Lance Loud! A Death in An American Family

“I’m still big. It’s documentaries that got small.” — Lance Loud

In 1973, PBS aired a ground-breaking series titled An American Family. Though the format sounds familiar today, then it was quite an innovation: A crew of filmmakers recorded events in the daily life of a family, in this case the Louds of Santa Barbara, California. Throughout this reality series, which by many is considered the first, the family drew media attention, speculation, and much criticism for its lifestyle, the parents’ divorce, and especially son Lance’s homosexuality.

Lance Loud drew some of the harshest criticism, including one homophobic attack by The New York Times. He was reportedly the first openly gay man on television and the first reality TV star. But he also garnered support for his openness. According to Susan Raymond, one of the filmmakers who worked on the series, “[Lance] was an openly free spirit who dared to live life on his own terms,” and people responded to that.

This free spirit lived a life of extreme highs and lows, and 30 years later, Lance was dying from complications from HIV and hepatitis C. Still friends with Alan and Susan Raymond, part of the film crew from the series, he requested they document his final days. The result is Lance Loud! A Death in An American Family, which aired on PBS in January 2003 and is available on video.

The 60-minute film chronicles Lance’s life, starting with his supposed “coming out” on the series through a memorial service in his honor (he died in December 2001). The film includes clips from An American Family; montages of still photos; interviews with family, friends, and coworkers; and segments with Lance himself to provide a sequel, a final episode, to the series that thrust him into the limelight. It also brings out the other realities Lance dealt with including fame and drug addiction.

By September 2001 Lance had moved to a hospice, after living for several years in a small house with his cats and a garden in the backyard. He talks about being happy with life: “I always wake up excited like it’s my birthday.” Alan Raymond asks him about life expectancy; Lance replies he does not want to obsess over a number. But Lance also discusses his drug addiction, including 20 years of doing speed, which he calls “not very smart.” These segments set the reflective tone for the film and are interspersed throughout the major sequences.

The film begins by looking at Lance’s experiences with coming out on television, including a lengthy clip from the series, wherein his mother Pat sees a transvestite variety with her son on a visit to New York City. In 2001 Pat Loud describes her reaction to the Chelsea Hotel and her son’s life, but she also dispels the idea that her son came out on television, stating that the family probably was aware of Lance’s sexual orientation beforehand. In a voiceover Lance describes his feeling at the time: “I liked the idea that people didn’t like me and were upset.”

One strong influence in Lance’s life was Andy Warhol, to whom he wrote long letters. Warhol even called the Loud home once, which Pat recalls with a laugh. In a 1980 clip Warhol talks about Lance with fondness and expresses his admiration of Lance’s band, The Mumps.

Together for almost 10 years, The Mumps drew quite a following in New York City as they sold out popular clubs on a regular basis. Lance was the lead singer. According to keyboardist/songwriter Kristian Hoffman, “We liked to make ourselves ridiculous.” Still shots and home video footage document some of the group’s performances and show Lance’s charismatic stage presence, which has a Mick Jagger-esque way about it.

But the band failed to get a record contract and eventually broke up after nine years together. Lance discusses how the band probably was paranoid about his sexuality and how his fame (or notoriety) from the series also cast a shadow on the group. In an interview 10 years after the series, Lance describes how it helped create that shadow: “The people that liked me from the series would expect me to be a certain way. I wasn’t. I was just a normal guy who had been made brief and to the point by editing in the series.”

Pat labels the band’s end as the lowest point in Lance’s life, and she notes that this is when he started using crystal meth.

Lance returns to California, where he pursues a career writing for magazines. Shots of covers and bylines illustrate the variety in his subjects. David Keeps, editor of Details from 1990-2000, remarks on Lance’s amazing interviewing abilities. Lance also wrote a column for The Advocate, and in his hospice room he reads a segment from one of his final articles for the magazine. Bobby Mayhem, an editorial assistant, brings up Lance’s drug use again, this time describing his writing process while on speed. Gregory Poe, a fashion designer, asserts that Lance needed drugs to regulate his moods: “He had a manic sensibility” and “tremendous periods of depression.”

An extended sequence shows Lance in his final days. He reminisces about his desire to have a family outlet, but he started getting sick at the time he realized this desire. He reveals that he lived life in pursuit of “a feeling of fun” that he never found. His sister, Michelle, assists him with daily tasks like showering, and a phone call to their father, Bill, reveals a change in his attitude toward his son. As the two talk, Bill says, “You were just an all-American boy is all” to a series clip of Lance riding a bicycle down a busy street. A flashback to 1983 reveals Bill Loud having no sympathy for his son, but a 2002 interview shows him breaking up over the thought of his son dying. Lance sums up the change: “He’s not the beast he was 30 years ago or even 30 months ago.”

A memorial service pays tribute to Lance Loud, with writer and close friend Victoria Galves delivering a eulogy about Lance’s appreciation of women and with Rufus Wainwright singing “Somewhere over the Rainbow.” During the song, a montage of stills and moving images show Lance throughout the years.

A final title ties up one more loose end. It reads, “As his final request, Lance wanted his parents to reunite. Bill and Pat honored his wish and are living together again.”

At one point in the film, Alan Raymond asks, “So how would you like the story to end, Lance?” Lance replies that his story is a cautionary tale. Pat seconds this feeling. She hopes that people have safe sex and avoid drugs, and she hopes for “the good that might come out of this.”

Alan and Susan Raymond use the usual mix of documentary techniques, including interviews, voiceovers, montages, and candid moments. For the most part, the two remove themselves from the events, except to ask a question of Lance or, as in the beginning, to provide a brief voiceover introduction. Titles help guide us through the time shifts, and they introduce us to the people talking about Lance’s life and career. Fortunately, they had a charismatic subject to work with.

The film leaves some things out, however. It skirts around Lance’s sexuality and sexual activity, opting to focus on his drug use instead. Yet we learn almost nothing of his battles with the drugs, really, except through second-hand accounts. It offers no interview with Victoria Galves, who might give a different perspective on her friend. It also offers no explanation as to how Bobby Mayhem and Gregory Poe figure in Lance’s life.

But these details, especially the hard ones, probably are not the point. The film makes an effort to provide closure for a man and his family, and the people who supported and loved him. And it does so with a gentle hand ready to wipe a tear away.