Monday, May 29th, 2023

The aging novelist and the young fraudster

The Night Listener

Directed by Patrick Stettner

Based on the novel by Armistead Maupin

Premiered January 21, 2006, at Sundance Film Festival
Drama (thriller)
91 min.


Review by Stephen O. Murray

July 4, 2007.

The “thriller” part of The Night Listener is more developed than the thriller part of The Bulgarian Lovers, but in both instances, the characters are more interesting than the plot menaces. And, tedious as it gets to say, the book The Night Listener IS better than the movie, having the voice of Armistead Maupin, more character development, and less outlandish (well-inner-landed!) terror.

Still, the movie has some very good performances, particularly that of Toni Collette (Muriel’s Wedding, The Hours, Little Miss Sunshine) as the woman who has invented a 14-year-old’s memoir of parental abuse and being prostituted by his parents. A fore-runner of the JT LeRoy hoax (The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things), Maupin’s novel The Night Listener was based on his (entirely long-distance) relationship with a boy supposedly dying of AIDS-related pneumocystis who had written a searing memoir. It imagines what might have happened if Maupin had journeyed to the Midwest (Wisconsin) to try to meet the youngster and dealing with the woman who protected the boy and who put him in contact with the Maupin character, radio raconteur Gabriel Noonan (played by Robin Williams, who has played a radio celebrity before—in Good Morning, Vietnam).

What is autobiographical is that the younger HIV-positive lover who had been preparing to die soon but was restored to an approximation of good health by protease inhibitor drugs during the late-1990s broke loose from Noonan’s/Maupin’s (smothering) care. The younger partner (Terry Anderson in real life, Jess on the page and screen) is also the one who first suggested that the voice of the boy (Pete) was the same as Donna’s.

Having not fully accepted that he is not going to be there, a pillar of strength, for a Camille-like death of Jess (let alone living happily ever after!), Gabriel is quite depressed and anything but eager to have another illusion smashed. Before the boy’s “memoir” is published, he takes it on himself to try to see the boy. This makes him de facto a private investigator (even if his own client), and he encounters some of the hostility and violence that are standard in PI melodramas.

I am more interested in Jess looking at the possibility of a future, and his would-be widow’s consternation than in the travails of playing PI. I’d say that too much of the movie is in rural Wisconsin trying to find out if Pete is real, except that the most interesting character is Donna and/or the most fascinating performance is that of Toni Collette as Donna. She plays on guilt and sympathy like a great virtuoso. Gabriel may be an urban gay man, but is a nearly helpless innocent in contrast to her connivances or delusions.

In general, I am ambivalent about Robin Williams. He is often way too ebullient for my tastes. He is, however, a very skilled actor and very, very good and toning down the manic. He is almost as diffident in Night Listener as he was in One-Hour Photo, and clinically depressed. A problem for me is that I know that the part is more than based on Armistead Maupin. I can’t believe that even a clinically depressed Armistead Maupin could entirely lose his very Southern charm. (Also, Williams flirts with a sanded-down Southern accent early in the movie, then abandons it.) To be so nebbish and so charmless, I know that Robin Williams is ACTING. I’d rather he sink into the part, as Toni Collette does. (Admittedly, she has a showier part into which to sink! but her moves don’t scream “Watch me act!”)

Rory Culkin (another one!?) is quite good as Pete, but that presents a problem, too. The problem is the reality of the medium. In the book, Gabriel can imagine what Pete looks like when he talks to him or reads his “memoir” without committing the reader to the reality that there is a Pete. What is on the screen is still supposed to be imagined, but it is right there in front of us—not entirely palpable, perhaps, but flickering lights showing a human being (and one with a voice that isn’t Donna’s). This seems to me a problem that could not be overcome in a screen adaptation of the novel (and is the same one that ultimately dooms filming Turn of the Screw). As I suggested before seeing the movie, “Since the book is about hearing without seeing (radio and telephone), it seems difficult to transfer to the screen where the characters are shown.”

The most engaging character is Gabriel’s accountant Anna (a name Maupin seems to like using), played by Sandra Oh. Knowing that Terry Anderson was blond interferes a bit with accepting Bobby Canavale (The Station Agent) as Jess, but he is good in the part. Gabriel’s good ole boy father and the stepmother who is younger than Gabriel are very entertaining in the book, but are all but jettisoned from the movie (pre)occupied with the dangers of investigating Pete’s reality.

Peter Nashell’s music and Liza Rinzler’s cinematography are better than fine, and seeing the star on the water-tower is for me a plus provided by the film, but the mix of relationship melodrama. Peter Stettner is good with actors and complex relationships (as in Company of Strangers) but is not cut out to direct thrillers. I think that making thriller menaces the focus of the movie was not a good idea, and that the marketing of the movie as a thriller led to disappointment on the part of the audience seeking thrillers. I don’t think that it is a bad or worthless movie. Toni Collette adds a star to my rating (with an assist by Sandra Oh).

BTW, the hoax that caught Maupin’s attention led to a book that was not pulled back from publication. A Rock and a Hard Place, by the porportedly 14-year-old abuse victim “Anthony Godby Johnson,” appeared with an afterword by Mr. [Fred] Rogers and a foreword by terminally ill gay author Paul Monette. The nonexistence of “Anthony Godby Johnson” was established by investigative reporters from Newsweek and 20/20. And subsequent to posting my review of The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, a New York judge ruled that JT LeRoy was a hoax, going far beyond writing under a pseudonym to profit from playing on sympathies.

Unlike some, I find the coda of the movie The Night Listener funny. The DVD also has a very melodramatic deleted scene (that was in the novel) and a featurette with interviews of Maupin, Anderson, Stettner.

©04 July 2007 by Stephen O. Murray

About The Author

Stephen O. Murray grew up in rural southern Minnesota, earned a B.A. from James Madison College (within Michigan State University), an M.A. from the University of Arizona, a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto (both in sociology), and was a postdoctoral fellow at Berkeley (in anthropology). He is the author of American Gay, Homosexualities, etc. and lives in San Francisco.