Beefcake, Thom Fitzgerald’s fizzy pastiche of talking heads, camped-up docudrama, courtroom theatrics, and vintage film clips, is, we’re told, “inspired by a true story.” The story, stranger than fiction, centers on queer cult photographer-entrepreneur Robert Henry Mizer and his Athletic Model Guild, the physique photo studio that he ran out of his L.A. home. Beginning in the late ’40s and ending only with his death in 1992, Mizer photographed thousands of young men—from pro muscle builders to high-school jocks—in as little clothing as the law would allow. For much of AMG’s history, that meant nylon G-strings sewn by Mizer’s mother, who also lived on the studio compound, along with an aunt, a brother who kept the books, and a menagerie of animal props.
Mizer’s studio, which also served as a crash pad for homeless models, is Beefcake‘s prime setting, and AMG’s photos and films are used throughout. But Beefcake is a kaleidoscope, and it shifts focus constantly. To animate AMG’s cottage industry as gay idyll, Fitzgerald introduces a clean-cut ingenue named Neil O’Hara (Josh Pearce in the Patty Duke role) who is soon stripped down, oiled up, and smoking pot with one of the studio’s most cunning rascals. During an exchange of vintage slang, this fox clues the improbably innocent Neil into the seamier side of the physique world, including the occasional “one-on-one rumble with some gassy stud.” Though the fatherly, fastidious Mizer (Daniel MacIvor) prefers not to think about that part of his stable’s income, he can’t ignore it when a new model is arrested, and the police, always ready to pounce on physique photographers, accuse him of running a prostitution ring.
Mizer’s trial, re-created from court transcripts, grounds the film in the grim reality of homophobic persecution but doesn’t ignore the cast of sleazy creeps on the margins of the physique biz. To put all this into perspective, Fitzgerald weaves in vivid testimony from a group of former models and retired photographers. The models, including former Warhol beauty Joe Dallesandro and the perennially pumped-up Jack LaLanne, provide Beefcake with its most soulful and honest moments. “You had to sleep where you could and with who you could,” one faded hunk says. “There was no pick or choose or else you went hungry.” Though all these pieces don’t exactly mesh into a coherent movie, Beefcake‘s messiness has real charm, and its tribute to Mizer is both appropriately complicated and poignantly sexy.