Becoming Olivia Newton Dawn:

An Impression

I am a man. I like being a man. In Trent Harris’s three-part film The Beaver Trilogy, these lines get repeated three times, by three different versions of the same character. First they are uttered by Dick Griffiths, the original subject of the trilogy’s original film, The Beaver Kid, a short, made-for-TV documentary that never aired. They are uttered a second time by a not-yet-famous Sean Penn in The Beaver Kid #2, a fictionalized reenactment of the first filmThe third time, they are uttered by a sort-of-famous Crispin Glover, in a feature film based on the documentary called The Orkly Kid. Each film (re)tells the story of Griffiths—alternately Groovin’ Gary (Griffiths’ chosen pseudonym), Groovin’ Larry (Penn), and Larry (Glover)—an amateur impressionist from Beaver, Utah, who dreams of making it big. In all three iterations, the character uttering these lines is in the process of being made up for a performance in drag as Olivia Newton Dawn, and the camera is ironizing his words. Perhaps Griffiths deceives himself, the film suggests, with these proclamations; perhaps we are exposing a truth by catching him in some lie. While the second and third films make a number of key revisions, these lines, and the camera movements that campily read them, are retained intact.

Although they were shot independently between 1979 and 1985, the three films that make up The Beaver Trilogy were not shown publicly until 2000, when Harris screened them together as The Secret Tapes of Trent Harris. Now known collectively as The Beaver Trilogy, the film premiered at the New York Video Festival in 2000, showed at Sundance in 2001, and was featured on This American Life in 2002. It screened selectively and for many years was available only in VHS by backchanneling with Harris himself. Given its experimental structure, its limited release and underground status, and the astonishing appearances of two star actors, both taking turns in drag, the trilogy has achieved cult notoriety. Though not reviewed widely, it has been recognized as a fascinating and innovative study of storytelling. Writing in Film Comment, Chris Chang (2000) observed that it “doesn’t retell one narrative from different perspectives, a la Rashomon, but does something altogether new.” In Not Coming, Katherine Follett (2008) describes the film as “a powerful document of the process of filmmaking, of creating fiction, or of creating any kind of art.” Director Phil Lord (2009) has called the film “a film school education in 80 minutes. … It’s a great treatise in storytelling and the different ways you can tell a story just with subtle changes.”

Harris’s trilogy opens with The Beaver Kid (documentary, 1979), a short film that captures his chance encounter with Griffiths in Salt Lake City in 1979. Harris is testing out new VCR equipment in the parking lot of the KUTV studio, where he worked as a camera operator, when he comes across Griffiths, who has driven up from Beaver City on a lark, seeking a brush with fame. With the camera rolling, Griffiths gamely hams it up, performing impressions of John Wayne, Sylvester Stallone, and Barry Manilow. Intrigued by this chipper, wacky young man and his arresting laugh, Harris eggs him on, encouraging Griffiths to show off his white Chevy impala with “Farrah” and “Olivia” written on either side. Shortly after this encounter, Griffiths writes a letter to Harris inviting him to Beaver to shoot an upcoming talent show. Harris agrees, thinking the show could make a good segment for Extra!, a KUTV show with an eccentric bent. He drives down to Beaver and captures Griffiths getting made up by the local mortician and performing first as Olivia Newton Dawn, then as Barry Manilow,
for a sparse audience in the auditorium of Beaver High.

The second film, Beaver Kid #2 (short feature, 1981), is a fictionalized remake of the documentary, starring Penn as the title character, now named Groovin’ Larry. Most scenes from the first film are reshot frame for frame; others, like the Barry Manilow bit, get cut; and some new characters and scenes are introduced. Importantly, despite its repetition of much of the original film, the reenacted footage has a much different tenor: Penn reads Griffiths as tortured, desperate, agonized; his drag performance is painfully vulnerable. Reviewing the film for Sight and Sound, Mark Olsen (2000: 17) describes Penn’s performance as “playing up the psychodrama,” bringing a “tragic sense of discontent” and “an exaggerated air of sadness” to the character (ibid., 17). Among the added characters are Terrence, an exploitative video journalist (an obvious stand-in for Harris) who mocks Griffiths’ character out of his earshot, and a local man who reacts to Larry (in drag) with a sneering “They’re going to think you’re a fruit.” In perhaps the most significant scene addition, Larry calls Terrence to ask him not to air the segment, and the insensitive video journalist doesn’t budge. Larry hangs up the phone and sticks the barrel of a rifle in his mouth. When a friend’s phone call interrupts him, he puts the gun down.

