryan) intercepts one such letter and takes it from him. When Connor takes his own life a few days later, his parents (Amy Adams, Danny Pino) find the letter in his pocket and mistakenly think it was written by their son to a secret friend; they reach out to Evan, hoping to hear stories about a happier Connor than the angry loner they knew at home. Though he tries at first to correct their misunderstanding, his desire to ease their grief soon has him inventing a friendship that never existed. It’s a well-intentioned lie that soon snowballs on the internet, making Evan a viral sensation and putting him at the center of an online awareness-raising movement called The Connor Project – not to mention gaining him the attention of Connor’s sister Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever), who has been his longtime crush from afar. When things inevitably begin to spiral out of his control, he is forced to recognize that building a new life for himself on a falsehood might have consequences he never had in mind – but can he muster the courage to come clean and expose himself to the world as a fraud before it’s too late to reverse the damage he’s already done?

The stage original was a hit on Broadway in 2015, but despite its popularity and accolades, it was not without its detractors. Critics and audiences alike found numerous reasons to be uncomfortable with its premise – not the least of which involved the questionable ethics at its core. The movie, which was adapted by Steven Levenson from his original book for the show, corrects for some of those criticisms, boosting the story’s diversity with a few minor character revisions and expanding the ending to allow a more complete redemption arc for its leading character. It also doubles down on the show’s youth appeal by building up some of the original content around the show’s younger characters – including a substantially expanded role for Evan’s overachieving schoolmate Alana (Amandla Stenberg) – and cutting some from around the adults. For the most part, these changes strengthen and deepen the narrative; likewise, the very nature of the cinematic medium gives it an obvious advantage in exploring the story’s underlying concern with the power of the internet over our cultural and social lives. 

Yet despite these improvements, “Evan Hansen” on film still falls short of being excellent. It’s not because of weak direction; Chbosky has a gift for conveying the complex and conflicting emotions of teenage experience with nuance and insight, something that goes a long way toward keeping “Evan Hansen” from becoming trite. Nor is it the cast; the film’s talented ensemble of players is more than up to the challenge of jumping from realistic scene work into the full conceit of a musical number and finding just the right balance to make it work. In particular, the always-luminous Moore is pitch-perfect as Evan’s mom, as is Adams as her grieving counterpart; and Dever is unequivocally superb as Zoe, quietly providing the heartbreaking honesty necessary to make her character’s journey come clearly and authentically to life – something absolutely needed if we are to believe in her relationship with Evan.

And that brings us to the problem: Evan himself is a hard sell. On one hand, he is grappling with mental health issues, not to mention an absent father and an overextended mother, and therefore draws our sympathies; yet on the other, he deceives and manipulates people to gain the things he is missing in his life – the attention of his classmates, a girlfriend, a substitute family – and justifies it with the belief that he is benefitting a higher cause. Platt’s performance on Broadway helped make it work through the raw power of his emotion and his prowess as a singer.

But the world has changed in the years since “Evan Hansen” landed on Broadway. During a cultural crisis born (among other things) of the ease by which “alternative facts” can disrupt our lives, it’s grown more difficult to find such a character appealing, no matter how soulfully he delivers Pasek and Paul’s heart-tugging pop-flavored showtunes. And while Platt may deliver a faithful rendering of his acclaimed stage performance, next to the elegant self-assurance of the rest of the film’s cast he seems over-the-top, a bundle of performative tics and mannerisms that distract us from the reality of Evan’s struggles and make him come off as disingenuous.

As for the controversy around his age, it should be noted that all the movie’s teen characters are played by actors in their 20s, a common practice in Hollywood movies. Still, in spite of the sometimes painfully obvious efforts made to “youthen” him for the camera, Platt is still noticeably older-looking than his co-stars, something that (for obvious reasons) is particularly troubling in his scenes with Dever, who is much more convincing as a 17-year old than he.

Still, it’s not the age problem alone that keeps “Evan Hansen” from winning us over. It’s the combination of all the artificiality he brings with him – which includes our knowledge that his father, Marc C. Platt, co-produced the film. It has the counter-productive result of tainting the sincerity of everything we see on the screen, even to the point of giving the movie’s nods to diversity and inclusion an unpleasant odor of tokenism, and it ensures that we are not quite as eager to bestow forgiveness on the title character as the story wants us to be.

