Ellen Gray: 'Becoming': Changing from Chastity to Chaz

Chaz Bono (left) with his girlfriend, Jennifer Elia.
Chaz Bono (left) with his girlfriend, Jennifer Elia.
Posted: May 09, 2011

BECOMING CHAZ. 9 p.m. tomorrow, OWN.

FEW, IF ANY, of the millions who first encountered a blonde toddler named Chastity on "The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour" would have predicted that that little girl would one day grow up to be a burly guy named Chaz.

But, then, who'd have guessed that her shaggy-haired father would someday be a Republican congressman?

Or that her wisecracking mother would win an Academy Award?

Clearly, attitudes and perceptions can be adjusted.

And, as the Oprah Winfrey Network kicks off its OWN Documentary Film Club series tomorrow with "Becoming Chaz," a film about Chaz Bono's physical and legal transition into manhood, attitude adjustment is very much on the agenda.

That's understandable - why else would someone who grew up in the spotlight submit to an examination of his most private relationships and feelings if not to try to win strangers' hearts and minds? - but it's not nearly as interesting as the adjustments occurring to and around Chaz himself.

Starting with his girlfriend, Jenny, who started out years before in a relationship with someone she thought was a woman and now finds herself living in a testosterone-charged environment for the first time in years (and with someone whose sex drive now outstrips her own).

Women used to having far too many aspects of their lives shrugged off as "hormones" may be less surprised than men to see how much chemistry can influence a guy's personality, but it's still fascinating to watch.

Chaz, whose doctor talks of his transition as "a second puberty," and regards gender-identity disorder as something akin to high blood pressure or diabetes, "a medical condition that needs to be treated," exposes himself here in ways that his more flamboyant parents would likely never have considered.

Cher, who except for one brief scene at the end, appears in the film only as someone whom her adult child literally watches on a TV screen, but speaks affectionately of Chaz, whom she still refers to as "she."

She suggests that Sonny, from whom she was divorced when Chaz was 4 and who died in a skiing accident in 1998, "would have been supportive. He was much more supportive in the beginning about her being gay. . . . She told everyone before she told me, because she knew I wasn't going to be that happy about it."

Certainly, it's hard to imagine the image-conscious star ever allowing a film crew to record her before and after a surgery, as Chaz did when his breasts were removed.

Surgery, of course, is the no-going-back aspect of gender reassignment that most of us can't help but wonder about, and "Becoming Chaz" doesn't flinch from that curiosity - or from the messiness inherent in any surgery.

Or, for that matter, from the messiness inherent in any life that exists apart from what we might think we see on TV.

"I don't remember anything from my early childhood," Chaz tells a skeptical interviewer at the beginning of the film.

There's a pause.

"You're thinking about 'The Sonny and Cher' show," he says firmly. "You're not thinking about reality."

'Natalee,' still missing

Two years ago, the Lifetime Movie Network scored what were then its highest ratings ever with "Natalee Holloway," a film about the Alabama high-school senior who went missing in Aruba in 2005, in which Tracy Pollan starred as Natalee's mother, Beth.

Tonight, Pollan is back, this time on the main Lifetime channel, in the misleadingly titled sequel, "Justice for Natalee Holloway," which chronicles Beth's efforts to wring a confession from the man she believes responsible for her daughter's disappearance (and who now awaits trial in the 2010 murder of a woman in Peru).

For people who can't get enough of this sad story - I'm afraid I really can't count myself among them - "Justice" serves as the lead-in to the premiere of a new Lifetime series, "Vanished with Beth Holloway," in which the real-life Holloway spotlights the cases of other people who've gone missing.

(After tonight, the show moves to 9 p.m. Wednesdays.)

The first episode, which recounts the story of a San Diego-area family who may or may not have disappeared across the Mexican border, leaving behind a home and $100,000 in the bank, is a puzzler, all right.

But if Holloway brings anything more to this project than what Lifetime calls her "uniquely empathetic view," I just can't find it. *

Send email to graye@phillynews.com.

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