Will the Real Elio Perlman Please Stand Up? — Part Two
The investigation into the source of André Aciman’s inspiration continues.
Please read Part One, first.
“SEEMS SO REAL”
As a writer-director-producer-and-so-forth, I know well that it doesn’t matter at what level of the filmed-content industry you are, nor how famous or influential you might be: The better part of your time and efforts will be spent in “development hell,” a term I find histrionic, and not relevant to my experience. I see it as more of a development limbo suspended between purgatory and paradise.
Within the premium-content world in particular, there is an inflexible rule: no two projects can be the same, nor even recognizably similar. I wouldn’t think twice about whether to submit a project to my regular team if I knew it was too similar to another film or series — it would appear as if I didn’t know what I was doing.
Not that films and series don’t end up with many similarities: Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World and Danny Boyle’s series Trust are both about the kidnapping of J. Paul Getty III, a boy five years older than me at St. George’s School of Rome. If you gave that example as a defense in a meeting with entertainment execs in response to a “no, too similar to XYZ,” they would warily shrug and say, “That’s because they’re Ridley Scott and Danny Boyle.” Execs pursue A-plus-list attachments like starving hounds; I add the “plus” because Scott and Doyle are both rare auteurs with enviably healthy track records.
For the rest of us — that vast majority groveling in the muck outside the castle walls like medieval Monty Python peasants — studios and networks are simply looking for ways to say ‘no.’ We’re therefore obliged to disarm as many reasons for rejection as we can.
This is the quandary Call By Your Name put me in sometime in June of 2020: I can’t tell the Oliver part of my story unless I fictionalize it to the point of bearing no likeness to the film. More than any other issue unearthed by the (likely) Great Cribbing, as I call it, the fact that I have essentially lost the right to tell my own story on the screen has been the most irksome.
It hadn’t occurred to me that this problem might arise—I was going to write a three-part memoir somewhere down the road, but knew better than to throw myself into the mental drain whirlpool of imagining a screen adaptation, ten years too soon—until June 2020, when an A-plus-list producer suggested we develop a series about my teen years as the abused, rebellious teen son of an advertising exec slash Cold War spy in Rome in the turbulent late 70s.
That logline in itself might prompt this response from the Sammy Glick as Burning Man attendee you’re pitching to, “Too much like Boyle’s series about the Getty kid with the severed ear. What was it called…?”
“Yeah. Totally flew under the radar. My assistant liked it, though.”
This is when you would shut up and wait for a next step. You’ve locked yourself in a quandary: on the one hand, your pitch is manifestly similar—you even went to school with the Getty kid; on the other, Trust flew under the radar in terms of Hollywood visibility—it happens now and then even with Danny Boyle— and that means that your kind of story has a bad precedent. Thankfully, you’re saved by the good precedents of Ridley Scott’s Oscar-nominated version, and by “Guadagnino’s gay pedophile film,” an actual quote from a director I work with.
HET-WASH YOUR WAY TO SUCCESS!
I’ve written and developed two projects over the years based on my relationship with Oliver that have advanced to the point of having producers and directors attached, rewrites done, pitch meetings taken: American Bastard and Air. Both ‘het-wash’ my experience, to borrow my showrunner friend Bryan Fuller’s term. It’s only quite recently that LGBT content creators have allowed themselves to conceive of advancing projects targeted at a straighter audience that can have sexually fluid/fully gay leads. That’s largely thanks to the success of Call Me By Your Name and Moonlight; cultural changes wrought by the social-justice activists; and the granting of equal rights, to which most of us never imagined we might be entitled.
American Bastard was originally a feature script about a teenage native New Yorker who is sent to live with his biological father in Paris after his mother dies, where he attends a school similar to St. Stephens. He’s straight, precocious, preternaturally virile; in other words, Oliver Stewart. I barely hid Giulia by giving her character the name ‘Julie.’ My character was the extroverted, half-Italian, half-American gay best friend. It made the rounds of the indie film world, but until recently European co-productions were a rarity, too difficult to cast and finance. It had likewise slipped into an archive folder on a hard drive for which I’d long since lost the adapter cables.
Then I happened to watch an episode of Gossip Girl, a prime example of my native world being grossly misrepresented. Like most humans, nothing energizes me quite like being offended. I ordered a new adapter cable, cleaned the rust off American Bastard, and turned it into a series intended to set the representation of my natal world straight.
The project attracted producer Lisa Katselas (Richard III), who brought in the venerable Jack Lechner (Blue Valentine), now chair of the Film Department at Columbia University. After moving its setting from Paris to London, Jack put me through the paces with months of rewrites, followed by a round of pitch meetings in New York and L.A.
A few weeks after our presentation to Showtime, Jack received a castigating email passing on the project, telling him he should know better than to bring them something so similar to Gossip Girl, when he knows they pride themselves on completely original programming. Ouch.
There are far more similarities between Call Me By Your Name and my Oliver story than there are between American Bastard and Gossip Girl.
Air was another feature I wrote in an attempt to talk about my “frozen grief,” my inability to move on from Oliver. I was now in my mid-forties, still waking up from those dreams of him, so vivid they had to be real. I’d start the day numbed with sorrow and disappointment that I’d lost him once again. I had no more moved on from his death than when I was in my early 20s.
I het-washed Air automatically, turning myself into a middle-aged female TV producer wracked by dreams of her deceased teen lover. Directors and producers came and went. When it stalled, I decided to turn it into a novel; it’s easier to set up source material as a novel than it is a screenplay. A literary agent wrote in his coverage, “There is a lot to love about this book, but I find it hard to believe that a middle-aged woman can’t get over her deceased high-school sweetheart after all these years.” Ouch times two.
After a flurry of enthusiastic emails between Jack and the A-plus-list producer in June of 2020, it became time to unpack American Bastard once again. This version would be honest about where it happened, and to whom.
While making notes as to how I would retrofit American Bastard to real events in Italy, it became clear that the over-story for an entire season — my sexual awakening through my relationship with Oliver and his death — would have to be fictionalized.
Faced with having to conform to the inevitable industry-standard restrictions, but still holding on to wanting to tell my story as honestly as possible, I finally became curious as to how this André Aciman fella knew so much about such a niche world in that particular era—I’d so willfully ignored the film that I had to search “author novel call me by.”
Did he go to the American School in Milan? The École Bilingue in Paris? I searched for “andré aciman high school.” I could find no names for Aciman’s schools pre-college, not even on his Wikipedia page. But I did discover that after his family fled Egypt in the mid-60s, they settled not in Milan, as I assumed from the locations in both the novel and the film, nor the surrounding Bergamasque countryside where it was shot, but in Rome.
At that point, things began to move rapidly from being a mere clutch of coincidences I would have been ill-advised to make a big deal about back in 2017 to a real possibility that the “pure fiction,” as Howard Rosenman would describe it in a later text exchange, was actually a fictionalization of my experience. Google summoned a paragraph by Angelica Florio on Bustle from November 2017 that taunted me:
“The movie… seems so real that it’d make total sense if Call Me By Your Name is a true story. Yet while the young love depicted by actors Armie Hammer and Timothée Chalamet, seems incredibly realistic, the movie is actually based on a fictional book of the same title.”
