She Ain’t Heavy:
But Alexis Arquette's Documentary Is Pretty Light Too

by Tony Phillips

New York has long known that Alexis Arquette is spelled with a capital T, but this is probably the first visit from Los Angeles where pronoun usage has been thrown into such high relief. The sib-lebrity kept a pen of photogs waiting a bit too long at the photo op before her press conference at the Tribeca Film Festival until one of them growled, “Alright, where the fuck is she?” Okay, then, she it is. The fact is, I had just sat through an entire documentary on the subject and still didn’t know what pretty wanted to be called. And perhaps Arquette would assert that it’s none of my business, but then why make a film about it in the first place?

"I don't know why I feel this way,” Arquette answers, “is me feeling female the same as J.lo feeling black? I don't know. I don't know why she feels that way.” And here I thought J.lo was Puerto Rican, but what do I know? At least no one is going to accuse Arquette of not remaining true to form. Today the 36-year-old is sporting a cheetah skin blouse and long black pencil skirt capped by a shiny white-blonde dynell wig. The effect is decidedly Nicky Hilton meets hooker on a corporate job interview. Either way Alexis means business, only in that Working Girl: head for business, bod for sin type of way. Alexis takes a moment to reapply her lip-gloss.

Still, the question remains, why release a film about gender transition into the same cultural moment that will gape at the gastric bypass of Carnie Wilson? Arquette’s answer — and are you sitting? — is that it’s a matter of taking the high road. “I’m the type of person my whole life that likes to think that things could be on the table, that there’s no subject that couldn’t be broached, but I got to a point in the process — and I don’t know if this is something that happens to everybody who goes through this or just me being raised in a family who have attention garnered towards us because of our work — where I felt this is something I wanted to share, but I wasn’t willing to answer the questions about surgeries, hormones or genitalia because it felt like it was taking away and back-stepping.”

Perhaps I’m just giving Arquette a hard time here. There’s a lot to like about the documentary Alexis Arquette: She's My Brother. There’s Arquette’s foul-mouthed, road rage behind the wheel, her significantly younger boyfriend, even her brave stand against the Harry Benjamin guidelines, which each candidate for sex reassignment must meet in order to qualify for surgery but whose Gender Identity Disorder diagnosis could be used by families to lock up any unfortunate candidates who begin the process too early and receive their diagnosis before turning eighteen. But come on, Alexis playing the dignity card? I’m all for dignity, but this is the same person who turned auto-fellatio into such a well known party trick in the nineties that it was impossible to walk into an event in New York when she was in town without hearing some jaded party-goer mention that Alexis is in the back blowing himself. Again.

And why is it okay to commit that act to celluloid, as Arquette did in Armory Peart’s 2001 cyber-kink sampler Digital Sex? “I don’t want this subject to be misunderstood anymore,” Alexis explains of gender reassignment surgery, “but at the same time it’s different for each person that goes through it so I can’t really speak for a group of people. It was something that became very upsetting, actually, the fact that people would direct all their questions towards the surgeries — I understand, that’s a kind of perversion — but I don’t think people realize when they relate to someone like myself, even with compliments, it can be kind of insulting. You have to do a lot of tongue biting.”

Indeed, so maybe I should start biting mine. After all, I don’t know what it was like to be born into a famous family. I did share a penchant for some of the same New Wave hairdos that Arquette sports in the Tarnation style video flashbacks in the film. However, that never really led to any serious exploration of gender on my part. But what of that famous family? David, Rosanna, Patricia? Well, they do show up here, but never in formal sit-down interviews, many times they just happen to be along for the ride. They all seem supportive, especially Patricia, who is clearly the fag hag of the family. “Initially they were like we’ll go on camera, whatever you want. But even with my family and their acceptance of all different lifestyles, it still is difficult. They don't want to offend,” Arquette explains of his brood, “They don't want to mess up and call me he. My family saw the film and if anything they're more concerned about my safety and having my feelings hurt. And that’s what any family would feel.”

