Film Review: To Be Takei

The kaleidoscopic life of the Enterprise's chauffeur--an Asian and gay showbiz pioneer--is explored in this entertaining but diffuse documentary.

If nothing else, George Takei, when he played the immortal role of Lieutenant Sulu on the “Star Trek” TV series and six subsequent movies, proved that Asians are not all bad drivers. Forever chained, in his own words, to that console, he guided the Starship Enterprise through innumerable galaxies with unerring ease and navigational skill. In years subsequent to the series, he has become an outspoken activist for Asian-Americans and the LBGT community, being himself an out gay man since 2005. These facts are celebrated in To Be Takei, Jennifer M. Kroot's affectionate if rambling documentary profile.

Born in Los Angeles in 1937 to Japanese parents, Takei was named by his prosperous businessman Anglophile father after King George VI. When World War II broke out, the Takeis, like so many other citizens of Japanese descent, were forced to forfeit their business, home and personal freedom to live in internment camps, first in Rohwer, Arkansas, and then in California. This seminal event in his life is seriously addressed, but I wish Kroot's film had been less afflicted by ADD, for she hops away from it to ramble through events in his subsequent life, with heavy emphasis on his highly popular appearances on the Howard Stern Show. Takei was appointed a special liaison to the Japanese community by President Clinton and talks eloquently of this devastating time, but the power of his recollections is diluted by the fractured way in which this important, still too little-known subject is handled.

The Takeis returned to Los Angeles after the war, and George pursued a career in acting, which he'd always been keen on, despite the well-founded misgivings of his father about the lack of good opportunities for Asian actors. "I was young and idealistic," he recounts, "and determined to change the world." His first role was dubbing an actor in English for the American release of the Japanese horror flick Rodan, followed by a lot of TV and film work—often playing the kind of Asian stereotypes he now regrets. Then he was cast in “Star Trek,” which idealistic, topically minded producer Gene Roddenberry had always envisioned as a utopian, ethnically mixed assemblage of galactic crew members.

Co-stars Nichelle Nichols, Walter Koenig and Leonard Nimoy give affectionate interviews about their “Trek” time with Takei; Nichols and Koenig were in the wedding party when Takei married his longtime partner and manager, Brad Altman. William Shatner was also invited to the wedding and is also interviewed, coming across as something of a real-life Klingon in Takei's life. He not only declined to attend, but states in his patently pompous way, "In its proper perspective, I don't know him and he doesn't know me." After all those years together on TV and film? Takei gets his own back at the Comedy Central Roast when he point-blank tells Shatner—who was never able to correctly pronounce his name, which George pointedly says rhymes with "toupee"—"I've waited forty years to say this: Fuck you and the horse you rode in on!"

More perspective of a more accurate nature: Takei, ironically like Shatner, was really not that much of an actor, rather stiff, with that West Coast TV-industry glossy glibness inured in him, that Voice improbably dripping synthetic gravitas. He's far more eloquent in his activist speechifying than delivering lines, although one hopes some real depth will pierce through when and if he ever brings his musical, Allegiance, which deals with his internment experience, to New York. As for his notorious 2007 PSA debunking athlete Tim Hardaway's statement about hating homosexuals, I was never much of a fan. (No, George, all gays are not in love with sweaty basketball players, especially that one.)

Despite starring in a musical, Takei is also not much of a singer, something Altman observes with the amusing honesty which has marked their 27-year relationship. Himself the son of a lesbian, who only revealed the fact when he came out to her at 15, he's a likeable, low-key contrast to Takei's sometimes prickly, didactic persona. "It's not a lifestyle, it's an orientation," he indefatigably corrects people when discussing being gay, even Altman, moments after they've disposed of his mother's ashes. Takei has been a viral Internet sensation with his puckish Facebook posts, and he comments, "People are surprised to learn that Brad has written some of them," as his spouse gives an infinitesimal wince. Such moments of marriage reality pierce through Kroot's somewhat gushy fan approach, and when you see the two at Comic-Con, with Takei happily signing autographs for money while Altman stuffs the cabbage in a fanny pack, you realize other, very real ways in which this partnership works.

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