There is a loneliness to Paul Bettany’s performance in Alan Ball’s personal drama, Uncle Frank. That sadness isn’t always present when his Frank is on screen, but it comes through in any scene when he travels from New York City to his hometown in South Carolina. The first time we see Frank at home, he isn’t hanging out with the other men watching sports or gossiping in the kitchen with his mother. He is alone and reading a book. Uncle Frank does a wonderful job of showing how gay people can feel alone when surrounded by others.
“I imagine he has a longing to connect but he feels compromised when he is back home. He is unable to live authentically as he is around them. That longing to connect and be with them is immediately eclipsed by a feeling of alienation and shame. Finding moments of private time at my own council with a book was very meaningful to him and to me.”
It’s surprising to hear how much Bettany wanted to be involved in this story. He identifies as a straight man, but his father was gay and went back into the closet after his partner passed away. It was a confusing time for Bettany, but he thought he could lend himself to a story of a man who could only live as his true self for part of his life.
“He was unable to mourn the passing of the man who was, undoubtedly, the love of his life. After he died, I found in his pocket a vial of his partner’s ashes even though he had been dismissing the notion that he was gay [with me]. There was something that happens to a person with that fallout when people can’t do that. My father couldn’t do that. I had a very curated idea of his history. I felt like there was something that I could bring to this about forgiveness and understand and it might be useful for me as putting yourself in my father’s circumstances. I could understand the pressures that he might have felt.”
Bettany’s two main co-stars are Peter Macdissi (Ball’s real life partner) and Sophia Lillis, who plays Frank’s niece, Beth. There is a natural chemistry between Bettany and Lillis that goes beyond the script. We can feel it even when the camera lingers on their conversations. Bettany felt a deep admiration for her, and he didn’t feel like he had to mentor Lillis the way that Frank guides his niece.
“I resisted the idea of mentoring her because I just have this suspicion that once you mentor, you stop growing. I was taught by her as she is able to leave herself alone in front of the camera. She has a difficult job in the movie as the witness of everything. I posit that I learned more from watching her. The moment you think you might have a good handle on something, you probably haven’t.”
Throughout the film, Frank’s drinking escalates as he tries to deal with the death of his father and the notion of spending time in a town full of people who wouldn’t understand him. There are lines from Macdissi’s Wally and Frank that suggest that Frank’s alcoholism reared its ugly head previously and it almost destroyed Wally and Frank’s relationship. Bettany and Macdissi didn’t flesh out every detail, however.
“It’s good to have some secrets. Different imaginings can be very important to different actors and even the director. I wanted to leave him with his own version and me to have my own version. I imagine it was similar drunken, self-hating expression of his shame and that had led to his sobriety.”
At the end of Ball’s film, there is a warm montage of the family sitting in the backyard after Frank’s sexuality has been unmasked. It’s not a totally happy ending, but a realistic one. Uncle Frank carries a lot of weight with it, but it decides to focus on the happier, more genuine journey ahead. We forget that living as your true self isn’t always an easy journey–especially in the South in the early 1970s–but there is so much to look forward to when that step has finally been taken.
“Alan did a really good job in predicting a future where some people in the family are going to accept it and some will not. Frank has said who he is and in this movie, Alan wanted there to be a happy ending for the two gay characters. Usually someone has to die or someone has or live in tragedy. It’s not a fairytale ending, but the reason I thought I could help with this job was at the end of our conversation I asked who the movie was for. Alan said that this is for any person in any circumstance who has struggled to live their life. I found that to be very lovely. There are going to be family members who can’t accept it, but Frank is able to live authentically. That feels meaningful.”