Film: Man of the Year, sham of the year

Dirk Shafer: Playgirl centrefold, adored by millions of women - and gay. By John Lyttle
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The Independent Culture
Dirk Shafer is blond, 100 per cent prime US beefcake. Dirk Shafer was Playgirl's "Man of the Year 1992". Dirk Shafer spent 12 months on the road promoting the soft-porn magazine's "philosophy" of American womanhood. Dirk Shafer made chat show appearances on Joan Rivers et al and said, "Women just want to be acknowledged," to ecstatic applause. Dirk Shafer was proclaimed "the ideal man for all women".

Anything else? Oh, yes. Tiny detail. Dirk Shafer was - is - gay and has no idea what women want. But he's a good listener. Does that count?

"I can't believe he pulled it off for as long as he did," a talking head blithely intones right at the top of Shafer's mock documentary Man of the Year, a coolly campy recapitulation that proves beyond reasonable doubt that a) seeing is still believing, and b) most of the people can be fooled most of the time. Including yourself, if Shafer means what he says: "It's not that I try to get away with anything. It wasn't deliberate. It all just seemed to... happen."

The nude photo-shoots, the obsessed stalker/ fan, the guilt of self-denial, the threatening political attentions of professional "outers" determined to "liberate" Shafer for "his own good" - Man of the Year shows you exactly how it all happened. Well, perhaps not exactly. The film plays hilariously fast and loose with the boundaries between fact and fiction, between real event and artful retouch. Actors play actual people or composites of actual people, even as other actual people wander around being themselves. Similarly genuine footage segue into parody verite of our bewildered stud taking a Playgirl contest winner (female) on a dream date as his boyfriend hides, and seethes, in the shower stall of the hotel bathroom: "There I was, a grown man, fully clothed, feeling like a fool, my socks wet..."

The image earns both a laugh and a wince, a trick Man of the Year pulls off frame after frame: on the nightmarish dream date, Shafer is dragged to an off-Broadway musical about a man exploring his feminine side, and his distress is evident even as you're falling about to such choice lyrics as "Yesterday they used to call me killer/ Now at night I dress up like Ann Miller." Shafer prefers to see the funny side, but the picture is certainly about "hypocrisy and pretence, and about trying to keep your integrity". Indeed. Here's the ordinary gay man's apparently eternal passing- for-straight problem gone cosmic. Fame and fortune teeter in the balance. "It was insane," Shafer says in a voice that doesn't really match the golden-boy looks. Too sweet, too light... too smart. "That time was... not rewarding."

Shafer pauses, corrects himself. He's not unaware of the irony that his least favourite year has provided him not only with greater fame and potentially greater fortune, but with his big Hollywood break. Man of the Year certainly doesn't soft pedal his previous 12 years working behind the scenes in the movie industry, or ignore his early attempts to crash the business as an actor/ dancer, but neither does it make that much of a pre-Playgirl career as a student film-maker - Shafer was Oscar-nominated for the short film Lace Ladies - or the fact that he's the mastermind behind the LA cult stage show The Revolution of Larry Lamarca's Dance Palace. He's too seasoned a pro to be entirely convincing when he protests it "all just seemed to happen".

Which isn't to suggest that the finished product - nursed, and partially financed, to its post-rough-cut form by such friends as A-list Forrest Gump producer Steve Tisch - isn't a blast. It's merely that the otherwise bracing blend of fact and recreation also allows for more disingenuousness that is perhaps necessary. You suspect that Shafer knows it, too. Which might explain why at one point he has a cod-psychologist pop up to accuse him of "passive aggressive latent exhibitionist syndrome".

Which isn't a crime, or a criticism. Merely another contradiction. "I know," Shafer says. "It's odd. I had to come out and embrace the thing I was most afraid of and somehow I've been rewarded for it. But I did try to betray my own character. Because I did think of the person on screen as a character. In that sense, the story I was telling was not about myself." Which sounds like a cop-out, until you remember the wise words of Shafer's date upon her rude awakening: "Men - they're never what you think they are."

At the National Film Theatre, London SE1, tomorrow and 4 April. Booking: 0171-928 3232