In another interview online, Aciman mentioned going to an American school in Rome, not the American school, which is the Overseas School, a typical American embassy school like any other in a friendly country, akin to a public high school Stateside—not an option for my parents, which is why I was one of two Yanks in my class at St. George’s, the British school, and I wasn’t too sure about the other guy.
Could that mean Aciman was a St. Stephen’s alum, too? Wherever he was educated, it would have been in the mid-60s. Why, then, did he set the story during the period when Oliver, Giulia, and I were in our teens?
There are several possibilities as to how Aciman might have heard about us. Oliver’s wasn’t the death of an ordinary kid; it was a well-known tragedy that involved renowned people in a niche world in which the author spent time. At a minimum, if Aciman went back to Rome in the early nineties to research his memoir and visited St. Stephen’s, he would have seen the bronze memorial plaque to Oliver Ogden Stewart embedded in a wall of the central courtyard.
“FABULOUS, STRIKING PHOTOS”
The Rashomon Effect is a legal term named for the Kurosawa film, in which a single event is seen from different points of view, none exactly the same. That is what began to form on the detective’s “crazy wall” in my head. The fact I’m a confirmed, gold-star skeptic who finds conspiracies and chilling unsolved mysteries about UFOs and ghosts flushing toilets at two a.m. in gingerbread mansions both chuckle-worthy and an annoying waste of thinking time, means this sort of did-he-do-it puzzle-solving all the more unusual.
Now I saw Gore on the steps of the chapel of St. Stephen’s after the graduation ceremony for Oliver’s class, for which he gave the commencement speech. I was at the top of the steps to the school entrance, finally giving the martinet French teacher the piece of my mind I’d always dreamed of. He was talking to someone else — was it Luisa? — and he looked at me. Did Gore know about me and the truth about me and his godson?
For the first time since the summer of 1980, I remembered the scene at Joseph Lee’s in Southampton a month or so after I returned from Rome and Paris, but from an alternate angle. Was Joseph deliberately mining me for information on Gore’s behalf at the dinner table, when he looked at me and said, “Gore is devastated by the death of his godson, Luisa and Donald Stewart’s son”? Did he go back and tell Gore about the wounded, lovelorn teen in New York?
This was still the pre-social media era, when gossip among global socialites was short-form raconteuring, a social currency of considerable value at dinner parties. Joseph had mentioned how much “Gore loves gossip.” A gay American literary legend, the author of the first transgender classic Myra Breckenridge — bold enough to be as out and proud as Truman Capote, without being forced to be because he was naturally “fem-presenting,” fooling no one — would want to know that his beloved godson had a secret boyfriend.
How would Aciman have met Gore? It’s more like what American writer in Rome didn’t socialize with Gore in the 70s, 80s and early 90s? I imagined Gore introducing Donald and Luisa to Aciman at a party at the American Academy in Rome.
Then the modeling test shots that Luisa took of me and Oliver in his/our new clothes pinned themselves to the crazy wall. Is that how Aciman knew what we looked like? Even though I was fifteen in the one print I was given of the two of us from that series, I still used it as my senior yearbook picture, rather than an updated photograph of me at seventeen, like everyone else. The quotes I used are in the three languages I spoke at the time—I’ve since added Spanish and Hindi. They’re also the three languages spoken in Call Me By Your Name—if you count Lombard as a dialect, not a language. (I needed to read subtitles when it’s spoken on screen, as with Neapolitan/Calabrese, so it’s another language in my book, so to speak.)
The layout and text is revealing of my mindset six months after his death, typos notwithstanding. There’s a sliver of Oliver’s shadow to my left, as if leaning his shoulder and head against mine. He is cropped out to symbolize his eternal absence. The French quote I created as my personal motto translates as “from the heart, for the soul.” The third Dickinson quote reflects my state of mind six months after his death, when I handed the quotes and photo print to the yearbook editor, never to see it again—I didn’t want to.
As if kicked onstage by Oliver’s ghost, a woman I’d never met, who went to St. Stephen’s after I left, the year Oliver died, sent me a direct message on Facebook, saying that she’d read a three-part blog post I wrote in 2012 about my relationship with Annie Girardot, in which I somewhat openly touch on my relationship with Oliver and the aftermath of his death. Giulia had posted it on her feed.
The mystery woman told me she had been snooping around Luisa’s study once and had seen “these fabulous, striking pictures of Oliver with another boy. Are you him?”
Both spooked and indignant, now suspecting that the casting resemblances might not have been the total coincidence I assumed they were, I rattled off a few texts to Howard about the similarities between the stories that I could no longer ignore, especially since they were now impeding me from telling my own story. Howard replied that, while he respected my experience, many gay men over the years had told him and the Call Me By Your Name team how personal the film was for them.
It irritated me to be downgraded from savvy industry insider to delusional fanboy. I reminded him that we were talking about a niche world in a very specific era that has been experienced by a few hundred people, at most, almost all of whom would have been aware of Oliver’s story.
Howard countered that the characters were Jewish. I dismissed the Jewish theme as what Aciman would need to do to convert a world he was unfamiliar with into one that was more personal. Jack Lechner once told me how difficult it was for him to write “goyishe characters convincingly.” And the cliché is mostly true: your best writing is based on what you know.
I then pointed out to Howard that of all the names to choose from, Oliver was hardly a common Jewish name, on top of the fact that it’s given to a character nicknamed “the Movie Star,” described as a lot like Oliver Stewart.
“So sue Sony,” was Howard’s final, exasperated text.
Stunned and momentarily offended that he would think of me that way, I typed my parents’ standard response to any prospect of legal litigation: “We don’t sue.”
Then I deleted it. It’s understandable that someone with little knowledge of the often-unrealistic niceties of the Flying Pest Caste might assume that I was planning to sue; everyone I’ve spoken to about the possibility of the Great Cribbing assumes that’s my goal. Indeed, lawsuits are so common with a successful film or stage show that the saying in the UK entertainment industry is, “When there’s a hit, there’s a writ.”
Instead, I replied that no amount of money could ever equal the gift of having such a sensitive, beautiful film, that touched millions of people, made about the greatest tragedy of my life.
CONTEXT IS KING
Everyone who hears or reads a story automatically frames it within the limits of their experience. Having tried to explain the similarities between my story and Call Me By Your Name for two years now, it’s been a constant struggle to provide a proper context; specifically, why the likelihood that Aciman was inspired by our experience appears exponentially more likely to my childhood friends and me, and no doubt a fair portion of Italians and French, than it does to non-expat Americans.
My observation so far is that most Americans imagine our experience growing up in the expats-in-Rome community was much like their own. Precisely because we’re Americans, they imagine that we were also individuals who grew up as one small part integrated in a vast and relatively homogenous country, culturally speaking. But we’re really expats living in America; I estimate my ten years in Italy as a child and teenager were the equivalent of thirty in an adult’s development.
Let me try to build a word-based Sims version of the American expat community in Italy in the era Aciman has specifically chosen, and place him relative to it:
Imagine a couple of hundred expats, the Homelanders, living in a loosely configured gated community in the 70s and 80s in the capital of a Southern European nation called Paese. It’s a vibrant, turbulent time in Paesan-Homelander history, know as “The Era of Bullets” to Paesan scholars, so fascinating that five films and TV shows have been made about it by four auteur directors.
Unusually, the capital of Paese, the half-ruined Remus, contains within it a fabulously wealthy, ancient theocratic city-state, the Holy Communion, the spiritual center of the most influential religion in the world, ruled by the world’s last remaining absolute monarch, the Piety.