But Arquette is not so out of touch as to deny that his last name is a big part of the draw. “A part of me knows that nobody would be having this press conference or having this film made if I wasn’t involved in a Hollywood family. There are transgender documentaries made all the time, but the interest lies in my brothers and sisters and I know that,” Arquette admits. Still, when an AFI tribute is documented in the film, one realizes Arquette has been no slouch in the film department either, going all the way back to his mesmerizing, 1989 debut as Georgette in Last Exit to Brooklyn and highlighted by turns as varied as one of Parker Posey’s serial killings in the demented Frisk to an abrasive punk rocker in the Chucky doll franchise. It’s perhaps saddest that the closest he’s ever come to playing a woman on screen was ten years ago as a Boy George wannabe in The Wedding Singer. When you scan through his credits on IMDB, the first shock is just how busy this Arquette has been, but the second, and far more serious jolt is just how little work there is for an actor who decides to swap genders mid-career.

“I’m pretty lucky,” Arquette admits, “I’m at a point in my life where I can turn things down. In the past two years I’ve turned down three really huge movies and it was simply because of the subject matter. And I have no problem with people playing whatever kind of roles they want and continuing the stereotypes, whether it be through comedy or whatever, but they’ve got to sleep at night knowing that they produced these kinds of characters on film propagating all this stuff. I’m not saying I’m a role model, but I’m not willing to do that any longer. If they want to offer me lots and lots of money and still it’s something that they can’t change the writing to make me feel comfortable then I just won’t do it. So I’ve turned down some really good movies because there’s a misunderstanding about someone like myself.” So, is Arquette going to name those movies? She stands about as much chance of doing that as flipping upside down in her high director’s chair to auto-fellate herself. And maybe that’s okay. Who says a leopard can’t change its spots, at least into cheetah?

“The most important thing I did was coming out to family and friends and saying I’m transgendered,” Arquette states. “A lot of the people we approached to cover this documentary were trying to influence the actual process of documentary, which I don’t think can ever be beneficial. And the idea that there needs to be surgerical photography going on, I mean, there is some stuff where I go to the doctor and we talk about my body, but that kind of exploitive nature of wanting to really peer into something you’re going to giggle about, we really had to struggle with that because people wanted there to be an ending that had that kind of punch. I thought this was the whole point: that’ s not a correct way to relate to anyone. I mean, I can’t imagine going to Darfur and doing a documentary and obsessing on the really horrific physical and visual things. No, you talk about people and their experiences, you don’t center on something we’d run in our mind over and over. Right now it’s a time in the world where people are starting to mature a lot. It has nothing to do with age. I think as a race of people we’re starting to realize that no one is going to enjoy their life if there’s suffering all around them.”

But what about the people all around her? The film chronicles no less than five tabloid reporters whom she counts as friends. It’s so enervating at times you want to smack her upside the head. “There’s a character in the piece named Ian Drew who was a friend,” Arquette explains, “eventually I started to realize his work as a tabloid writer might have something to do with his friendship with me. It ended up becoming an ugly situation as far as our friendship, but I don’t have any problem with the guy. He’s a good guy, I’m sure, he even introduced me to my director so that was a great thing. For a moment, he wanted to produce this, he brought me to Fox and that fell through because of him. I can’t imagine Fox handling it correctly. So in the long run, after a couple of different people fell through, another one was a producer who worked with Michael Jackson, it ended up with the best, but it wasn’t the kind of subject that needed anymore exploitation. It needed clarification.”

So, did she or didn’t she? I think what Arquette is saying is only her beautician will ever know for sure, and perhaps the strength of Alexis Arquette: She's My Brother is the way that it forces us to make peace with that and reintroduces a novel concept into the discussion of the body: personal privacy. “I was born male,” Arquette sums, “I will always be transgender female. I’ll never be a biological female, and I don’t shake my fist at God because of that.”