Becoming Chaz

Becoming Chaz debuts tonight on OWN at 9 p.m. Eastern.

During the final scene of Becoming Chaz, titular star (no pun intended) Chaz Bono turns to his partner Jenny and surmises that, “Under the best of circumstances, relationships are tough. When you throw in substance abuse and a sex change, it gets a little bit more complicated.” 

That quote, whether or not directors Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato (Party Monster, Inside Deep Throat) intended it, could just as readily speak for the movie itself. By turns powerfully direct and a bit overstuffed, Becoming Chaz’s greatest depth comes from Bono himself. The daughter, now son, of Cher and late entertainer/Congressman Sonny Bono, as well as a noted LGBT activist, let Bailey and Barbato’s crew follow alongside him and Jenny for over a year, beginning with Chaz’s preparations for gender-transition surgery to remove his breasts and concluding around the time that he attended his famous mother’s Burlesque premiere. And after almost 90 incredibly honest, wrenching minutes, it’s clear that all Chaz has to gain in publicly sharing this documentary is inciting a dialogue about transgender issues and offering encouragement to individuals still coping with feeling outside their skin. 

As he states himself during a package of images from a post-op Entertainment Tonight photo shoot, “I don’t think of myself as a celebrity. I’m a regular person living in an unusual circumstance, trying to make the best of it.” It’s a reconciliation only achieved after decades of enduring the uncomfortable spotlight of childhood notoriety, an adolescence and a young adulthood defined by insecurity and a decades-long battle with drug use. 

Whether sitting casually in a wife-beater, tattoos covering the near-entirety of his arms, reflecting on his lot in life with candid vulgarity, or dropping his medical gown in silence as a surgeon outlines marks for incision, Chaz is an absolutely compelling figure. Jenny gets nearly equal camera time, although her own issues with alcoholism can only be touched on superficially, making her a more inscrutable figure. But for the first half of Becoming Chaz’s running time, the turbulence and togetherness of their five-year relationship becomes the universal thread the movie needs in order to avoid scaring off more provincial viewers. 

Naturally, Bailey and Barbato—veteran reality producers/directors with far more TV than feature credits under their World of Wonder banner—must have begun to sense that there was a whole other movie within the original framework. Unfortunately, by the time we’re months past Chaz’s surgery and still lingering on his and Jenny’s struggles as a couple, it starts to feel like something more voyeuristic and invasive for its own sake. There are some fascinating conversations surrounding Chaz’s increasing machismo and the way in which it forces Jenny back into the dynamics of a typical hetero union. But as the movie enters its final act, that story veers too far into domestic melodrama (with plenty still left ambiguous about Jenny’s alcohol issues and their effect on the relationship), cheapening the way in which Chaz had generated the movie’s resonance from a place of genuine intimacy up to that point. 

Additional scenes that could have been fine as Blu-Ray extras given time limitations, such as a hastily explained glimpse at Chaz’s work with a support organization for transgendered kids, feel like feature-length padding. One wonders if Bailey and Barbato didn’t opt to integrate all these different second-half storylines—a very hurried account of Chaz and Sonny’s relationship, his reconnecting with old friends and girlfriends—as the groundwork for an episodic reality franchise. 

Whatever the directors’ creative or careerist intentions, an enormous percentage of Becoming Chaz benefits from Bono and Bono alone. Virtually every second he’s on screen, his message and experiences and the motivation behind them are remarkable stuff, and OWN is off to promising beginnings by standing behind them.

Stray observations:

  • Yes, Cher is interviewed. And yes, I am as surprised as the rest of you that they didn’t touch on the irony of her massively transformational procedures. Wusses.
  • Sphynxes are gross.
  • The post-op reveal scene was icky (although no more so than typical breast implantation results), and the juice grenade-like blood drains attached to Chaz in recovery made me squeamish. But all in all, they mercifully demure from actual medical footage. 
  • “Whoa, flip that bacon.” (Not what you’re thinking.)
  • Wow. Chaz's sister Chiana is smokin’.
  • Touched By an Angel. Who knew?
  • I love that Chaz is a secret gamer. That was actually worked into the larger narrative quite effectively. 
  • Six and a half pounds???? Holy crap. (Probably what you’re thinking)
  • If I could sum up this review in a nutshell, it would be: You go, guy.