The Orkly Kid (feature, 1985), is a longer dramatization starring Crispin Glover as Larry, set in the fictional town of Orkly. In this version, the parking lot encounter is reenacted shot by shot, and the rest of the film follows a shape similar to Beaver Kid #2, though elaborated with additional scenes, characters, and subplots. The film—more of an adaptation than a reenactment—reframes its protagonist as the object of peer bullying. He is presented as laughable and pathetic, and he is a bad performer. Yet, whereas Penn performs a dark and desperate interpretation of Griffiths, Glover’s impression is more sympathetic: he synthesizes Griffiths’ infectious exuberance with Penn’s darker approach to somehow, as Chang (2000) writes, “[become] more Gary than Gary himself.” Again we see Larry call up the filmmaker and ask him not to run the segment; again we watch as he considers taking his life. But in this version, after Larry puts down the gun, he puts on a wig. He gets into his car and leaves Beaver, en route to Hollywood to the tune of Olivia Newton-John.

That is the end of the trilogy, but the story has continued to grow. When the film first screened, it generated a number of questions. “What is real? What is fiction?” asked Aaron Krach (2000) in his short take for Cineaste. Who was the original Beaver Kid, and did he ever make it to Hollywood? Was he gay? Queer? An aspiring drag queen? And why did Harris wait so long to show the film? In January of 2015, emerging filmmaker Brad Besser released Beaver Trilogy Part IV, a documentary about the trilogy that answers some of these questions. The Beaver Kid was named Richard “Dick” Griffiths, we learn, and Harris delayed showing the film out of respect for him. After the film was shot, Griffiths asked Harris to pull it, expressing misgivings about his drag performance going public; when Harris initially dismissed those anxieties, he shot himself—and survived. Still, Griffiths remains a silent voice in the discourse around the film, despite the repetition of his lines: he died in 2009, before Besser began work on his documentary.

Harris’s constructions of Groovin’ Larry (Penn) and Larry (Glover) are obviously fictionalized, and so tell us something about fictionalized storytelling in particular. The fictional overlays here operate according to Butler’s “repetition with a difference” (Freeman 2010: 63)—in other words, they work to drag Griffiths. In Besser’s documentary, Harris explains that he remade the film twice because “maybe I didn’t understand him so well the first time…and [I wanted] to get it right.” In one sense, Harris’s desire to “get it right” speaks to his capacity for acknowledging errors and his willingness to revise as an artist. In another sense, his admission that he “didn’t understand him” addresses his failures as not an artist, but as a reader. With his second and third versions, Harris attempts to reread Griffiths using reenactment, parody, and recuperative revision. Whereas reading is typically understood in drag communities to mean a “verbal unmasking” (LaFountain-Stokes 2011: 57), here it takes shape as an embodied and parodic rereading that might function as a version of Elizabeth Freeman’s temporal drag—“a countergenealogical practice of archiving culture’s throwaway objects” (2010: xxiii)—if it weren’t so jeering. Instead, Harris’s rereads function more like temporal dragging: a reenactment that archives Griffiths only as it drags him through the mud, effectively reducing him to what film critic Harvey has called a “crude parody.” Harvey is referring here to Penn’s performance, the more troubled and troubling of the two revisions. Throughout Beaver Kid #2, Penn’s mechanical reenactment of Griffiths’ lines and gestures evacuates them of their fannish exuberance: they become uncanny, suspect, and Griffiths becomes a talentless hack with humiliating gender issues. In his drag performance, Penn converts a campy and fun, if off-key, musical number into something desperate and tortured, uncomfortably self-serious, barely attempting to engage the audience. Imitation as emulation—imitation as art—is translated into imitation as identification—and degraded via joyless parody. Paradoxically, the three different takes enact not so much summation as reduction, presenting a troubling study of an impersonator who gets impersonated, a mimic who gets mimicked, and a story that achieves cohesion through flattening.

