Writers: Aisling Chin-Yee and Amos Mac
Directors: Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt
Billy Tipton is a trans legend, but he was never meant to be. Although he was a famous jazz pianist, he was a private family man adopting three children with his wife Kitty. It wasn’t his life that put him in the media spotlight, but his death. When Tipton died, people discovered that he had the body of a woman. No Ordinary Man is an intriguing documentary that looks less at Tipton’s life, and more at how people reacted to his death in 1989.
The press responded to Tipton’s body with glee, using words like ‘deception’ in their discourse, suggesting that there was something underhand about his decision to live as a man. Tipton’s family went on chat shows, such as Oprah, to offer the real story, but here Tipton was sometimes referred to as a woman and people suggested to Kitty that she must have known the sex of her husband and that she was therefore a lesbian. These interviews are painful to watch, and a sharp reminder of how far we have come since the 1980s. But there is still a long way to go until trans people can live safe public and private lives.
A series of talking heads, most of them trans, talk about how Tipton has given them courage in their own lives or how they lament the fact that Billy’s gender reveal has overshadowed his talents as a musician. Tipton lived in a time where openly trans bodies were so rare that he was able to live as man with most people never suspecting, that he was able to hide in plain sight as interviewee Marquise Vilsón so fittingly suggests. However, most of the trans men who take part in this film don’t want to hide but are proud to be recognised as trans.
Some of these men are auditioning for a play or a film based on Tipton’s life, and it’s an interesting strategy by directors Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt to bridge the gap between these two different generations. Each actor brings something different to the role, and with only photographs and audio recordings remaining of Tipton, his life is up for reinterpretation. We see many versions of Billy, and the casting is shrewdly colour-blind.
It is in these scenes that we discover that Billy probably met another trans man, a radio announcer, early on in his career and it’s absorbing to see the actors respond to this encounter, with the script hinting at the fact that the two men may have ‘read’ each other at that moment. It’s a shame that there are not more scenes from this adaptation, as it seems a novel way to describe how a historical person’s life impacts the lives of people today.
These segments are surprisingly more successful than the interview with Billy Tipton Junior, and while it’s redeeming for him to see his father’s life, and death, being taken seriously unlike the earlier salacious media coverage, the documentary makers seen too determined to earn a response from him with their questions. Billy Junior seems stunned that his father is still in the news.
We will never know the obstacles that Tipton faced in his life as a man, and so this documentary wisely doesn’t offer too much supposition apart from short scenes from the play/film. But others have reimagined his life for fiction. In 1998, Scottish author Jackie Kay explored the life of Joss Moody, a black trans man, in her novel Trumpet, influenced by Billy Tipton and the media furore that occurred after his death. But in this we only ever see Joss through his family’s eyes as they try to preserve his history against the machinations of a hungry journalist. Joss remains an enigma, like Tipton himself.
But perhaps because we know so little Tipton remains a hero for our times, and the fact that he was a jazz artist chimes with today’s generation of trans people. Jazz, unlike other musical genres, allows for improvisation, a liberation for those who want to fashion new selves.
BFI Flare runs here from 17 March to 28 March 2021