Eddie Izzard stares at you from the back of his DVD case, strong, somewhat menacing in a black t-shirt, his look very don’t-f-with-me, and he’s… wait… what’s that… is that blue nail polish? Eddie Izzard, born in 1962 in Yemen to British parents, is the subject of Believe: The Eddie Izzard Story, a documentary that focuses on his return to comedy after a three-year hiatus. Cameras follow him as he works his way through workshops to a comeback tour, which was scheduled to culminate at Wembley Arena in London. The viewer sees the evolution of a show, from inception through production.
In one of the stupidest exposés ever, a British television program claimed that Izzard was committing fraud on the public by including older material in his latest stand-up show. It’s nearly impossible to believe that “the public” in question, who would have been stand-up comedy fans familiar with the practice of integrating new and old material, felt they were being defrauded. It was reported that many of the bits he did in his live show were available on the video of his previous show. So?
Watching a film of a live performance and catching the performance live do not provide the same experience. Fans may see a performer do the exact same act several times and find that there’s no such thing as “exact same”—the performer bringing different nuances and new material, constantly refreshing and refining. What seems like a molehill became a mountain in 2000, and Izzard stopped performing stand-up for three years. He continued acting in films (e.g., Ocean’s 12), television, and on stage, and was often seen on talk shows.
When Izzard was four years old, he would try on his mother’s dresses. When he was a young boy his mother died of cancer and he and his brother Mark were sent to boarding school. Believe: The Eddie Izzard Story is interwoven with old photographs and home movies, as well as videos of some of Izzard’s early performances. What we see in this documentary is an affecting story of a young man who worked incredibly hard to become a successful performer. From his early days as a street performer when he did an escape act, rode a unicycle, and did skits with a partner, through his triumphant return to the stage, we learn exactly how grueling a comic’s life can be. If you think that comedians do their time in small, local clubs and work their way up to comedy festivals, big venues, and The Tonight Show, you couldn’t be more mistaken. The amount of labor, time, and money expended to become successful is staggering. But, first, the talent has to be there.
Eddie Izzard is a very funny guy. There are not too many transvestite comedians who have reached his level of accomplishment. While the film is a fascinating look into the past and a totally engaging character study, it is also a sample of his comedic work that leaves the viewer wanting more. Many of Izzard’s fellow performers from his street days onward are included in the documentary and there are appearances by Robin Williams and George Clooney, who is his reliably clever self.
In publicity, Izzard is referred to as “gender bending.” The fact is that he is a transvestite who outed himself. He is straight and does a basically straight set, with the difference being he is a man wearing lots of eye shadow, false lashes, and a dress. His comedy is so well written and presented that audience members may actually forget he’s dressed like a woman, or perhaps accept it as part of the person he is. Not always in dresses—he has a collection of flashily dramatic suits—Izzard does favor high heels. Very high. But Izzard is not feminine; he is a man in women’s attire. As a member of the Facebook group “I stay in my pajamas until I absolutely HAVE to get dressed,” I appreciate Izzard’s preference to work wearing what’s comfortable for him. Kudos go to his loving, accepting father — the dad all creative types want.
Eddie Izzard is a man who has taken 35 years to come to terms with his mother’s death; he grieves still and recognizes that the “something” that drives him — and he is driven — is the desire to have his loving mum, to give her his success. And, yes, he did make it to Wembley Arena. To see how that turned out, one must get Eddie Izzard: Live from Wembley.
At the close of the documentary we learn that on September 15, 2009, Izzard completed 43 marathons in 51 days to raise money for charity. We are not surprised since we have already witnessed his manic drive to succeed, for surely he kept going when many would have rung down the curtain.
There are three extras included with Believe: The Eddie Izzard Story: “The Infamous ‘Wolves’ Sketch,” “Vince Henderson on Street Performing & Early Eddie,” and “Teddy Theatre.” Vince Henderson, a veteran street performer, provides interesting insight into the lives of street performers and tells an early-Eddie story that illustrates Izzard’s comedy roots. “The Infamous ‘Wolves’ Sketch” is an archive film of Izzard performing the bit that seems to have been his “big break.” “Teddy Theatre” is the adult Eddie Izzard doing something he did as a child, creating a play with his stuffed animals.
Bottom Line: Would I buy/rent Believe: The Eddie Izzard Story? Yes. When I first read about it I didn’t think I’d enjoy it much, but I was riveted. It is both moving and tremendously entertaining.