Telling the “same” story three different ways, the film ultimately proposes that the complete picture is available only via the sum of—and parallax between—all three versions. But while the three versions may offer an instructive exercise in storytelling, they also offer a case study in revision, and a painful example of the potential violence of misreading. In her critique of Butler’s reading of Paris Is Burning, Viviane Namaste argues that Butler reduces Venus Extravaganza’s transsexuality to allegory. Making a causal link between Venus Extravaganza’s enactment of “woman” and her murder, Butler calls her death “a tragic misreading of the social map of power” (qtd. in Namaste 13). That Butler doesn’t see the specificity of violence faced by trans women, particularly trans women of color and trans women sex workers (especially those of color), is, Namaste says, “the most tragic misreading of all” (13). With The Beaver Trilogy, Harris advances a different sort of tragic misreading: one that misreads the (in this case, always only potential, as Griffiths, so far as we know, did not express transgender identification) trans subject as tragic; in fact assigns tragedy in reading him. Whereas the original Griffiths was an impressionist who imitated a wide range of celebrities, including John Wayne and Barry Manilow, Harris reads—and rewrites—him as a tragic transgender character whose performance as Olivia exposes hidden pathology and invites vicious mocking. Importantly, in both remakes, some of the nastiest jabs are doled out by an exploitative video journalist character, a stand-in for Harris himself. Even as he flattens his subject, then, Harris attempts to hold himself accountable for his misreading. In the final film, he goes so far as to stage a fantasy of rescue for Griffiths’ character, imagining Larry putting on his Olivia wig and driving off in his Impala to chase his Hollywood dreams.

The following script stages a “counterpolitics of encounter” (Freeman 2010: xi), an “exchange of strangers who know each other well, who can touch each other across time and space” (Straube 2014: 137)—through voice. Following Straube’s (ibid.: 125) invitation to “temporarily leave aside” the visual and instead “focus on the sense of hearing,” this rereading of Griffiths privileges voice. I view this as a performance of not so much reenactment as cross-identificatory cross-channeling. When performing it I make no attempt to embody Griffiths in costume or gesture, but simply revoice his words, embracing them with my own. In doing so, I am interested in how they read coming from a transmasculine person (“I’m a man, not a girl”) and produced by a shaky, squeaky T voice (“I can only go so high”). We can not know whether or not Griffiths adopted a queer and/or trans identity, but we do know he identified as an impressionist. His vocal crossings were his most fundamental and frequent form of gender crossing. In revoicing his words, we may keep his voice, and his history, alive.

Becoming Olivia Newton Dawn: Impression Script

I did this before, pantomiming, and Sharon dolled me up. She’s a good, uh, she’s a good mkeup lady. She really is. Hahah.

It’s 1979 in Beaver City, Utah. I’m voicing a monologue given by Dick Griffiths, aka Groovin’ Gary, aka the Beaver Kid, aka Olivia Newton Dawn, an amateur impressionist. This is one of the most well-known scenes from Trent Harris’s Beaver Trilogy, a collection of three short films that center on Griffiths, an effusively wacky subject who is also strangely elusive. Each new film revises its precedent; this scene, played first by Griffiths himself, then Sean Penn, then Crispin Glover, repeats in all three.

As we watch Dick Griffiths become Olivia Newton Dawn, we observe his reverence for the transformation; his pleasure in the sensation of the cool liquid Sharon sponges onto his face, the rich color she dabs on his lips. He tilts his face upward as if being touched by divine light. He relishes his own transformation, unaware of or unperturbed by the camera’s mocking eye.

Well, Sharon I appreciate you doing this. I do. You’re about the only one that’s pulled through. Okay, this is, hahah, I still am a man. I’m doing outrageous things but I enjoy being a guy. I really do. I do. I’ve gotta convince the audience that I have not gone crazy.
Just for fun.