In a discreet spot on the gatehouse of the Homelander community hangs a faded shield of the Episcopal Church. That signals that most Homelanders are part of the 0.1% in their country of origin, Eagleland; however, casteism and inherited privilege are considered sinful in their resolutely democratic culture. They ignore it, never discuss it. That doesn’t stop most Eaglelanders, especially immigrants, from aspiring to what they perceive is an elite existence; if they didn’t want to buy into a piece of that, Ralph Lauren would still be selling ties at Brooks Brothers.
Like any exclusive gated community, at most a few dozen families live there. The most notable by far is the family of the eldest son of the richest man in the world, the Shells. A few years before our story takes place, the Shells’ eldest son, then fifteen, was kidnapped. The incident traumatized the entire Homelander community and was made into an Oscar-nominated film as well as a premium TV series, at the same time. So there’s that.
A close second in notability is an extended family that resides in two emotionally conjoined houses, the most spectacular of which is built into a cliffside. That belongs to an out gay writer and public intellectual, Author, a household name in Eagleland. He lives with his de facto husband. The father in the conjoined house, Editor, the son of Hollywood’s former communist leader, is Author’s best friend, which is why Author is the godfather of Editor’s matinee-idol-handsome boy, Movie Star. They’re also something of a literary powerhouse; the mother is Paesan, his father an Eaglelander. The Author and the Editor are the unelected leaders of the international expat literary community, also a group of a few dozen, all of whom know each other—they dine, drink and party together once or twice a week. Paesan culture is “very social,” as they put it.
Another far-less bohemian but nonetheless influential expat family belongs to Businessman, the leader of the conservative faction of the Homelanders, his wife and three children, the eldest of which is Ferdinand. The Businessman is deeply connected with the local nobility, who like almost all aristocrats worldwide are deeply conservative—taxes, land, people management, and so forth; with conservative party politicos that have ruled Paese for thirty years, but who are now under threat of being taken over by the communist party; with both the official and covert operatives of the all-powerful Eaglelander intelligence community; and with the Holy Communion via his close friend, a high-ranking Eaglelander cleric who oversees the Holy Communion’s vast wealth as head of their bank, who’s also widely believed throughout Paese to have assassinated a commie piety unexpectedly elected to the throne by a majority faction of the conclave comprised mostly of upstart commie Latin American arch-clerics, only thirty-three days after his coronation.
Because of all these covert conservative Homelander shenanigans, super-leftie Author and Editor loathe Businessman. As a result, Ferdinand and Movie Star don’t meet until they both attend the Chapel House Episcopalian School, as most Homelander kids do after eighth grade. About twenty kids out of a student body of one hundred and twenty belong to the Homelander community.
In an adjacent gated community for celebrities, Cineville, lives Principessa. When she and Movie Star become romantically involved, her bestie Ferdinand is kept as part of the relationship. Ferdinand and Movie Star begin an intense bromance that becomes a fully fledged romance.
Ferdinand moves back with his family to the Capital of the World, where he was born, a traumatic separation for both boys. After completing a college tour in Eagleland, Movie Star and Ferdinand spend a last weekend together that Movie Star believes will be something of a honeymoon that consummates their relationship. Ferdinand fucks it up by being an emo wreck.
Nine months later, Movie Star dies in a freak accident while bathing at his country house. His death breaks not just Movie Star’s conjoined family, his friends and lovers, it remains a slow-healing wound for most of the tiny Homelander gated community for years to come; for them, Movie Star’s death is the equivalent of what JFK Jr.’s death will be to all of Eagleland.
A decade or so later after Movie Star’s death, a straight professor of creative writing living in the Capital of the World, returns to the Paesan capital to research a memoir about his experiences as a teen in Remus in the mid-60s. During his two years there, Professor lived in a neighborhood so humble that he lied to his schoolmates and pretended he lived within, or adjacent to, the more aspirational Homelander gated community.
Like many ambitious people who are also socially insecure, Professor climbs Eagleland’s meritocratic social system, not the Gatsbyesque way, by accumulating vast wealth, but the more understated, more easily integrated way: doing his postgraduate and doctoral degrees at its most elite university, where the Businessman did his masters; in fact, almost all Homelander men both in Remus and Eagleland itself go to similar universities, Author and Editor included.
Making his way up the slow, creaking rungs of academia means Professor has to publish, especially because he teaches literature and writing. It helps a lot if it’s groundbreaking work, preferably dealing with one of Eagleland’s oppressed minorities—you can’t go wrong with Blacks and LGBTs in the 2000s. That’s a tough door to push through as an introverted straight Jewish academic who’s not Black, even if he is North African. Writing about the Jewish experience isn’t making editors do cartwheels these days.
When Professor is in Remus researching his memoir in the early 90s, Author and Movie Star’s parents are ever more the éminences grises of the Paesan literary community; this is a culture that venerates and respects older people, especially if they’re world-famous artists and writers. Name-dropping is an essential accessory in Paesan society, as are lineage and noble rank.
Everyone who is introduced to the Editor and his wife is told by gossipy Author and his husband of what happened to Movie Star, warned never to bring it up. Every warning comes with a sotto voce description of what a gorgeous, charming godling Movie Star was, what a ladies man, such a shame. “Only the good die young,” wraps up these oft-repeated instructions, with a sigh and an ain’t-life-a-bitch shake of the head.
The Author gets up at five a.m. every day, writes till noon, then has his first drink. An old-school Homelander alcoholic, he drinks until he passes out after dinner—a culture that believes bad parenting it the best parenting leaves painful scars on far too many; they need gallons of numbing potions a week. It wouldn’t take much for a cuddly, socially ambitious academic, stuck for something fresh and edgy to write about, to get the voluble Author to open up. After a few parties at the Eagleland Academy of Remus, Professor has learned that right around half-past cocktail hour, before Author becomes too slurry, is optimum indiscreet-chat time.
“Such a shame about Movie Star. I saw pictures of him. So handsome!”
“He was like the rising sun. Beautiful boy. Every fell in love with him. Girls and boys.”
“Boys? Really? Do tell.” Even sober the Author rarely shuts up. After all, he’s a writer and a public intellectual who has made a lot of money being forthright and scandalous.
Professor’s memoir enjoys modest success. Then, in the mid-2000s, he releases a universally acclaimed novel, Let’s Swap Names, set within the Homelander community in the era when Movie Star and Ferdinand were teens, not the mid-60s, when Professor was likely one of the only Jews at a bleak Eaglelander boys school run by the Holy Communion, so not Episcopalians, and therefore Homelander adjacent in a time when such things mattered, and Homelanders lowered their voices to a whisper when they said, “He belongs to the Holy Communion,” and took a sip of cheap Scotch to add closing punctuation to the topic. At the time, there had only ever been one President of All Eagleland who belonged to the Holy Communion; yet it was already the largest Christian denomination in the country.
The romantic interest in Let’s Swap Names is also called Movie Star; in fact, many of the characters, events and settings could well be lifted from that story and the niche Homelander community in which it took place, a world that the Author aspired to from an early, formative age, that he would have switched, swapped and shifted using the sort of basic Creative Writing 101 fictionalization-of-real-life techniques that the Professor teaches.
