“He had a career that had these wild swings from huge successes to miserable failures. He was somebody who really went for it. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. When it worked, it was magic and when it didn’t…it’s still fascinating to look at and to talk about.”
This is the crux of the story Jeffrey Schwarz (Vito, I Am Divine, Tab Hunter Confidential) tells about the outrageous and flamboyant Hollywood producer Allan Carr in his latest documentary, The Fabulous Allan Carr — which is screening at the Outfest Film Festival in Los Angeles.
“I never met Allan Carr, [but] I knew who he was. I certainly knew his work,” Schwarz tells me in a phone interview for Gay Essential.
In the annals of entertainment history, the late Allan Carr is primarily known for producing the infamous 1989 Academy Awards telecast where Snow White attempted to interact with movie stars and then performed “Proud Mary” with Rob Lowe. But he previously experienced huge success producing Grease in 1978 and won a Tony Award for producing La Cage Aux Folles on Broadway in 1983.
Schwarz was 8-years-old when Grease came out. “That movie really obsessed me as a kid. I saw it multiple times. I had the soundtrack album. I had the trading cards. I even wrote a sequel to it called Grease 2 and I mailed it to Paramount Pictures,” he recalls.
Perhaps like most people, Schwarz didn’t know Carr’s personal story until a biography about him called Party Animals: A Hollywood Tale of Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘n’ Roll Starring the Fabulous Allan Carr by Robert Hofler came out a few years ago. “I read that book and just devoured it. I immediately thought that this could be a great, great movie. There are stories behind the making of these classic and/or infamous projects he was involved with, but also of his inner life – his insecurities, his battles with his weight, his personal relationships. All that was in the book.”
Schwarz was friends with Hofler and wound up optioning the book – which ultimately inspired the documentary. “Happily, the movie sort of took what the book started and even expanded on it because I ended up talking to a lot of people that Robert wasn’t aware of or wasn’t able to talk to.”
One of these such people was Tommy Williams – one of Carr’s “twinkies” (as referred to in the film) who had a special relationship with Carr. “He had these relationships with these guys that were not particularly deep,” Schwarz says about Carr’s personal life. “He didn’t have what you think of now as a partner on his own level. They [just] served their purpose at the time.”
Having previously reviewed Schwarz’s Tab Hunter Confidential documentary for Gay Essential, Schwarz knows how to tell a story. He says that he likes to make his documentaries very narrative-driven as it follows the journey of a lead character – much like in a scripted feature. But he also looks for larger themes to parallel the person’s life.
“The Fabulous Allan Carr tells Allan’s story,” he explains. “But it’s also a social history of gay life from the 50s when little gay boys would channel their obsessions through movies and would worship glamorous movie queens through the 70s when people started coming out of the closet through the 80s when AIDS came along and ruined the party for everyone. That’s sort of the backdrop of Allan’s story.”
Carr existed in what Schwarz refers to as an awkward time in gay identity after gay liberation where you could sort of be out, but it wasn’t talked about openly. “Allan was a little too early for gay liberation, but he had established himself in Hollywood after gay liberation. He was being outrageous and flamboyant, but that was still a point where it really wasn’t talked about openly. Allan played both sides of the coin in a similar way to somebody like Liberace and Paul Lynde would on 70s TV. They were outrageously gay but they never talked about it. I feel like Allan’s identity, taste, gay aesthetic and gay sensibility came through in his work.”
There may be no better example of this than Carr’s notorious 1980 box office flop Can’t Stop the Music – which starred Steve Guttenberg and the Village People. “It’s probably the gayest movie ever made without having anything explicitly gay in it. It was sort of like what the Village People did — which was present themselves as wildly crazily gay, but they never talked about that. That was sort of what Allan Carr was trying to do with the movie — trying to have an appeal to as broad an audience as possible, but give a wink and a nod to the gay people or the hip people in the audience who really knew what was going on.”
Carr was a producer, but he was also a celebrity – which was very uncommon at the time. “He cultivated an image for himself and in order to get awareness for his projects, he made himself famous,” Schwarz says. “He very much played the press. He knew how to manipulate the press and how to get headlines and how to get himself in the paper.”
One of those ways was to throw parties — anywhere from own his home (with a full discotheque) to a New York subway with lots of stars and powerful industry people. And the next day, it would be all over the press. “That’s what he wanted,” Schwarz notes. “He wanted people to talk about him. That was his reason to live – to get attention for himself or one of his movies.”
“But he was doing things for the love and the joy of entertainment,” Schwarz continues. “He loved classical Hollywood. He loved musicals. And he really did believe in a philosophy about entertainment being glamour and that the glamour was entertainment.”
Overshadowed by the outrageousness of his life and career are two key things about Carr that Schwarz pointed out in our interview. At a time when there weren’t a lot of women directing Hollywood features, Carr hired TWO female directors — Nancy Walker for Can’t Stop the Music and Patricia Birch for Grease 2. And at a terrible time in gay history — the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s — brought Le Cage au Folles, a musical with a gay love story at its center, to Broadway.
With The Fabulous Allan Carr documentary, Schwarz just wants people to remember Allan Carr – period. “He was a great showman. He had a very pure mission of wanting to bring joy to people’s lives. He didn’t care what anyone thought of him. He lived his life openly and without any shame. He was a difficult guy. He could drive people crazy. He was a complicated guy. But at the end of the day, he lived his dream. Maybe he overcompensated here and there, but he was a guy who had a dream from a very early age. He went about making that dream a reality. I think we can all identify with that. And now he’s in the history books.”