F. Scott Fitzgerald once said that there were no second acts in American life, and although that one line’s been continually disproved, we revisit the idea whenever someone of note begins their second act. Even their third act. I’m not sure what act George Takei is on in his play of life, but at 77 years old he’s enjoying rare universal popularity, and it’s not just because he’s one of the beloved members of the original cast of Star Trek. As an advocate for marriage equality, a living historical resource detailing the internment of Japanese-Americans, and a working actor with over 175 credits to his name (and growing), Takei’s got more to offer at 77 than some men less than half his age. Just about all of it, is touched on in some way in the documentary To Be Takei.
I don’t want to speak for director Jennifer M. Kroot, but I think she was trying to speak more to the normalcy of Takei’s life than any idea of exceptionalness because of his celebrity. Rather, I think she was trying to say that even without Star Trek, Takei’s life is fairly extraordinary. Not to revisit the tired and actually very insulting idea that gay couples are interesting because they’re “just like straight couples,” but the movie does show Takei and his husband/manager Brad Takei in several vignettes from their regular life more than it shows Takei at Trek conventions and making one of his regular appearances on Howard Stern.
The simple fact is that Takei is a fascinating man, easy-going, insightful and magnetic. From the point of view of a Trekkie, watching Takei through the lens of Kroot’s documentary is a revelation: how did you not notice this man, and fully appreciate him for all his talents before? There’s been a lot of discussion this year about the “McConaissance,” the second act of actor Matthew McConaughey that led him to an Oscar and universal-acclaim for his role on HBO’s True Detective. Well, To Be Takei makes a convincing case for the “Takeiassance,” the second act of George Takei that not only blew away his Trek typecasting, but pulverized it in a way to suggest it was an entirely different Takei who piloted the Enterprise.
Key to the Takeiassance is his advocacy, not just for marriage equality, but for recognition of the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Amongst Takei’s projects is a musical called Allegiance, which stars the actor and comes from an idea by him to show what life was like for people like his family, who lost their homes, their livelihood and their dignity when the U.S. Government, believing that their could be sleepers among them, rounded up all Americans of Japanese descent after Pearl Harbor. Takei highlights the tremendous injustices of the camps, like the ethical and moral quandary of being made to sign a loyalty oath to prove your loyalty to the country that’s treating you suspiciously, and he also highlights the irony, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance while starring out your school window at a barb wire fence and a guard tower.
The mistakes of the past also linger as Takei recounts growing up gay, his first sexual experience with a male councillor at summer camp, and spending years concerned about the effect on his Hollywood career if he were to be discovered to be gay. Takei then tells us about his breaking point, receiving an honor at the Japanese Imperial Palace that Brad was unable to attend because only wives were allowed to accompany the honorees. To Be Takei will be an important artifact, I think, in the discussion of gay rights, a sad reminder of a time when being who you are could prevent you from doing what you loved to do, even in “liberal Hollywood.” There’s also a somewhat hilarious bit of irony in that attitudes have progressed so far in the last 50 years that post-coming out Takei maybe more popular than the height of his Trek fame.
Of course there is levity in the midst of the serious human rights discussion. The theme from “A Summer Place” plays as Takei talks about that night at summer camp where he got over the initial fear and found the delicious in being himself. Columnist Dan Savage, meanwhile, talks about finding the delicious in Sulu, because “he was hot, and he fired a gun occasionally,” and there was also that one episode (“The Naked Time”) where Sulu ran around sweaty and shirtless with a fencing foil… The film also dabbles in fan-fic, particularly in what was once called slash-fiction and the cottage market of stories about Kirk and Spock as a romantic couple.
Speaking of Kirk, the bitter-ish feud between Takei and William Shatner is visited upon, and although Shatner did contribute some words to the doc, he plays dumb about any lingering friction between himself and Takei. At least, I assume he’s playing dumb. Leonard Nimoy, Nichelle Nichols, and Michael Hogan-impersonator Walter Koenig also sit down to talk Takei, but while the others are florid with their love and admiration for Takei, Shatner looks clearly uncomfortable. Obviously, from even Shatner’s point of view, there’s some blame on his part for the sour relations between the two former co-stars, but Takei takes it in stride. Early in the film, he looks up with glee at a billboard for $#!% My Dad Says, featuring an image of tape over Shatner’s mouth. “As it should be,” Takei says snidely (but with a smile).
As I said, Star Trek makes up a relatively small portion of the running time of To Be Takei. Takei looks at the totality of his career for the good, the bad and the sometimes racially ugly. Starting as a voice actor dubbing Japanese imports like Rodan, Takei broke as an actor appearing on the prestigious Playhouse 90, getting guest shots on the likes of Hawaii 5-0 and Mission: Impossible, and then, eventually, joining the crew of the Enterprise. Candidly, Takei says he regrets his stereotypically Asian role in a few Jerry Lewis comedies, but notes the prophetic nature of “The Duke,” John Wayne called him “Captain Sulu” on the set of The Green Berets.
To Be Takei stuffs a lot in a relatively slim 90-minute running time, and although it tells you a lot about Takei’s career, his beliefs, his marriage and his life, it leaves you mostly with a lot of pride and admiration for a man who can persevere through so much and still smile. It may be an overly glowing about its subject, but understandably so, and the Takeis are very easy to love. There have been a lot of documentaries about the struggles and battles for gay rights, and although that’s not the exclusive focus of To Be Takei, the personal angle and the welcoming embrace of the Takeis themselves definitely makes it one of the strongest.
At the very least, it expands your knowledge of who the man called Sulu is and how he’s more than just the best helmsman of the 23rd century. At the very least, you’ll never be able to watch “The Naked Time” the same way again. Oh my… indeed.