Over the years, fans of both the book and film constantly laud the detailing and characterizations—it seems so real that it resonates with millions, on a deeply personal level. What makes it all the more extraordinary is the Professor is a straight father of two who has never had a same-sex relationship, and only an indirect relationship with the tight-lipped Homelander community in which the story is set—it only reaffirms what a sensitive, preternatural creative genius he is.
It’s all the more odd, then, that the sequel novel to Let’s Swap Names shows the opposite of inventiveness. Furthermore, why write a sequel in the first place? It’s literature, not some historical-sci-fi-fantasy genre series. Did Hemingway write sequels to his hits? The Author himself had a number of critically acclaimed bestsellers, some historical genre. Surely Professor, a twenty-first-century male Scheherazade, has a thousand and one detailed stories to conjure from nothing about worlds he’s only visited briefly, one more inventive and plugged into the social gestalt than the last.
TRICKS OF THE TRADE
The most appropriate quote about the screen adaptation process is John Le Carré’s: “Having your book turned into a movie is like seeing your oxen turned into bouillon cubes.”
I don’t take that as disparaging; it’s merely a truthful observation: bouillon cubes are the essence of oxen bones that have been boiled down. Likewise, a successful screen adaptation process distills a story to its essence, eliminating the window dressing of pretty prose, fictionalization camouflage, and other devices. That’s why Call Me By Your Name, the film, reveals to me more of Aciman’s inspiration than the book does.
The only critical part of fictionalizing a real story is to keep the essential elements and themes. The best way to mask them, but preserve their integrity, is to give them to other characters, to change locations and time periods. That is why, at the screening in 2017, I was immediately able to see Mr. and Mrs. Perlman as likely being Donald and Luisa Stewart — a dauntingly goyishe couple in real life — and Elio’s girlfriend, Mariza, as Oliver Stewart’s girlfriend, Giulia. It didn’t matter that the characters, locations and story didn’t match exactly.
An example of the preservation of the essence of an element, while still changing it almost beyond recognition, is the age difference. There was less than a year difference between me and Oliver Stewart; however, he was a grade ahead, a wider gulf for most teens than it is for grownups. He wasn’t twenty-four to my seventeen, as Aciman’s Oliver is to Elio in the book. The point is Oliver is older than Elio, more worldly, especially about sex.
Also, Oliver Stewart’s last lover — he was Elio’s age, seventeen, when he died — was Letizia, a twenty-three-year-old aspiring journalist, who picked him up on the road near Porto Ercole after his motorcycle broke down. Is that the age difference Aciman is representing in the book? Letizia was important enough to Oliver Stewart’s posthumous narrative that she was present at Luisa’s graduation party for his class, perhaps as a counterpoint to the same-sex relationship who’d come back from New York to “do pee-pee in the soup,” as Romans put it, one of Dad’s favorite expressions.
Letizia looked after me after I left Giulia and Annie in Paris, on my way back to New York via Rome. She loaned me her apartment in Trastevere, and took me with her to the Spoleto festival. We got to know each other well.
It also doesn’t matter that the exact years that my relationship with Oliver took place, fall of 1978 to March of 1980, don’t precisely match the mid-80s period of Call Me By Your Name. It’s the era that matters. And we don’t count or care how many men or women the real or (likely) fictionalized Oliver has sex with. What matters is his bisexuality, and the particular obstacles that all men who have sex with men face, especially in that era.
My Oliver, like Aciman’s, was likewise panties-droppingly, make-a-fool-of-yourself sexy; those quaint bicycles in the movie are motorcycles in my story, weaving in and around the thrilling insanity of lawless Rome traffic. Oliver Stewart became Marlon Brando when he straddled one.
The Perlman’s acceptance and encouragement of Elio’s romance — which nonetheless can only be spoken of obliquely — was rare, but not in Oliver’s world, which was dominated by the weighty presence of Gore Vidal.
If I interpret both Elio and Aciman’s Oliver as sharing Oliver Stewart’s traits and circumstances, it’s because Aciman states what he’s doing in the title: your name is mine; mine is yours. You are me; I am you. Elio is Oliver; Oliver is Elio. I’m just a body, perhaps, an unnamed boy in a series of “striking photographs.”
Aciman has stated that his Oliver is a combination of the High Romantic poet Percy Shelley, buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, a few hundred yards from Oliver Stewart, and a pre-sexual crush he had on a visit to his family’s house in Alexandria, Egypt when he was six. I don’t doubt those inspirations might be lingering in his fictionalization mix, too. But I need a bit more than that to dismiss all of the synchronicities between our stories as merely a set of extraordinary coincidences.
THE ‘FUN’ IN FUNERALS
Tom Rockwell, the man who was the boy who was with Oliver when he died, is the grandson of painter Norman Rockwell, is like a cousin to me; we’ve known each other since the third grade at St. George’s—he was Oliver and Giulia’s age, a year ahead of me at St. Stephens. We were confirmed together at the Episcopal church in Rome by our Presiding Bishop, the American equivalent of the Archbishop of Canterbury. I consider Tom to be one of Oliver’s three non-familial survivors, along with me and Giulia.
While I was badgering Howard via text about the overabundance of synchronicities between my story and Call Me By Your Name, I was also chatting with Tom about it in another window. He hadn’t yet seen the film, but he knows Rome, Gore Vidal and the Stewarts’ social mix—the Rockwells still have an apartment in Trastevere. He understands viscerally what a small community it is, and the improbability that these were mere coincidences—I needed that tell-me-I’m-not-delusional touchstone right then.
For the first time ever, I referred to Oliver by who he really was to me: “my boyfriend.” Again, before that it had always been “best friend,” with an implied romantic and physical depth, like how “confirmed bachelor,” or “companion” were understood in the old days. Trepidation that I might be imposing on reality and forcing it into my corner seized my breath; Tom is the only one other than Giulia who could validate Oliver’s elevation to romantic partner in my personal lexicon. And I didn’t think that after all these years Giulia would see things according to my Rashomon viewpoint.
Tom replied: “Really like you calling Oliver your boyfriend. Makes sense to me.” Then another unexpected bonus: “But it also makes sense that our environment at that time (including me) would have been uncomfortable and in denial about that… which I can imagine compounds the shame. Sorry you’ve had to go through that.”
“Thank you,” I replied a couple of minutes later, after I mopped up tears and blew my nose. “I didn’t think I needed an apology, and my instant reaction was, ‘Oh, no, massah straight man, I didn’t mean to make you apologize.’ And I didn’t. But it was… very lonely, Tom. And I loved him so much.”
I thought about the modeling test shots. Now that the film had given me a more objective view of my relationship with Oliver, I wanted copies of the photos. I remembered that in one or two of them, Oliver and I are leaning against a wall, so close to each other our shoulders are touching. I could see that framed in my office.
Luisa accepted a friend request I sent her on Facebook. But she never posted to her feed and hadn’t completed her profile. She didn’t reply to a direct message I sent her; it’s still marked unread to this day. I asked friends from school if they’d heard from her; nobody was sure if she was even still alive. According to an obituary on a Rome-based expat site, Donald passed away in 2015.
Now more than ever, filmed content is hungry for source material, books in particular. I’d intended to write a memoir about my particular progress through this varied, rollercoaster life at some point, anyway. A proposed series based on my teen years in Rome as the son of an abusive, covert Cold War spy was the best incentive I’d ever had to start.
