George Takei has had an extraordinary life, in both his career as an actor, and in his personal life. Born to Japanese parents, Takei is a passionate activist, promoting marriage equality, and trying to eradicate homophobia throughout the world. He and his partner, Brad produce hilarious skits that a hugely successful on the internet.
SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL: Agile and entertaining, much like its subject, To Be Takei is a documentary portrait of original Star Trek alum George Takei in the mold of personal, gem-like excavations like Bill Cunningham New York. Though better known than longtime New York Times street photographer Cunningham, Takei is not an obvious choice for documentary treatment. After the screening I attended, director Jennifer M. Kloot explained that it was Takei’s background as a Japanese-American imprisoned in the U.S.-based internment camps set up during World War II, his social activism, and his third act resurgence as cult darling and regular presence on the Howard Stern show that got her thinking. Takei’s oddly good humor in the face of all manner of mockery, as well, would surely catch a documentarian’s eye. As with many fringe celebrities, it doesn’t seem to matter to Takei what route the attention takes, as long as it arrives at regular intervals.
an enjoyable but somewhat ephemeral tribute to the Takei phenomenon
At least that’s the impression of someone only barely familiar with Takei’s contemporary persona, beginning with that goofy robot baritone and ending with the stuttering engine chuckle with which Takei greets everything from stinging off-color jokes to serious moments with his husband and partner of 30 years, Brad. On the Stern show especially, Takei’s grasp on his place in the pitiless Stern-iverse, where gay and ethnic humor make up part of the atmosphere, appears tenuous. Now in his mid-seventies, married, and a respected speaker on issues of marriage equality and civil rights, why would Takei risk indignity?
As if in answer to that question, Kloot opens To Be Takei with a Stern clip—of Howard complaining about having to appear in a documentary about Takei. That throwaway tone comes to dominate To Be Takei, an enjoyable but somewhat ephemeral tribute to the Takei phenomenon. In a scene of their early-morning walk, Brad and George are conscious of their (coveted) status as documentary subjects, and similar scenes of their old-married-couple fussing feel somehow performed and genuine at once. Kloot seems to have been inspired by Takei’s ability to move freely (and constantly) between sincerity and whimsy: interviews with Takei’s Star Trek colleagues (including a nonplussed William Shatner; the two are not friends) and fragments from Brad and George’s odd couple existence frame more serious material, like the story of the Takei family’s devastating imprisonment, and Takei’s decision to live a closeted life for the sake of his career.
The particular arc of that career grounds a film that tends to float from place to wittily observed place. A Japanese-American actor’s options were limited, especially in post-war America, to ethnic stereotypes, and Takei played his share. His casting on Star Trek proved influential for the next generation of Asian-Americans, as several performers, including John Cho, attest. Footage from non-Star Trek roles (including a scene with John Wayne) is a reminder of how rare it was (and to a great extent still is) for a visible minority to play something other than a visible minority in the mainstream of American culture. (Takei’s post-Star Trek years—the some 30 years preceding his cultural resurgence—receive little attention, despite the actor’s transition into politics and public service.)
Takei’s life as an invisible minority—a gay man—is the film’s other chief concern. An advocate for gay rights since he came out in 2005, Takei is a passionate speaker on these and other issues, as an edit of a one of his often performed speeches demonstrates. But To Be Takei doesn’t go much beyond the stump performances, into possible regrets or other human complications. If there is an idea behind the film’s slick, self-conscious packaging (including fleet editing, winking animations, and a cutesy score), it’s that George Takei the man and the George Takei the camp phenomenon are one and the same. Somehow I doubt it, but for better and worse it’s a theory Kloot makes tough to deny.