The new documentary Julia Scotti: Funny That Way, begins with senior trans standup comedienne Julia Scotti reflecting on her 69 years and an arduous but ultimately fulfilling journey to embrace her female gender identity.
“Just a baby born male who never felt quite right,” Scotti observes, adding modestly, “It isn’t much to speak of, but it is my life.”
The film, by first-time director Susan Sandler, documents the path Scott took to a later-in-life resurgence of her comedy career, a flourishing that could only come through self-acceptance. The documentary, released by 1091 Pictures as Pride Month kicked off, is available on streaming platforms, including iTunes, Apple TV, Google Play, Amazon Prime Video, Vimeo, and Vudu.
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“Originally from Fairview, New Jersey, for the first 48 years she was better known as comedian Rick Scotti,” Julia writes on her website. “She toured the country, appearing at venues all over the United States and Canada, both as a headliner in comedy clubs and as an opening act for artists such as Lou Rawls, Chicago, and Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons.”
Then, in her 40s, came the growing realization that “something is terribly wrong.” She says, “I couldn’t avoid my truth anymore.” By 50 she had made her transition, but set aside her standup career for a decade. Then she got back into it, and became a breakout star on the reality competition series America’s Got Talent.
Now, at 69, Scotti tours regularly, and she has reconnected with her son and daughter after a long and painful estrangement. Her children appear in the documentary, an indication of the healing that has transpired for children and parent alike.
DEADLINE: What was the process like having a documentary made about you? Were there any aspects of your experience you hesitated to share?
Julia Scotti: So much of the success or failure of any project depends on all members of the team trusting each other. Susan and I bonded early on, and even though I’ve been known to have a trust issue or two, she allayed my fears. If there was anything that made me uncomfortable, I let her know and we worked through the issue.
DEADLINE: Susan, how did you become familiar with Julia Scotti and when did you decide to make a film about her?
Susan Sandler: I saw Julia headlining a bill on Nantucket. She was wildly funny, high energy, dangerous and gutsy. We hung out after the performance and just connected. I offered to help her with a one woman show that she was considering, and we began these long phone calls into the night as I drew her out on biographical threads. I asked about archival materials—and she hinted at a cache of old performance footage—and then I learned that her kids had just come back into her life after a 15-year estrangement. All my nerve endings said this is a documentary. So I just dove in. I had no idea it would consume five years of my life. But, of course, I was utterly charmed by her—and I never looked back.
DEADLINE: As a first-time director, what were the biggest challenges you encountered making the documentary?
Sandler: Julia gave me incredible access—she let me dig into the back of her closet and shared everything. Not just archival footage, she gave me deeply personal journals, every piece of writing, everything that allowed me to create a living portrait of the person she was and the person she longed to become. I’m so grateful for that trust. I’ve spent most of my career as a screenwriter and playwright building fiction from true stories, and I discovered that I absolutely loved finding the story in the editing room, building structure from the messy complexity of truth. I had wonderful advice from some brilliant editors that I teach with at NYU including Sam Pollard and [the late] Lewis Erskine (our consulting editor.) Penny Falk was another great influence—Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work was a touchstone and Penny’s notes were invaluable.
DEADLINE: What was it like performing standup for the first time as Julia?
Scotti: Frightening and liberating at the same time. I’d been away from comedy for 10 years and that night I just kept telling myself that if this didn’t go well, I’d never have to see these people (the audience) again. It was never my intention to go back to full time performing.
DEADLINE: How has your sense of humor changed since your transition, or has it changed? Are you a better comic now that you are living your authentic self?
Scotti: My sense of humor hasn’t changed. What makes me laugh is what winds up on stage. Sometimes it’s silly, smart, or even socially critical. All those things are part of me. What has changed is my willingness to show myself to an audience without fear. So, that in itself has made me a better comedian.
DEADLINE: You say at one point in the film, “I both bless and curse the day I became aware of who and what I was.” Can you explain what you meant?
Scotti: You can’t avoid your truth. I would not have chosen to live my life as trans if I’d been able to do so. But once you understand who you are, whether you’re ambivalent about it or not, you need to embrace it or you will lose your mind. It took me a long time to learn to love myself. Thus, the “blessing and curse.”
DEADLINE: Susan, tell me about the animated sequences that you created for the film.
Sandler: Julia spins stories that beg to be animated. I worked with a wonderful animator, Sam Roth, first on creating the essence of animated Julia, then I landed on stories that carried important narrative threads and where the animation could offer relief from some of the darker places we travel.
DEADLINE: What kind of reactions to the film have you received?
Sandler: Audiences have fallen in love with Julia, her openness, vulnerability, her unstoppable humor and resilience are such an appealing package. And, of course, they want more of her. That’s what we keep hearing—“give her series, give her an acting career.” I’d love to see that happen. I think she’s our next Betty White.
DEADLINE: You perform around the country and don’t avoid “conservative” areas. What is it like to perform in conservative parts of the U.S. and why do you choose to do that?
Scotti: I go where I’m booked because the venue believes that there are people who would like to see me perform. I don’t really care for the color of the state. If people want to come to my show, I welcome them. If they don’t, that’s fine too. America is all about freedom after all, isn’t it?
DEADLINE: What is it like to be an out trans person at this time in America? We see growing visibility of trans people, and growing acceptance (arguably), but with that has come a conservative backlash.
Scotti: Personally, being out helps me sleep at night, because I never have to worry about being “outed.” Nationally, it’s both an exciting and dangerous time to be trans. We are finally emerging as more than just a fringe group. There are lots and lots of us out there and we are being recognized for the contributions we make to America in every field. As for the conservatives not accepting us, that will fade away over time. You can’t sustain hate for the sake of hating. Sooner or later, they are going to meet and get to know a trans person, and when they do, they’ll see that we’re human beings just like them.
DEADLINE: You discuss this in the film, but what is it like for you to see old footage of yourself doing comedy sets where you made what most people would now consider homophobic and transphobic jokes?
Scotti: Of course, it’s abhorrent to me now. I know that back then, I was really struggling to figure out what was going on inside of me. I responded in the only way I knew how: by being uber “manly,” or what I thought that entailed. I’ve spoken to others who said that they also had that kind of response. It’s weird, often hurtful, what we humans will do to avoid our truth.
DEADLINE: Susan, what do you think viewers—be they LGBTQ or not—can learn from Julia’s story?
Sandler: That living your truth is a path to joy.
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