Ideally, I should be writing all of the initial chapters, the ones that are to be adapted for the screen, in Rome itself. Aciman has said he went back to research his memoir. The pandemic made that impossible for me.
However, for the past twelve years, Giulia had been wintering in Baja California — less than a two-hour flight from Los Angeles. In 2020, she found herself stuck there, unable to return to Paris. With travel to Mexico permissible, I was certain the only way for me to plug into the world of our adolescence, especially to revive the cadence and vocabulary of our particular English-Italian-French argot — now speckled with Spanish, which both of us had picked up over the decades — would be for me to fly down for a visit.
After booking my ticket, I dove back into Google. It produced a newer slew of articles at the top of the search than the ones from eight months before, mainly reviews of Aciman’s sequel, Find Me, which was not well received by critics, to put it politely. That didn’t surprise me: From my perspective, the first three parts of Call Me By Your Name, the novel, are likely based on a true story.
The fourth part, set fifteen years later in New York City, wasn’t filmed, I imagine for financial reasons; a company move to New York could double the budget, easily. Over Howard’s eleven-year development period, there was no such thing as a romantic drama — already the most difficult genre to finance — with same-sex leads that was over the five-million-dollar budget limit, which Guadagnino had whittled it down to from Jim Ivory’s original, unfeasible fourteen million.
It could also be that the screen adaptation process had filtered Part Four out as being pure fiction. Reviewers generally appraised Find Me as listless storytelling that was nowhere near as engaging as the first book. To me it seemed obvious from the difference in titles: one is cryptic and lyrical; the other a nanny’s least-favorite game at a children’s playdate.
In low periods, I continued to speculate as to whether the Great Cribbing had actually taken place. Surely I was as delusional about it all as I had been about my relationship with Oliver in the first place. Then I found an interview Aciman had given with Spencer Kornhaber in The Atlantic. It begins with,
“Their love story was almost a death story…. As Aciman unspooled the 17-year-old Elio’s inner monologue of desire for the handsome intruder down the hall, he implanted references to the writer Percy Shelley’s 1822 death off the Italian coast. These references were meant to foreshadow that Oliver would drown… . But at every juncture when it came time to kill off Oliver, Aciman spared him. It was more ‘fun,’ he said, to write him alive than dead.”
Oliver Stewart drowned while bathing in his family’s house on the coast of Italy.
As much as I want to be outraged by Aciman having “fun” by keeping his Oliver alive, I can’t; as a writer who knows how much fun the adaptation and fictionalization process is, how easy it is to fall in love with your characters, I can’t blame him. Aciman had also never had the experience of my Oliver.
Aciman’s Oliver not dying when he was supposed to was the sole discrepancy between the film and my story that had kept me convinced it was all just a set of coincidences. The interview in The Atlantic moved things from “might be inspired by” to “probably based on” my experience.
A SUN-DRENCHED UNDERWORLD
A few days after my reunion with Giulia in Baja, after almost forty years apart, the borrowing of our life story for a work of fiction seemed irrelevant. We’d made plans to see the film together, but being with her provoked the same gay-shame barriers that were by now second nature. I no longer wanted her to see my covert romantic relationship with her boyfriend recreated in scenes on film by actors who looked like us, and in one crucial case had the same name.
The love and protectiveness I felt for her when we were in our Dreamers throuple was seeping back. I convinced myself that I’d betrayed her, in a fashion, even though it was becoming clearer that it was Oliver who’d passively seduced me, probably unconsciously, driven by his own desires to be with another guy romantically and physically. If anything, he had betrayed her; I was just along for a ride that I had no choice but to take — nobody said “no” to Oliver.
After four days together, she sensed my ambivalence about bringing a screening of Call Me By Your Name into our renewed dialogue. “Vediamo ‘sto film,” she said. “Let’s see this film.”
“No, we don’t have to,” I kept demurring. We were planning to celebrate Oliver’s death anniversary together on March 24th. Wasn’t that enough? “No!” she replied. “Sto cazzo di film lo vediamo. Stassera. E basta!” We were watching this fucking film, tonight, and that was that.
After I fumbled with connections and monitor settings, we lay side by side on her bed. The last time we’d done that, we were on her bed in Rome — she between me and Oliver, his gaze fixated on me while he idly twirled coucou ai capelli in her hair.
Giulia’s entire body flinched with recognition right when I thought she might: when Elio sits down at the outside table and whines about Oliver’s popularity, and the Italians say his name in that distinct way (“awe-lee-ver”). She growled, “Cazzo!” in her mother’s signature Gitanes-shattered voice. During another scene, she sat up, shaking off discomfort, swiveling her legs off the bed as if to stand, then settled back again. The sex scenes were as squirm-inducing for me as if I’d discovered a sibling watching a treasured sex tape of mine.
I did better than expected emotionally, until the Last Weekend sequence. In all the lists and links of synchronicities on my inner crazy wall, I’d forgotten about our own last weekend. I couldn’t hold back the shock of recognition colliding with grief. I sputtered a few cough-sobs to cover it up. “Me mata cada vez,” I muttered in Spanish — it kills me every time.
The Last Weekend is a whole section in the book; it’s as drastic a shift into a third act of a film as there’s ever been. How could Aciman have known about that? In my recollection of events, only Oliver and I knew about it, nobody else, not even Giulia, who had just left him in New York after their college tour.
HAUNTED BY THE FUTURE
In mid-August of 1979, I took the bus down from Haines Falls, NY to the City. Oliver picked me up at Port Authority and took me to a sprawling four-bedroom apartment on West End Avenue.
“It belongs to a friend of my dad’s, Jules Feiffer. He’s a famous cartoonist.”
We camped out in a sparsely furnished room with a pull-out couch, a tiny black-and-white TV and a drafting table, on which Oliver rolled spliffs. It was just the two of us; the Feiffers were away for the summer. A young man came and went, occasionally. Oliver knew him, and scooted off to speak to him now and then, but I was never introduced.
Oliver had matured significantly over the summer. His hair was bleached by the Sardinian sun, his shoulders were broader from swimming in the sea. When he stood at the drafting table with his back to me, wearing my underpants, or maybe his, hair sweeping his shoulders, he reminded me of a blond teen Tarzan. He intimidated me. His jocular-jock teasing, combined with the super-strong weed he scored in Washington Square Park, made me paranoid even about being paranoid.
The internet corroborates my memory: It rained much of the time we were there, trapping us indoors to smoke weed and watch American TV. We went to Studio 54 and Xenon at night, both almost empty during a week in August with everyone out of town, and walked around New York during the day, Oliver razzing me for not knowing anything about the City; in Rome I’d made it seem like I knew every block intimately.
I could easily fictionalize this and say that Oliver and I, finally alone and in bed with each other in our underpants for the better part of four days, had endless, energetic teen sex, and nobody would be able to contradict me. I would have lost my virginity to him over those four days — he almost certainly would have topped me, and I would have treasured it until my grave.
I would have been in Giulia’s place, finally, maybe have allowed him to do coucou ai capelli. If I lied about what really happened, it would bring my story more in line with the last weekend in Call Me By Your Name. But I’m not very good with dishonesty — it’s burdensome, and I can’t dishonor my relationship with Oliver by being anything less than truthful about it. And my truth is that I turned our honeymoon into a melancholy wake for a living person. I knew with absolute certainty that I would never see him again.
