June 11, 2013

"Costumed Panhandlers" Dream Of Stardom In CONFESSIONS OF A SUPERHERO


"Hollywood is a place where dreams are made and dreams are broken."
Zack Snyder's Superman reboot Man Of Steel will fly into theaters this weekend and I'm pretty damn excited about it.  I know everyone loves to hate on Superman as a character and I'll admit that his invulnerability ironically makes him an easy target, but I've loved the Big Blue Boy Scout ever since I first saw Richard Donner's film as a child.  My tickets are already purchased for the Saturday IMAX matinee (in 2D!) and my totally awesome Superman cape is at the ready.  (Yes, I have a cape and yes, I plan on wearing it.)  So this feels like an ideal time to discuss the documentary Confessions Of A Superhero, which delves into the lives of the infamous Hollywood street performers.

During my time as an L.A. security guard, I often worked at a place called Hollywood & Highland - a sort of outdoor mall located in the touristy heart of Hollywood Blvd right next to the famous Chinese Theater and the Dolby Theater (formerly Kodak Theater) where the Academy Awards are held each year.  I handled a variety of events there, from concerts to movie premieres to film shoots.  (I once spent a week trying to keep Asian tourists from blocking the sidewalks while taking pictures of Will Smith shooting a fight scene from Hancock.)  So believe me when I say that I've had a fair amount of exposure to the folks who spend their days sweating beneath the full body costumes of superheroes like Batman and Superman or famous film personas like Jack Sparrow or Marilyn Monroe.  They don't work for an agency and they don't get paid an hourly wage, just cash tips from tourists who want to their picture taken with their favorite character.  Some residents consider them to be a unique part of Hollywood legacy, while others consider them an annoyance at best and a menace at worst.  I'd even heard weird rumors, like the guy who plays Superman is secretly loaded and just dresses up as Supes for fun.

Confessions Of A Superhero is a bit of a technical mess, often looking like it was shot on a flip phone, but it's also a fascinating peek behind the psychological curtain of these costumed performers, be they lovable, psychotic or just plain odd.  Director Matthew Ogens chiefly follows four individuals: Christopher Dennis (Superman), Maxwell Allen (Batman), Jennifer Wenger (Wonder Woman), and Joe McQueen (Hulk), each of whom has a uniquely intriguing origin story and motivation for sticking with their bizarre profession, which was perfectly skewered in the new season of Arrested Development.

My favorite is easily Wenger, who makes a downright adorable Wonder Woman.  She's a small town former prom queen, the hottest fish in a Tennessee pond who moved to L.A. with dreams of stardom.  She's been plugging away at an acting career since she dropped out of college and is still searching for her big break, but she started doing the Wonder Woman thing as a way to make cash on the side.  She seems to have a good head on her shoulders and doesn't really take any of the superhero stuff too seriously.  We get a few scenes of her going to an audition and working with an acting coach and while she doesn't seem to take direction very well or have a huge emotional  range, she's actually pretty decent.  I've met plenty of would-be actors over the years that are just flat out unwatchable and don't seem to have any internal barometer about their talents.  I knew one woman who insisted that all she needed "was to get nominated," despite never having been cast in anything of note.  There's just no dealing with those people in any sort of rational way, but Wenger is attractive and self-effacing and seems to understand where her strengths lie and what kind of work she can and can't get.  Her struggle is mostly tied to her personal life, dealing with a husband she married in Vegas on the spur of the moment only to realize years later that they're not really right for each other.  But she's funny and lovable and takes everything in stride.  Much like the real Wonder Woman, she simply refuses to be knocked down.

At the exact opposite end of the spectrum is Maxwell Allen, a.k.a. Batman.  This is a guy with some dark psychological issues and a serious anger management problem.  He claims to have worked security for an organized crime family and even insists he killed a man but was never brought up on charges due to lack of evidence.  Whether that's true or not is a mystery, as even his own wife is skeptical of his shady past.  But he does train in various forms of martial arts and knows how to handle a firearm, so I certainly believe that he's capable.  Allen comes to symbolize the aggressive side of the Hollywood heroes, the ones who have repeatedly been arrested for angrily (sometimes violently) hassling tourists for not properly tipping them after photos.  These incidents happen every few months, and even prompted the characters to be banned from the streets of Hollywood for a time.  I've witnessed characters and pedestrians going at it on the sidewalk and it's always equal parts scary and amusing.  While it looks like two guys are about to come to blows over money, the fact that one is dressed as Spider-Man and wearing a fanny pack makes it hard to hold back the chuckles.  But Allen's story has an extra pathetic subplot: he too wanted to be a serious actor, but his career came to a grinding halt because the guy looks EXACTLY like a gap-toothed George Clooney - in the Batsuit, doubly so.  There are a million obstacles to overcome in the pursuit of acting success, but they all pale in comparison to being a doppelganger for one of the most recognizable and successful actor/directors in the business.

