The story behind this three-part US indie is as fascinating as the end result. Long before he achieved notoriety with microbudget Mormon sci-fi bonanza ‘Plan 10 from Outer Space’, director Trent Harris was a jobbing cameraman for a small Salt Lake City news organisation. Out in the parking lot one afternoon to test a new camera, Harris found himself face to face with Richard Griffith, aka 'Groovin’ Gary', a young comic impressionist from nearby Beaver who had come to the station seeking fame and fortune. Harris filmed Griffith performing some bizarre, off-the-cuff impersonations (John Wayne and Barry Manilow), and was so taken that he agreed to travel back to Beaver and shoot Griffith’s performance as Olivia Newton John in an upcoming talent contest he was promoting.
This interview, and the talent show itself, form the first section of ‘The Beaver Trilogy’, a short documentary entitled ‘Beaver Kid’. Harris never actually got around to cutting the footage until years later, but the experience made an indelible impression on him: in 1981 the experience became the inspiration for a second ‘Beaver Kid’, with Sean Penn (fresh from the set of ‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High’) taking on the role of 'Gary' in a zero-budget short which expands beyond the original footage to imagine what might have happened the day after his cross-dressing talent show appearance. This take on the material also delves into the personal life of Harris himself, portrayed as a conniving, exploitative stoner sniggering at the deluded Gary. A third shot at the material came in 1985 in the form of a relatively professional short retitled ‘The Orkly Kid’, in which Crispin Glover (on his days off from ‘Back to the Future’) once more reinterprets the character, this time as an overweening, desperate outcast who explores his own repressed homosexuality through dressing up as his idol Olivia.
Taken individually, each segment would make a fascinating curio, particularly the original ‘Beaver Kid’, in which the sheer car-crash magnetism of this hyperactive loon leaps off the screen. But by exploring the character in fiction, by projecting his own concerns and assumptions onto him, by involving and criticising his own persona as ‘director’, and by repeating the material and forcing us to examine our own reactions to it, Harris transforms these three shorts into something extraordinary.
The fact of Groovin’ Gary’s homosexuality, for example, is no more than a simmering subtext in the original documentary: sure, he likes to dress up in women’s clothes, but so did Ed Wood. He’s flamboyant, twitchy and expressive, but none of this makes him definitively gay, in fact, he takes pains to stress how much he ‘loves women’, right down to his car, Farrah. It’s the late '70s, and men with blow-dried hair and snappy clothes were all over the TV and movies – they just weren’t all over Beaver, Utah. By taking a leap in his two fictionalised treatments and defining the character’s sexuality, Harris makes his film about more than just one isolated oddball, but about the legions of closeted kids up and down the country who, like Gary, lived with fear, self-loathing and suicidal thoughts.
And, by involving himself in the proceedings, Harris also asks us to confront the way we look at real-life characters in movies, whether historical or living; we accept fictional portrayals as, to some extent, ‘real’, they influence the way we perceive, for example, the work of a particular musician or artist. But how much of this ‘truth’ has been filtered through the perceptions and prejudices of a particular scriptwriter or director? By repeating the ‘real’ incidents of the first movie, by adapting them, in both significant and barely noticeable ways, to fit his budgetary needs or current preoccupations, Harris shows how easy it is to manipulate reality, and an audience.
‘The Beaver Trilogy’ has, to my knowledge, never been shown in the UK outside of a festival, and is only available on DVD by contacting the director personally. But this is a film whose reputation continues to grow, slowly, inexorably. It’s a remarkable piece of work; flawed, to be sure, and often deeply uncomfortable, but still achingly sympathetic and genuinely inquisitive about the different ways people live, and the secrets they keep, even from themselves.
On a final, sad and oddly coincidental note, a few days after watching the film and writing this piece I learned that Richard Griffith, the original Groovin’ Gary, passed away peacefully at the age of 50. He died a married man, though childless: read into that what you will. It felt strange after watching ‘The Beaver Trilogy’, to discover that this odd, enthusiastic, giddy, ludicrous, clearly very genuine individual wasn’t just an invented character, but was really out there in the world. It somehow feels even stranger to discover that he no longer is.