It wasn’t fear, a hypersensitive teen’s terror of something happening to the person he cared about most in the world; other than a fear of heights, I’m one of the least fearful people I know. My prescience about what would happen to Oliver was fait accompli, seven months in advance. This sixth sense that seized control of all other senses began on the bus down from the mountains and worsened steadily from the moment he hugged me at Port Authority. I went from sullen to outright maudlin, struggling every second to hide it, to pretend to enjoy our big weekend, which the internet assures me was likely more in the middle of the week.
I understand now it was meant as a honeymoon of sorts. Oliver just wanted to have New York-levels of fun, to have sex, now that we were finally free of the parameters and social taboos that had limited us before. He was far more sexually advanced than I was in terms of intercourse. He had a hard-on almost the entire time, lying there on the bed, teasing me, coaxing me: “Dai, Ginsi. You know you want this. Vieni qua…”
With my mind locked in a dirge, I had no desire. I tried to fake it, to humor him. I fumbled around with him sporadically, then went back to watching TV, or scooted off to the bathroom, huddled against the wall, the water running so he couldn’t hear me sobbing.
When you beat a puppy consistently throughout his first years, he will flinch when all you want to do is pet him. I took Oliver’s expression of affection-through-teasing, a natural behavior for some introverts, to be taunting, beating rather than petting. Eventually, my mood dominated everything. Oliver shifted from playfulness, from being that Roman teen constantly wagging and groping his hard-on, to genuine concern. “Ma che c’hai, Ginsi?”
I confessed: “Ho paura che non ti vedrò mai più, Papo,” relating my fear of never seeing him again. He thought I was ridiculous, dismissing my fears with a gentle, “Ma dai!” I was just stoned and being paranoid, he said. Of course I would see him again!
At the end of our last weekend together, he put me on the bus Upstate, and went back to Rome. On the plane he wrote me his version of a love letter, full of no-homo teasing, sweet pep talk, and a crude anal-sex reference that I didn’t find funny until recently. I fixated on it for years at the expense of what the rest of the letter was really saying.
I’d never taken him seriously when he said he wanted to be a writer like his grandfather, father, and superstar godfather Gore. Before the letter I honestly didn’t think he was as smart as I was, or as talented. But from the one piece I read, Papo could write. He had real talent.
When he arrived in Rome, Oliver went straight from the airport to Sardinia and broke up with Giulia. He then went out of his way to post the letter to me at the Vatican; the Italian postal system was too unreliable.
He made that effort. I see now through a prism reshaped by these details that my fractured self-esteem hid how important I was to him. It wasn’t until this odyssey with Call Me By Your Name that I fully understood that my badly self-told history needed to adjust itself to the facts, to the actions, not the lingering mental trickeries of bruised teen emotions.
PROPERLY LIKE THAT
After the film’s impossibly sad end-title sequence, Guilia said she needed to process what she’d seen. She wandered around the kitchen and living room, information settling, the Rashomon Effect shifting her perspective, too.
When she sat down opposite me at the dinner table, she said she understood my experience with Oliver better. She was terse, but she was also in shock. We looked at pictures of Armie Hammer when he was younger. Giulia quibbled, feebly playing devil’s advocate: Hammer’s hair is ash brown, not Oliver’s dirty blond, and his eyes are blue, not brown.
“Ma dai, Giulia…” I said, adding the requisite Italian body language for give me a break: chin tucked in, cocked slightly to the left, head and shoulders recoiling from the thing from which you need a break. She got it, nodded.
We pulled up stills of Timmy Chalamet as Elio. She stood up, turned her back to the weirdness of it. “Eri proprio così, solo molto più alto. E ogni tanto aprivi bocca e facevi, WAAAARG!” Meaning I was properly like that, only much taller. And every so often I opened my mouth and Stung Ferdinand bellowed.
The next day, I woke up to an otherworldly, Fellini-esque wind blowing through the house—that displacing wind juxtaposed with landscapes was the maestro’s favorite sound effect. The oddness and unlikeliness of the Last Weekend represented in the film as in real life hammered at my reluctance to accept that the somewhat-possible Great Cribbing might be probable.
The parameters of film and TV development had a ven-a-Jesus talk with me: Writing about the synchronicities between the stories in a memoir wouldn’t be enough to reclaim my story.
I saw the book molding away at the bottom of a “Two-Misery-Memoirs-for-a-Dollar” bin in the back of the LGBT section at The Strand, soaked in coffee because someone mistook it for a trash can. I pictured a bespeckled metamodernist getting his MA in Neo-Binary Gender-Sex Studies falling asleep while reading chapter three, yawning. “Yeah, yeah, Call Me By Your Name stole your story. Whatever, dude,” and throwing it on one of dozens of piles of books, while drifting off into an intersectional dream of being in a 70s bathhouse orgy with Socrates, Sigmund Freud and Michel Foucault.
If I just wrote the memoir, the likelihood that my Oliver story would sink into obscurity was high. At best, the book would be optioned as source material, tucked away neatly in the many pieces of the “chain of title” that make up the copyright to a piece of entertainment. I would still have to change Oliver’s name, as well as those parts of the story that were too similar.
The only way to stop my experience being erased completely by a highly probable appropriation was to publish an article about it. That might add public discourse around the legitimacy of both stories, whether good or bad, that a memoir in a sale bin at The Strand could never accomplish. Articles are more easily accessed and read online. Amazon hands out a few random sample pages of books like a rich, miserly aunt who can no longer think sequentially.
In a remote session from Baja with my therapist, I scratched at the fleas of doubt: “But how did Aciman know about the last weekend? Nobody knew about that. Unless… did I write letters to Oliver that Luisa kept? I also wrote letters to Luisa…?”
Dr. Borkheim brusquely snapped me out of my spiral as if jabbing an overdosing junkie with Naloxone. “It’s very simple: He heard the story; did the research; wrote the book.”
I didn’t need to come up with a beyond-reasonable-doubt explanation for every synchronicity. Still, if I was going to make any loud proclamations, and risk capsizing the fragile balance of relationships within the Hollywood LGBT film clique, I had to do my best to justify it.
I reconnected with Joseph Lee, Gore Vidal’s friend, for the first time since Capri in ’84. Joseph remembered the weekend in Southampton, although not as clearly as I did.
Joseph didn’t remember specifically telling Gore about his godson’s best-friend-with-benefits in New York. After I framed it in a follow-up chat as likely being too big a piece of gossip not to tell Gore, godfather to most twentieth-century gays, Joseph agreed that he probably did pass along what he knew about me and Oliver. Given my exhaustive attention to detail and penchant for tautology — “Jesus, James! There were bodily fluids in that anecdote!” — it was likely a vivid picture of our relationship.
I asked if it were possible that Gore met André Aciman while he was in Italy researching his memoir in the early nineties, and whether he might have met Luisa and Donald Stewart as well. Joseph wasn’t aware of Gore or the Stewarts meeting Aciman specifically, “But it’s certainly completely feasible. Gore was surrounded by writers. Everyone who came into town, who was anyone in the literary world, met Gore. Even Italian writers hung around him.”
When I updated Jack Lechner about what I was doing, he connected me to an academic who also believed he might be the basis for Elio Perlman. Given his professional and personal proximity to Aciman, he doesn’t want to be identified. I’ll call him Elio Too.
