Cowboys and No Ordinary Man are showing at this year’s BFI Flare Festival
“Everything is so big—the sky, the mountains, the wind-swept flatlands—it sinks into you, it shapes your body and your dreams.”
From A River Runs Through It to Big Eden, Montana’s expansive vistas and luscious mountains have long appealed to filmmakers. Each of these films reflects themes of family, isolation and renewal as if the mountains, rivers and forests are a spark for personal change and transformation. Montana’s glacier-carved landscape offers rebirth, risk and adventure to those who seek to explore its wonder; however, this romantic view hides communities where conservatism, culture and religion still control daily life. Here the freedom, beauty and size of Montana’s wilderness contrast the small, isolated and often insular towns that sit cradled in its presence.
In a small town where everyone knows each other and their kids, we meet 11-year-old Josie or Joe. Their long blonde hair and dainty dresses please their mum, Sally (Jillian Bell), as she all but dismisses the discomfort in her child’s eyes. However, this discomfort is all too noticeable to Joe’s dad, Troy (Steve Zhan). But Troy’s challenging relationship with Sally and close connection to Joe only add layers to the family tension due to his bipolar disorder, erratic behaviour and freewheeling attitude to life. When it comes to his child, Troy sees a tomboy, a girl who loves cowboys, camping and bowling. However, on returning from a trip out, even Troy is taken aback when Joe raises the subject of their gender identity. Troy listens as Joe says that he is a boy and duly raises this issue with Sally as he returns home. But, for Sally, this discussion is out of bounds. But as tensions grow over Joe’s forming gender identity, Troy makes a decision that will change the family unit forever.
Director Anna Kerrigan beautifully dovetails the classic Western with a more personal family drama in Cowboys. Here she slowly builds a sense of impending disaster as Troy leads Joe through Montana’s mountains and forests with the Police hot on their heels. But, it is within Cowboys nuanced discussion on the parental response to gender identity that Kerrigan’s drama finds a powerful voice. Here, we have a father who accepts Joe’s transformation without judgement, while Joe’s mother seeks gender conformity. This raises a fascinating question, would Sally and Troy’s roles have been reversed if Joe had been a boy who identified as a girl?
Joe’s need to transform and escape mirrors his father’s; after all, both father and son are outsiders in the small community they call home. Here Kerrigan opts for silent moments of thought and reflection as we explore Joe’s internal world through the outstanding performance of Sasha Knight. Knight brings lived experience and realism to Joe’s journey, while Zhan brings us a truly stunning reflection of a father trying to embrace what’s best for his child when everything around him feels like it’s crumbling away.
No Ordinary Man (2021)
”Billy’s story lets us watch one woman’s bold solutions to gaining a certain amount of recognition in what was largely a man’s world.”
Diane Middlebrook (Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton)
Since its publication in 1998, these words have diminished and dismissed Billy Tipton’s life and gender identity as a mere career choice. Diane Middlebrook may have had no direct intention of doing this, but her writing only played to the media storm following Billy’s death in 1989. Words carry unlimited power; they influence public opinion and build accepted and ongoing narratives. Therefore, these words intentionally or unintentionally reinforced the media narrative of deceit and lies following Billy’s death.
Billy Tipton was born in Oklahoma in 1914 and had a God-given talent for music from a young age. His passion for the piano and saxophone would eventually lead him into the world of Jazz, where he would spend his teenage years touring clubs and dance halls. By the mid-1930s, Billy would earn praise and adoration as he joined the Western Swingbillies, followed by several recorded sessions for local radio in the 1940s. By the 50s, Billy was a self-funded recording artist offered a prestigious position in Liberace’s house band. However, Billy would decline this offer and walk away from fame, choosing to settle down with a nightclub dancer named Tilly.
Throughout their loving relationship, Tilly and Billy would adopt three boys before their relationship ended in 1977. But, as Billy died of an untreated ulcer in 1989, with his son, Billy Jr, at his side, a media storm was about to break. On arrival at his home, paramedics discovered that Billy’s birth gender was female. A media machine immediately dismissed and questioned Billy’s life as a man using damaging slogans such as “The Jazzy Gender Bender”. But the complexity of his story was only heightened by some family members stating that they were unaware of Billy’s birth gender until his death. As a media circus erupted, some of his family and friends would appear on TV chat shows where tabloid curiosity dovetailed with blatant transphobia. The 90s media machine would become obsessed with lurid conversations around Billy’s genitals, sex life and deception, further ostracising trans people and his loving sons.
Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt’s documentary, No Ordinary Man, finally shares Billy’s story with the love and respect he deserved. Chin-Yee and Joynt’s engaging, informative and bold exploration of Tipton’s life is both creative, empowering and deeply emotional as Tipton’s story is told through a group of trans actors auditioning for a film based on Billy’s life. Unlike most biopics, No Ordinary Man transcends the usual biographical beats as performance, reflection, and analysis combine to create a unique journey into the past and present. Here Tipton’s place in history and legacy is coupled with contemporary discussions on trans equality and visibility. The result is a documentary that feels both alive and relevant as it celebrates Tipton’s life and career while exploring the ongoing discrimination faced by the trans community.