THAT MAN: PETER BERLIN

NR
Reviews

In his richest movie, The Palm Beach Story, Preston Sturges addressed the topic of what he called "the aristocracy of beauty," whereby a physically blessed person (in that film's case, Claudette Colbert) goes through life reaping the easy, many privileges which come naturally to them. Sometime gay porn star Peter Berlin is a prime example of this and Jim Tushinski's entertaining documentary, That Man: Peter Berlin, shows how he was able to make Sturges' theorem apply to real life as well.

With his blond Prince Valiant haircut, taut muscled torso and impressive genital development, outrageously displayed in skintight trousers, Berlin was a familiar, jaw-dropping sight on the urban streets of San Francisco and New York in the '70s. John Waters, Armistead Maupin, adult filmmakers Jack Wrangler and Wakefield Poole, artist Robert W. Richards and other interviewees all attest to the indelible erotic impression just the sight of Berlin made on them back in those heady, pre-AIDS days. Waters is especially amusing, calling him "Dinah Shore with a hard-on," and comparing Berlin, with his flamboyantly protuberant crotch, to Jayne Mansfield in The Girl Can't Help It, carrying those infamous milk bottles at chest level.

Image after image of Berlin in his youthful, insolent glory appear in the film, as well as in Berlin's current San Francisco apartment, where Tushinski interviews the now 60-year-old icon. Although the golden Dutch Boy bob has turned white and a pencil-thin moustache has been added, Berlin continues to strut about in revealing outfits, reveling in the fact that he still gets appreciative attention. As an interview subject, he is by turns arrogant, silly and rather touching, recounting his beginnings in Germany, as a relative of the great photographer George Hoyningen-Huene, and how he had to leave his family at an early age to pursue his particular, peculiar strain of hyper-voyeuristic homosexuality.

Wealthy admirers flocked to him as bees to honey, and he admits to having lived like a millionaire in Fire Island and other privileged locales, "even though I didn't have a penny." Andy Warhol, Robert Mapplethorpe, designer Jean-Paul Gaultier and the great gay artist Tom of Finland all intriguingly crossed paths with him, many of them memorializing him on film and sketch pad, but, for all the creative/professional opportunities he was offered, Berlin resolutely remained the proud dilettante, preferring a life of cruising to any kind of commercial success. And it seems, ironically, that actual sex rarely entered his personal equation, as Berlin seems to have favored luring partners into a complex, lengthy cat-and-mouse game of teasing without real physical contact. This might account for the fact that, despite his sexual reputation and the wild times in which he flourished, he never contracted the disease which killed off scores of his friends and contemporaries. A long-term relationship with a boy afflicted with polio provides some beating heart to all this incessant narcissism, especially when Berlin describes the euthanasia he eventually assisted in.

For pure campy outrage, however, I doubt that any cinematic moment this year will equal Berlin's impassioned verbal decrying of the obscenity of war and the killing of young men, superimposed over a shot of his exposed buttocks.

-David Noh