I first experienced The Beaver Trilogy in 2011, at a weekend midnight screening at Facets in Chicago. It was early summer, and I was there with J., with whom I was trying to renegotiate a friendship after a few rough efforts at romance. This was our first outing in this new phase of relating to one another and we had a lot to revise. I found Harris’s use of revision both captivating and troubling: captivating because it uses revision to correct its own exploitative, mocking attitude towards Griffiths; troubling because that attitude is so strong in the first place.

I think the hardest thing is gonna be the voice. It’s hard to do her voice, Sharon, it is. I don’t know, it was a gift from God, I mean. I’m not saying it’s perfect but for a man to be able to change his voice up that high. I mean, I can only go so high too.

When Griffiths returns to language, his voice is more hushed than usual. His monologue roams around, floundering until he remembers his lines, lines we imagine he has rehearsed in preparation for this big shot on TV.

In my first encounter with this film that first mocks, then embraces its subject’s cross-gender performance, I was in a not-there-yet pre-transition state. I felt, with Griffiths, “backwards” in my gender, even as I felt the film was getting him backwards.

Help me I need you
Throw me down a line

I’m a man, not a girl. Aheh. It’s fun to dress up and be a—a—. Your impersonation’s—your makeup’s so much a part of your impersonation. It kinda helps you perform better when you’re in makeup. I have a hard time expressing myself, you know. Maybe I’m just nervous.

In my next viewing, I asked A., my girlfriend at the time, to watch with me. When we got to this scene, the makeover scene, she threw curses at the screen. As a transfeminine person she felt the injury of its gaze directly and asked that we turn it off. We did.

I want to love you once again
Couldn’t you love me too

I have since watched the film multiple times, always from a position of ambivalence, and I have been trying to write about it ever since. My friendship with J. is now one of my strongest, yet we are always revising. Alex and I have had to revise too, but that story is simpler. We tried one way, then another. Now it is the same every time.

Everyone changes, be my friend
Have you not got the time?

When I started seriously considering taking T., my girlfriend at the time, S., expressed reservations. We broke up and wrote hurtful stories about each other, then began a yearlong conversation about (mis)reading and (mis)representation.

Well, Trent, I think I’ll go get into my threads. Hahah.
I’ll be right back.

Please do not keep me waiting
I can not hold on any longer

The wait will be a long time: the film will not be shown for more than twenty
years. Griffiths will never talk back to Harris. Despite
the repetition of his lines, Griffiths will remain an
absent voice in Harris’s revision process and in the discourse around the film.

Please do not keep me waiting
I can not love you any stronger

Like Harris, S. and I used revision as a tool for accountability, only we took the risk of talking to each other. Our revision processing has been challenging and at times painful yet it has enabled us to find an agreeable story. Though maybe the thing is now we are no longer pushing each other into a story at all.

I hope, really, I hope the viewer doesn’t think I’m really wacked out. It’s just for fun, it really is. I just do it for a kick.

In my pre-trans state I was not exactly stuck, or tragic. I was not waiting. Or was I?
What kind of revision is this? Am I a man? Am I a girl?
Am I Olivia Newton Dawn? I can only go so high too.

I don’t take a lot of this seriously. I take the impersonation seriously, but as far as Olivia, wanting to be like Olivia Newton John, be Olivia Newton John—Olivia’s Olivia. I’m a guy. But. I love Olivia Newton John. I do. Man.
She is fantastic.

In re-voicing this monologue, I had hoped to stage a rescue: from the film’s transphobic winks, from a context that could not make sense of Griffiths’s emulation or even adoration of a woman, a context in which any form of gender crossing was a sign of pathology. But this is an uneasy and tentative rescue—another fantasy. Griffiths remains an elusive subject. The only line I can throw is to keep his voice alive through mine.

It’s kind of a loose fit. Haho. My purse. [As Olivia, in high-pitched voice with British accent:] Well I really don’t know what to say now. But I guess I ought to get going. I really do. [As Dick:] Well. I’m on my way. And I’m off. Haha.


Beaver Trilogy. Directed by Trent Harris. 2000. Culver City, CA: Strand Releasing, 2001. DVD.

Beaver Trilogy Part IV. Directed by Brad Besser. 2015. New York: The Orchard, 2016. MP4 (online media screener).

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