Joe McQueen, a.k.a. The Incredible Hulk is also trying to make it as an actor but he has easily the most stirring backstory: he moved to LA in the midst of the Rodney King riots and soon went broke, spending four years living on the street.  But he didn't let that deter his efforts and continued to go to auditions, carrying everything he owned in shopping bags.  That might sound insane to you, but I saw folks in a similar state of destitution at more than one of my auditions.  McQueen sees himself as a serious actor and he's got more than a little resentment towards his day job (the Hulk costume is hotter than hell) but he knows it's just a means to an end, a way for him to keep chasing his childhood dream.  McQueen's indomitable optimism is admirable and having started so low makes his minor victories seem all the more impressive.  (We see him get cast in a kung fu spoof called Finishing The Game, directed by Justin Lin before he settled in as the godfather of the Fast & Furious franchise.)  The guy is also able to maintain a terrific sense of perspective.  At one point he actually takes the camera crew to the back alley where he used to sleep and, like an ex-pat returning to his hometown, marvels at how different it all looks and just how far he's come.

And then there's Superman, a.k.a. Christopher Dennis.  He's rightly the main focus of the piece and I have to imagine that as soon as Ogens and crew stepped foot into his apartment, they knew they'd struck gold.  Every crevice of the place is overflowing with various Kal-El memorabilia, both purchased and created by Dennis himself.  The walls are completely plastered with posters and clippings, while the action figures and comic books pile up throughout the place.  I'm a Superman fan.  This guy is a Superman DISCIPLE.  More specifically, he worships at the altar of Christopher Reeve.  Dennis is very tall and downright gangly but his face is somewhat reminiscent of an anorexic Reeve, which he sees as the most important qualification for any Superman impersonator.  He goes to a Superman convention convinced he's going to win a costume contest, (he doesn't) despite the fact that his faded jumpsuit hangs limply on his rail thin frame.  Oh yeah, and he also may or may not be the son of deceased actress Sandy Dennis, best remembered as not-Elizabeth Taylor in Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?  Dennis doesn't seem to have any other means of employment and takes his street performing the most seriously of the bunch, never unduly hassling the tourists and considering himself a legitimate ambassador of Hollywood.  And while he's very sweet, it's hard to ignore the fact that he doesn't seem to live in the same reality as the rest of us.

When it comes to film performers, there are two kinds of people: the ones who want to be actors, and the ones who want to be famous.  The first group is full of hardworking professionals focused on honing their craft in an art form they love completely.  The second group is full of attention starved crazies bordering on delusional.  Our four street walking heroes evenly split this divide.  Christopher Dennis seems just as far out there as Maxwell Allen, but their respective lunacies each appropriately mirror their costumed personas.  Where Allen/Batman is a tortured soul seemingly capable of real violence at the drop of a hat, Dennis/Superman is completely earnest and noble in his dedication to representing the Last Son of Krypton, although truth be told both seem destined for some kind of psychological break.  Meanwhile, Jennifer Wenger and Joe McQueen are both good people struggling to do their best in a very tough business with limited success.  I've been in their shoes before, discounting the quickie Vegas wedding.  After years of banging my head on the walls of Hollywood, it's little wonder that I didn't end up out in front of the Chinese Theater with them.  Wonder Woman and Hulk are both so sweet and down to earth that you totally want to see them realize their dreams of Hollywood stardom, even though you know it'll simply never happen.  But you have to respect their dedication.  No matter how many times they stumble and fall, they continue to show perseverance in the face of incredible odds.

It's goddamn heroic.


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Title: Confessions Of A Superhero
Director: Matthew Ogens
Starring: Christopher Dennis, Maxwell Allen, Jennifer Wenger, Joe McQueen
Year Of Release: 2007
Viewing Method: Netflix Instant (laptop)