I Am Michael, review, London LGBT Film Festival 2015: Michael Glatze biopic of man who shocked gay world by going straight

James Franco stars as the former gay activist Michael Glatze who denounced homosexuality when he found religion

Rakesh Ramchurn
Thursday 19 March 2015 10:17 GMT
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

James Franco must be one of Hollywood’s most supportive figures when it comes to depicting stories of gay identity on film.

While other actors have refused to play gay for fear of damaging their careers, Franco has taken roles as a gay campaigner in Milk and as Beat poet Allen Ginsberg in Howl, while his credits as director include Interior.Leather Bar and Sal, which depicts the last day in the life of Sal Mineo, one of the first openly-gay Hollywood stars.

However, few stories of sexual identity are as controversial as that of Michael Glatze, the real-life gay activist who shocked the gay community when he left his boyfriend of 10 years, denounced homosexuality and became a Christian pastor.

I Am Michael starring James Franco
I Am Michael starring James Franco

Franco takes on the starring role in I Am Michael, which begins in San Francisco in 1998, where a bleach-haired Michael Glatze together with his colleagues on gay magazine XY are discussing how to respond to the brutal and apparently homophobic murder of student Matthew Shepard. Although Michael is in his element as a gay activist working on a publication which gave him an influential voice in the LGBT community, he is forced to abandon all this when his boyfriend Bennet (played by Star Trek’s Zachary Quinto) finds work in his hometown of Halifax.

Bored and frustrated away from the action of San Francisco, the relationship becomes a little more complicated by the addition of Tyler (Charlie Carver), and although Michael and Bennet start up a new magazine for LGBT youth called Young Gay America (YGA), Michael is beset by other concerns. Having lost both his parents while still in his teens, he begins to wonder if he might see them again in the afterlife, while a period of panic attacks makes him worry that he has inherited the heart condition that killed his father. Then suddenly, Michael packs up and leaves Bennet to join bible study classes, the beginning of a journey that, via an ill-fated period with the Mormons and a foray into Buddhist retreats, will see him publicly denounce homosexuality as ‘abnormal’ and eventually become a Christian minister.

The film is the directorial debut of Justin Kelly, who worked as assistant director to Gus Van Sant on Milk. (In fact, the idea for the film originated with Van Sant, who read an article entitled ‘My Ex-Gay Friend’ in New York Times Magazine written by Benoit Denizet-Lewis, Glatze’s former colleague on XY magazine).

It would have been easy for Kelly to direct a feature which depicted Glatze as a self-hating gay man who hurls himself back in the closet, but the truth may be more complicated (some have suggested Glatze may not have been gay in the first place), and the film attempts to present the facts of his life at the time without making judgments.

Although this is undoubtedly an even-handed approach to take, it leads to a film which is a lot less dramatic than you would expect considering it centres on a character torn between the distant poles of gay activism and conservative Christianity. This is not helped by the fact that other characters in the film are not very well developed, and far more could have been made of Zachary Quinto in the role of Bennet (especially his reaction to losing his partner of 10 years), and the effect that Glatze’s decision to campaign against homosexuality has on other members of the LGBT community.

I Am Michael starring James Franco
I Am Michael starring James Franco

Where the film is most interesting, however, is in its documentary value. Some of the dialogue will be familiar from articles or blog posts written by Glatze (during his period of gay activism and after his religious conversion) or by former colleagues, providing viewers with an almost journalistic account of Glatze’s crisis of identity.

The film could prove uncomfortable viewing for some, coming at a time when the gay community still faces massive opposition from certain religious communities, which at their least malign peddle ideas as destructive as ‘conversion therapy’ and of homosexuality as a ‘lifestyle choice’.

However, the fact that I Am Michael has been chosen as the opening film for this year’s London LGBT Film Festival is proof perhaps of just how resilient the gay community can be.

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