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‘No Ordinary Man’ Review: The Life and Death of Billy Tipton


The documentary “No Ordinary Man” examines the life and death of Billy Tipton, a jazz musician who rose to prominence in the 1930s and whose career spanned over 40 years. Billy was described by his friends as a consummate gentleman, and he loved his family of three children whom he adopted with partner Kitty. Billy lived his life quietly, but his death in 1989 turned into a national spectacle after funeral preparations revealed he was transgender. Members of his family appeared on talk shows, including “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” where they confirmed they did not know Billy was transgender.

Directors Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt employ various strategies to rethink Billy’s life and memory. In interviews, transgender historians share their knowledge of his career and place the chaos that ensued after his death in the broader context of transgender media representation. The filmmakers also envisioned scenes from Billy’s life in which transgender actors play the role of Billy. Actors are asked to reflect on their impression of Billy and how his experiences relate to their own. Most movingly, Billy’s son, Billy Tipton Jr., talks about his memories of his father.

This is a respectful homage that is morally and cinematically a tad too sure in its execution. It feels like any revelation or assumption about Billy among his speakers could shake the private – and absent – person at the center of the film. The result is a bittersweet film, a collection of impressions for a man who may never have been well known.

Not an ordinary man
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 23 minutes. In theaters.

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