Review by Jacquelin Hipes
Described by his nephew as a “nasty, greasy, homophobic junkyard bulldog”, Butch Rosichan embodied the concept of hypermasculinity for the first part of his life. Nasty divorce proceedings over twenty years ago led to a stint in jail and killed his auto-wrecking business. When a second incarceration seemed likely, Butch chose to wait out his civil arrest warrant by living as a woman. It’s the beginning of an astonishing transformation. Inspired by Gloria Estefan and Gloria Steinem, Butch remakes himself as “Gloria Stein” with all the thoroughness and dedication once spent restoring classic cars. Home videos provide glimpses of Gloria settling on her new voice and style, then later follow her decision to undergo a sex change operation.
Gloria has led an unapologetically colorful life, yet by the end of Uncle Gloria a disconnect between her story and the viewer lingers. She touches on her time as a dominatrix, an unpleasant decision to make financial ends meet, as well as the far more fulfilling work she does now as an advocate for transgender people. Neither experience suffers from much examination; in fact, many of the milestones in Gloria’s life come across more like footnotes to the grandiose character she’s become. More compelling is the story of her partner, Dan Friedman. Born into an Orthodox Jewish family as Debra Freidman, he only fully came out to his family after the death of a grandparent. Dan’s recollections of his adolescence capture the uncertainty and fear experienced by so many transgender youths, and his honesty belies not just an admirable grace when facing those struggles, but also the difficulty of maintaining that poise.
While the inclusion of Dan is not only necessary, but welcome, his presence draws attention to inconsistencies in Gloria’s story that go unaddressed by director Robyn Symon and her team. When we first hear her account of Butch’s early cross-dressing days the experience comes across as an elaborate prank; by the end of Uncle Gloria, however, she talks as though there had always been a feeling of discontent in her previous life. Because the interviews are undated this shift could be due to the passage of time and Gloria’s growing acceptance of herself. However, that this and other disparities are allowed remain unexamined creates an off-putting distance between the subject and audience.
An attempted reconciliation with Gloria’s two sons is tacked on near the end; she has not had a relationship with them in years and it clearly causes her pain. Their absence, as well as that of Butch’s ex-wife Shirley, is never addressed. (Were they not invited to participate and share their perspective? Or did they decline or ignore any offer?) It’s a gaping hole in Gloria’s story and one that gives My Uncle Gloria a lopsided tone. Time and again the film provides glimpses of an experience worthy of understanding and respect, before shying away from details that carry with them the discomfort of an ambiguous reality. It’s a regrettable unevenness, but one that is made up for at times by the compellingly human presence of Dan.