A Jewish Ameropean in Italy, Elio Too grew up in similar circumstances to Elio, as a gay academic-in-the-making playing the piano in his family’s summer villa on a body of water in the North of Italy, Lago Maggiore, a lake, not a cliffside villa on the coast of Italy, as it is in the book.
It was Elio Too’s friends who pointed out to him that it was the body of water that was important, not whether it was a lake or the sea. But I believe Gore’s cliffside villa, La Rondinaia, explains that. The story and relationship, however, had nothing to do with him. But as a character he explains the Jewish element, for a start, as well as other details about Elio that don’t match me or Oliver Stewart.
Still, in my view, Elio Too plus my story, with a sprinkle of Aciman’s own experiences, equals a full Elio Perlman.
After two weeks with me in Baja, Giulia returned to Paris, leaving me her house as a place to reconstruct and write. My own Rashomon Effect kicked in, reframed by days and nights talking to her, Tom, Joseph Lee and others. After many walks with Giulia’s semi-human dog, Noël, and as many other distractions I could create — anything not to go back into this story — I sat down to write.
I saw that the relationship was more like it’s portrayed in the film. The hard-to-kill, brain-devouring zombie that is gay shame kicked in and made me feel guilty that I’d betrayed Giulia, even if there was no shame in what Oliver and I shared; on the contrary, I gave Oliver something he deeply wanted during his brief life.
I texted Giulia to express remorse for forcing her on this long march with me, for making her endure this process with me. She has lost so much more than Oliver over the decades, and very publicly. After Giulia recounted her struggles with Annie’s Alzheimer’s, her death, funeral and the chaotic aftermath, I noted in my journal, “A movie star dies as she lived.”
“Non hai motivo di scusarti per una verità,” Giulia replied, meaning I had no reason to apologize for a truth. It was the bookending statement to what she said in Paris forty-one years ago — that Oliver didn’t love me, he only respected me.
A week later I awoke to another heartfelt message from her, thanking me for fracking apart her memories of what happened, for forcing a Rashomon reframing of her own experience. She now realized that the loss of the love of her life while she was still so young set her on a path of self-destruction, sabotaging her relationships and career. She felt calmer than she could ever remember, more centered, more alive.
Once a more truthful version of my relationship with Oliver settled in, my emotional and internal rapport with him returned to what it had been when we were still giddy with affection for each other in those early days.
I’ve always had an inner dialogue with him, usually when I’m being suffocated by despair. Over the decades he became a patron saint to whom I prostrated myself in my misery and asked for relief: “Do this for me, Papo. Make this happen for us.” You are me; I am you.
My imagination liberated, I have begun to roam futures-that-could-have-been, that wouldn’t have been possible before Baja. Nothing makes a person hope for a parallel universe quite like a loss of that proportion. I dare to imagine another Earth where same-sex relationships are so accepted that there are no classifications of sexuality. A marriage is just a marriage. No other man has ever come close to being as suitable a match for me as Oliver Stewart, not even Wes: the same Highlander ethnicity within the same socio-cultural group; the same rarified upbringing in Italy; the same height; both writers.
I dare to imagine Luisa and Mum being as happy and encouraging of us as parents are when heterosexual offspring find a life partner who is so perfectly suited, who will help each other muddle through the many challenges of life. I see Mum ringing Luisa, excited: “They’re even wearing each other’s underpants. Can you believe it?”
“I know. Crazy, isn’t it?”
After all, they both bought our underwear at Marks & Spencer when they were visiting our respective grandparents in London. So there’s the London thing, too.
I wonder what the title might have been had Jim Ivory and Guadagnino based the film on my story, not Aciman’s. One of the many qualities that I admire about both the book and the movie is the title, how elegant and evocative it is, worthy of a High Romantic poet like Percy Shelley. “Call me by your name, and I’ll call you by mine” is a far more romantic and accurate way of expressing those giddy heights of young romantic passion than saying “I love you,” and is truthful to the no-homo rules of oblique engagement between two sexually fluid men.
Then I see Margot Robbie at the Oscar ceremony in 2018, again in a parallel universe in which the movie is based on my story without fictionalization, reading out the winner for Best Adapted Screenplay: “And the winner is… James Ivory for Let Me Wear Your Underpants.”
Since asking Luisa directly if she or Donald ever met André Aciman is out of the question, I’m left with a bunch of conjectures about her role, none of which are of much use. And if my interpretation of her actions and words are correct, why would she relay our story to Aciman? Perhaps he duped her, told her he was writing one thing — let’s say, Giulia and Oliver as Mary and Percy Shelley, the theme of the second part of the novel, or something more like my American Bastard — but changed course and focused on the relationship that really drew him in, the bisexual one with the beaming dark-haired teen in the modeling test shots, who is clearly so joyously in love.
I was walking Giulia’s dog, Nöel, under the panoply of washed colors in an epic sunset, when the most viable scenario of how Aciman might have found out so many details finally hit me. The title itself is a window into the way Aciman thinks.
Beyond the switcheroo of characters, places and events, I needed to look at the film itself, how it might be an interpretation of the anecdotes of my experience, either told as a story over dinner with Gore in Rome or his cliffside villa, or read about in my letters, or seen in test shots of two teens on a rooftop one bright spring morning in Rome, after a sleepover.
I’d known since the first screening that Mr. and Mrs. Perlman were likely Donald and Luisa Stewart, that Elio is Oliver Stewart, either entirely, or in part—again, I have little to do with the character’s personality. Yet because Elio is Oliver’s lover in Aciman’s story, just as I was Oliver Stewart’s boyfriend, it was hard for me to understand the extent that Oliver Stewart might be the model for both characters.
When I stepped back from identifying with Elio, and applied Oliver Stewart as Elio across the entire film, it suddenly became clear who the most likely source was.
Oliver wasn’t the one who left for New York, as the film’s Oliver does — I was the one who left. In the film, Elio’s father arranges for their last weekend, not Elio himself, or even Aciman’s Oliver. Similarly, Oliver Stewart didn’t arrange our last weekend in New York, as I’d assumed for decades. How could he? He was a sixteen-year-old Roman kid with an American passport, who knew even less than I did about the City. He was quite specific about who Jules Feiffer was: “A friend of my dad’s.” Not of his mother’s, or even “my parents.” His dad’s.
Oliver asked his father to arrange the weekend, just like he’d asked for new, cool clothes from America to keep up with his new, fashion-conscious “best friend.”
I now believe that Donald was the likely source of information about my relationship with his son. Donald was Gore Vidal’s closest friend. Perhaps he was more than just a close friend.
I’ve played the Fellini Roma clip with Gore and Donald dozens of times. Donald, to Gore’s right in a lavender shirt, looks down bashfully when Gore gestures to him, and blushes like a lover. Gore keeps him present throughout his monologue with that gesture. According to Gore’s essay in Vanity Fair about filming that scene, Fellini made them shoot all night, take after take. Something made the improvisational director keep that lovers-like interaction.
I’ve had a number of “straight boyfriends,” as I call them, with whom I have deep bromantic feelings, but no sex. Gore was strict about never having sex with friends — that’s why he and his de facto husband, Howard Austen, never had sex, after a first fumbling attempt at a bathhouse in New York, where they first met. Perhaps Donald was Gore’s straight boyfriend.
The hypothesis that Elio is also partly or largely Oliver Stewart is supported by the fact that Oliver spent significant portions of his childhood summers at Gore’s cliffside villa.
