On the Road with Alan Ball’s ‘Uncle Frank’

In 1973, a gay man returns to the South for his father’s funeral.

Apart from laughing out loud at Paul Lynde’s snide asides on Bewitched, the first gay male TV character I identified with was David Fisher on Six Feet Under (2001-2005). Michael C. Hall, the actor who played him, captured his intense and recognizable sense of self-loathing. At the time, a friend of mine said that he saw more of himself in David’s more liberated sister, Claire. But at that point in my life, I was a repressed mess and responded to the depressive David. He was a new creation, neither a stereotype nor a villain, and not meant to be likable.

The show’s creator Alan Ball confirmed in a telephone interview the root of the character’s unhappiness, “The most important person that David needed to come out to was himself.” Ball explained that writing David was a way for him to explore his own journey towards self-acceptance. He agreed that the character’s extended narrative arc was also something he hadn’t seen before. 

Ball was born in 1957. He says that, growing up, the gay men he saw on screen were depicted as villains or psychopaths. The Oscar-winning screenwriter of American Beauty (1999) adds that, “Once the AIDS crisis hit, they were tragic victims but always purely defined by their sexuality.” He wanted David to be more than just that. “Luckily, the medium of a long form television series gave us the opportunity to explore his experience,” he says.  

Uncle Frank is the second film that Ball has directed (the first was Towelhead in 2007). The main character of Frank (Paul Bettany), like David Fisher, is a closeted gay man. Frank provides Ball with another way of looking at the tricky process of coming out, as well as giving him the means to fictionalize his own family history. In the press notes, Ball writes that when he came out to his mother, “she told me about an older, long-deceased relative of mine who she thought was ‘that way,’ too.” During our interview, Ball explains that the older relative was his father.

Ball rephrases the coming out conversation he had with his mother. “She said, ‘I blame your father for this because I think he might have been that way too.’” Since his father was already dead at the time, Ball will never know if his mother’s suspicions were true. “I do know that there was a young man that he was, as my mom put it, ‘very, very, very close to,’ who drowned when they were both really young men,” he says.

While Frank drives back to the South for his father’s funeral, Ball includes flashbacks. Frank remembers his first adolescent love and the way his father treated him when he was young and impressionable. Ball bequeaths his family’s now mythic story of a drowning to a character who, as an adult, is at war with himself. Beth’s Uncle Frank is tortured by his past and by the memories of a hostile, unaccepting father. “In a number of ways, Uncle Frank is a ‘What if?’ story,” the director says. What if that were true? What might that story have been?

Unlike Frank’s father, Ball’s father wasn’t cruel. “He was distant, and the distance always felt to me like somehow he had a secret tragedy that he was carrying with him,” he says. The cruel fathers who do show up in his work, Ball explains, are representations of toxic masculinity — the notion that the only way a man can be strong is to dominate people. “The idea of vulnerability was too dangerous for that generation of men. At the root of that kind of behavior is fear,” he says. Instead of dealing with, in Frank’s father’s case, his fear of having a gay son, he lets out his destructive impulses.  

Death, and the grief that follows, are recurring themes in Ball’s work. He was 13-years-old and at his sister’s side when she died in a car accident. He writes in the director’s statement for Uncle Frank, “In one horrible instant, my life was irrevocably separated into Before and After. I’ve spent a lot of time and energy trying to run away from that event.” What he’s found in the aftermath of her death is that you can go deeper and deeper into grief, “and then sometimes it goes away for a long period of time.” The main thing he’s learned though is that when the feelings return, you just sit with them. “Running away from grief makes it stronger and makes it last longer,” he says. Grief is part of his history, part of who he is, and, finally, in a film like this, the most meaningful part of his work.  

Uncle Frank is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

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