It’s the feel-good sex-change movie of the year, the story of a child-star princess who becomes a transsexual poster boy. For a certain generation, Chastity Bono will always be the adorable blond child who goofed around with her iconic parents on The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour in the ’70s. Pushed onto the stage at the age of two, she grew up trapped in a showbiz fantasy world. She also grew up as a boy trapped in a girl’s body, a body she hated since puberty. Now, at the age 42, Chastity is Chaz. In 2008, Bono decided to undergo gender transition with hormone injections and surgery. And he elected to do it on camera. The resulting documentary, Becoming Chaz—which will show at Toronto’s Hot Docs festival next week before airing on Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network in May—is an intimate portrait of a stranger-than-fiction family that just got stranger.
Talk about getting even with your mother. Cher, the queen of cosmetic surgery, has to wrap her head around the notion that her daughter had her breasts removed and is now her son. Then there’s Bono’s lesbian mate, Jennifer Elia, who watches her girlfriend morph into a man. A recovering alcoholic working to complete her M.A., Elia announces right off the bat that she can’t face this ordeal without drinking. “Under the best of circumstances,” says Bono, “relationships are tough. When you throw in substance abuse and a sex change, it gets complicated.”
Bono has his own saga of addiction, to painkillers. Then he became hooked on video games, and sank into a two-year depression on the couch. “It was another way not to be present,” says Elia, “but safer than the drugs.” Initially, the sex change seems a tonic for both of them. Bono doesn’t want to mess with his genitals—“the surgery is just not very good”—but merrily undergoes a double mastectomy. Warmly supportive, Elia congratulates him for losing “6½ lb. of boob.”
The testosterone treatment is more sobering. There are fights and tears, as Elia feels the sting of Bono’s new, hormone-fuelled aggression. “I haven’t been with a man since I was 21,” she says, suddenly reminded of what she didn’t like about guys. Yet she remains a good sport, never losing her sense of deadpan disbelief: “I still can’t believe this is my life.”
Fenton Bailey, who co-directed the film with Randy Barbato, says they were approached by Bono, who wanted to give gender transition a public face. (Bono has also written a book, due out next month.) “Steering that balance between a puff piece and a freak show” was a concern, Bailey told Maclean’s. “But nothing was off limits. We had total control. And knowing that Chastity was a little girl on that show makes the story more relatable. Without that, it might seem more of a freak show.” (Curiously, she was named after her mother’s title role as a bisexual in Chastity, Cher’s first movie. Written and produced by Sonny, it was a flop.)
In the documentary, Cher holds court for a single interview, interspersed through the film. Shot before her confessional appearance on Letterman to promote Burlesque, it’s the first time she’s talked about Chaz’s sex change on camera. At one point the interviewer goes blank, and the camera sits on Cher for a long silence. “I was going to ask a stupid question,” explains Bailey, “but her manager was standing there. I was completely frozen. Cher pushed me. She said, ‘What is it? Why did you stop?’ So I came clean. I said, ‘I was going to ask, would you have a sex change?’ ” Cher’s reply: “If I woke up in the body of a man, you couldn’t get me to a surgeon fast enough.” That moment, says Bailey, was “the first time it ever struck her that she could understand this by imagining that.”
Cher’s relationship to her only child with Sonny Bono—who died in 1998 after skiing into a tree—remains murky in the film. It was Chaz’s AA sponsor, not Cher, who loaned him money for the surgery. “They’re not estranged,” says Bailey, “but this is a big thing for them. You see Cher start to reconcile herself, but that doesn’t mean it’s all done, sorted and dusted.” Which is just as well for Bailey and his co-director, who are following up the film with an eight-part reality TV series for OWN. The beat goes on.