It’s also possible that Gore and Howard Austen, as Oliver Stewart’s de facto gay uncles, are represented in the film by Elio’s guncles, one of whom is played by André Aciman himself. I don’t remember Howard or Gore as being quite that mincing and prancing, but Guadagnino is allowed his choice of how to present old queens.
How could Donald disapprove of me, even though he was the archetypal, dashing member of Hugh Hefner’s super-het inner circle? You cannot get a more liberal American family than the Ogden Stewarts.
Donald was laconic, like Oliver; my interpretation of his demeanor as being disapproving was merely the default assumption of my fractured teen psyche. Donald was a writer himself, not quite the giant his father was, but still a fellow scribbler. He was probably just observing, after the initial shock of seeing that the new best friend his son was rolling around with giddily was manifestly gay.
The scene between Elio and his father after the Last Weekend, in which Mr. Perlman talks about his missed opportunity to have an experience like Elio’s—perhaps representing Donald talking about Gore—didn’t land with me when I still assumed that Elio was largely based on me.
Now I see that it likely isn’t me as Elio in that scene. It’s Oliver, upset that I had left, so much so that he wrote me the only letter he ever wrote on the plane back to Rome, and went to the Vatican to mail it, to make sure I got it, rather than risk in going walkabout forever in the dysfunctional Italian postal system.
More information might come to the surface in due course, either in support of my crazy wall of synchronicities, or to debunk it thoroughly. It honestly doesn’t matter: I really do just want my story back.
If my suspicions create more conversation than a whisper in a hailstorm, Aciman and Sony Picture Classics will issue a summary denial, if they choose to acknowledge me at all. In a case like this, it’s akin to pleading “not guilty” when you’re indicted for a crime, whether or not you actually committed it.
A recent defamation suit against Netflix by the Russian chess champion upon whose life The Queen’s Gambit is based proves that the law around the area of appropriation of someone’s life story gets a little too Talmudic for immediate clarity as to whether or not I’d have standing. There is also the issue of not being able to tell my own story without fictionalizing it, or likely having it rejected outright by studio upon network upon production company, until it’s so shopworn that it’s laid to rest in a forgotten hard drive I have to buy adapters for in ten years. The hindrance of my business might constitute tortious interference. I’m not sure, but I don’t think about it until others mention it. “We don’t sue.”
And just because someone won’t win a lawsuit doesn’t mean they won’t try, perhaps in the hopes of forcing a multinational corporation into a settlement. Sony’s legal team would in all likelihood want to err on the side of caution and instruct Aciman to deny; from their point of view, whatever assurances I give here, I could still easily change my mind.
Despite my near certainty of a pro forma denial, a few in my web of professionals insist that I need to ask for Aciman’s reaction. Others agree with me that it’s pointless. When I mentioned in an email what Sony’s instruction to Aciman would likely be, Elio Too replied, “I don’t think he needs to be told to deny things. He is by nature obfuscatory.” Such a Harvard word.
They would also need to ignore the fact that I don’t consider appropriation a bad thing. They would need to assume that I take the position into which social-justice movements have pushed us about appropriation, no matter what I’ve blogged to the contrary, that appropriation is necessary and unavoidable. There is no art, no culture, no language without it. In this article alone I have committed numerous acts of appropriation simply by describing people and their stories. If Aciman did base his superb novel on a dozen people, he’s well within his rights, as are we all.
Honestly, it really doesn’t matter whether he did it, or how he did it. I am perfectly happy to share my toys, provided it’s clear that they’re mine. And provided I’m told about it before being blindsided at a routine screening of a colleague’s new film. I don’t need to endure greater emotional distress than I already carry within me.
I shouldn’t have been able to recognize myself, assuming the elements of my extremely rarified experience aren’t uncanny synchronicities that just so happen to coincide with the detailed characters and world that a straight creative writing teacher summoned out of the ether of his own imagination, but couldn’t replicate for a sequel.
As I tell myself time and again when those fleas of doubt bite: If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it’s not a gay romance between young Ameropeans in early 80s Italy pretending to be a coincidence.
TO TELL THE TRUTH
Frozen grief like mine and Elio’s is by no means normal, even if it is a common romance trope. When I attempt to give people an idea of what it’s like to live in my memories of Oliver, I’m now able to say, “Remember the last shot, over the end credits, when Elio is in tears? How did you feel when you saw that? You likely forgot about it not long after you left the theater. I have carried that inside me for four decades, and will for the rest of my life.”
The film has unfrozen the grief. Now it’s a more normal sense of loss and longing for a loved one who left me way too soon. I’m able to enjoy my memories of Oliver, rather than turn away from a haunting that I assumed would never be exorcized. I’m even planning to return to Italy this year, after almost forty years.
In the last of my new, post-liberation fantasies before I left Baja, again walking Giulia’s dog along the rocky beach — I’d fashioned it as the banks of the Styx, with black-as-Hades Noël as my one-headed Cerberus, my thoughts accompanied by Oliver’s luminous shade — I imagined myself on the old game show To Tell The Truth.
The format was four celebrity panelists asking questions of three contestants — one the real subject of an incredible true story, the other two imposters — to try to guess which was the actual hero. I envisioned Timmy Chalamet, Elio Too and me as the contestants, answering questions about my experience as the basis of an Oscar-winning film. At the end of the questioning round, the patrician Kitty Carlisle recuses herself from voting: “I know who it is. I play Bridge with his mother Tuesdays at the Colony Club.”
After the other panelists turn over cards scrawled with their best guess, Bud Collyer, the host, utters the catchphrase of the show, “Will the real Elio Perlman please stand up?”
Elio Too stands halfway, then sits. Timmy stands all the way up. The remaining three all voted for him. “Oh!” Peggy Cass yelps. “I knew it!”
Then I stand. Peggy and the audience gasp in shock. I put a hand on Timmy’s shoulder to push him back in his seat… No. Sorry: wrong blocking. I nod to him with genuine respect and gratitude, and beckon for him to take a seat. He returns the nod with a smooth actorly bow, and sits. I face the panelists:
My name is James Killough. I’m maybe, likely, probably an inspiration for Elio Perlman in Call Me By Your Name. I was properly like that, except much taller, and every so often I opened my mouth and went “WAAAARG!” This is my truth about my relationship with Oliver Ogden Stewart, who called me Ginsi, and I called him Papo. And now I can tell it.
Feature Image — Left: Timothée Chalamet in Call My By Your Name. Right: James Killough and fellow St. Stephen’s alum Saskia van der Lingen in 1983, the year in which the film is set. (Ph: B. Buchanan)
Mille grazie speciali to Emma Walton Hamilton, Giulia Salvatori, Tom Rockwell, Jack Lechner, Julie Harris, Tyler Kimball, Andy Smith, Anthony Mestriner, Sara & Lily Arnell, Simona Monaco (who also gets an apology), Shannon Treusch, Joseph Lee, my former schoolmates from St. Stephens, and Evgenia Peretz. I not only couldn’t, I wouldn’t have done this with them.
All images in this article have been composited and posted according to the terms laid out in Section 107 of the Copyright Act, and meet the criteria for “fair use.”
For more about James Killough’s relationship with Oliver Stewart, Giulia Salvatori and Annie Girardot, there’s a three-part essay on the Pure Film Creative website, Remembering Annie.