That’s why it’s a disappointment that “Dear Evan Hansen” isn’t terrible. It might have been one of the great Hollywood debacles, a monumental flop to be revered by generations of audiences who loved to make fun of it. It could have been a camp classic.

Instead, it’s just another promising project sunk by Hollywood hubris, a mediocre misfire with a few good moments that never really had the chance at being more than that, but certainly could have been so much less.

That, at least, would have made it memorable.

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‘Cured’ beautifully chronicles fight for dignity

New doc revisits APA designation of homosexuality as a sickness

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Disguised as ‘Dr. H. Anonymous’ in an oversized tuxedo and distorted Nixon mask, Dr. John Fryer sent shock waves through the APA’s 1972 convention. (Photo by Kay Tobin; courtesy Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library)

At the 1970 American Psychiatric Association convention, in front of 10,000 professional members, LGBTQ activists had a single rejoinder to decades of APA designation of homosexuality as a sickness in need of treatment: “There is no ‘cure’ for that which is not a disease.” It marked the first direct clash with a psychiatric profession that had classified homosexuality as a mental disorder and advised everything from talk therapy to psychologically destructive shock therapy to “cure” homosexuality. 

After Stonewall, gay activists concluded that the classification of homosexuality as a mental illness by the APA would hold back the advancement of the gay rights movement. To secure equality, activists knew they had to debunk the idea that they are sick. 

The struggle to remove homosexuality from the APA’s definition of mental illness is beautifully chronicled in the forthcoming documentary “Cured” — beautifully because the filmmakers contrast erroneous characterizations of homosexuality by mid-century psychiatrists with mid-century photographs that bore witness to gay people’s actual nature. 

Getting the APA to change required more than storming conferences. Gay activists, for instance, pinpointed sympathetic young psychiatrists who could act to reform the APA from within and helped them win seats on the Board of Trustees. Meanwhile, the culture was changing. In the 1970s, gay visibility was growing, which boosted the campaign to end the sickness label. 

At its 1972 convention, the APA offered a platform to gay rights activists Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings. The duo invited Dr. John Fryer to testify about what it was like to be a gay psychiatrist. Fearing damage to his reputation (he had previously lost a position for being gay), Fryer donned a mask and adopted the title H. Anonymous. Despite his cloaked persona, his testimony was, in the words of one attendee, a “game-changer.” 

Fryer spoke as a gay man with “real flesh and blood stand[ing] up before this organization and ask[ing] to be listened to” and evoked the great emotional toll of being forced to live in the closet — “this is the greatest loss: our honest humanity.” The tide was turning but the intransigent faction needed a few more kicks. Representing a new generation of psychiatrists, Dr. Charles Silverstein would lay down the gauntlet: The APA could either continue to promote “undocumented theories that have unjustly harmed a great number of people” or accept the genuine science that being gay was no illness. At the next year’s convention, in a final clash between opposing sides, Gay Activist Alliance member Ronald Gold pointed out the absurdity that a medical practice predicated on making sick people well was making “gay people sick.” The APA ended its mental illness classification in 1974. 

“Cured” represents a growing awareness of the history of “curing” homosexuality. Netflix recently premiered “Pray Away” about the so-called “ex-gays” who promoted conversion therapy, the destructive practice by fundamentalist Christian quacks. The film “Boy Erased” (2018) took a similar sledgehammer to conversion therapy. 

Precisely because of the long-term ill-effects of stigmatizing gay consciousness, the LGBTQ community has in recent years targeted conversion therapy. Twenty states have banned conversion therapy for minors, and an additional five states have enacted partial bans. 

Although thoroughly discredited by medical professionals, including the APA, conversion therapy continues to harm thousands of youths each year. While “Cured” is instructive for LGBTQ activists combatting conversion therapy nationwide, it has an even more important lesson. 

“There isn’t anything wrong with them, so there can’t be anything wrong with me,” is how one gay man remembers feeling upon entering a gay bar, witnessing convivial gay men and realizing it was time to ditch his homophobic shrink and embrace himself. 

It struck a deep chord with me because I had a similar epiphany as a young man. Feeling my way around my sexuality as a grad student in New York, it all finally came together one night at a Greenwich bar as I sat across from two gay men and chatted about traveling and career ambitions. I am doing nothing wrong, I thought. It made no sense to be afraid of living my life as a gay man.

Our determination to live openly remains a potent inspiration for those still struggling with acceptance, and the strongest rebuke of those who would seek to erase us. 

“Cured” premieres on PBS on Oct. 11. 

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