Whether the subject is Tammy Faye Bakker, Monica Lewinsky or the openly gay silent film actor William Haines, writer, director and producer Randy Barbato has a soft spot for making films about public figures ostracized or misunderstood by the media, and, by extension, society at large. Along with life and creative partner, Fenton Bailey, Barbato has created some of the more groundbreaking and sometimes controversial documentaries and made-for-TV specials. Whomever their focus, Bailey and Barbato have managed to transcend the mocking cynicism heaped upon their subjects by a jaded public.
A native of New Jersey, Barbato attended graduate film school at New York University where he met Fenton Bailey, originally from Great Britain. Both dropped out after a year to form a pop band, The Pop Tarts. In 1990, the duo created their own company, World of Wonder Productions, with the intention of recording Pop Tarts music, but only after established companies rejected them.
The Pop Tarts never made the cultural splash Bailey and Barbato hoped for. But upon reflection, their failure seems fortuitous. Bailey and Barbato returned to filmmaking with "Manhattan Cable," a series based on clips taken from public access television and edited together for British TV. Bailey and Barbato's careers took off when their company produced "The RuPaul Show" (1996) for VH-1, as well as the video the for the famous drag queen's debut, "Supermodel." The two traded in the currency of their newfound success to direct and produce several cable TV specials, including "Drop Dead Gorgeous (A Tragi-Comedy): The Power of HIV Thinking," which earned them a Cable Ace award. The story centers around Steve Moore, an HIV-positive stand-up comedian who used the trials and tribulations of his illness in his routine.
Next for the directors was the documentary feature, "Party Monster" (1997), which tells the lurid tale of the rise and fall of flamboyant party promoter, Michael Alig. The Midwesterner journeyed to New York City in the late-80's and became semi-famous for throwing large and glitzy-though ultimately unprofitable-parties. Alig's demise came when he murdered his drug dealer, Angel Melendez, first by smashing him over the head with a hammer, then by injecting him with Drano and tossing the body into the East River. However, Bailey and Barbato managed to find the humanity amidst the drug-induced chaos to tell, as Barbato put it, " [A] morality tale immorally told."
Bailey and Barbato returned to cable television with "The Real Ellen Story" (1998), which aired on Bravo as a part of their "Profiles" series. The documentary traced the events leading up to the historic episode of "Ellen" where DeGeneres came out of the closet and became the first lesbian leading lady on television. The 40-minute doc was also shown at the San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. The pair followed "The Real Ellen Story" with "Juror Number Five: 58 Days of Duty on the O.J. Simpson Civil Trial" (1999) for HBO, in which juror Deena Mullen related her experiences in the courtroom and jury room.
In 2000, Bailey and Barbato hit upon their biggest success to date with the feature documentary, "The Eyes of Tammy Faye." Once again, the duo chose a much-maligned public figure and showed her to be an all-too-human victim despite years of media scorn. Twelve years after the fall of the Christian evangelist empire of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Bailey and Barbato told the story of what really happened: How fellow evangelist Jerry Falwell forced the couple's popular and successful television ministry into bankruptcy. Narrated by RuPaul, the documentary was a hit at Sundance and other festivals, and won the 2000 award for Best Documentary from the Boston Society of Film Critics.
Lions Gate picked up the rights from Sundance and released the documentary, raking in over $1 million at the box office. Several more cable TV specials followed: "101 Rentboys" (2000), a peek into the lives of 101 male prostitutes who work the Santa Monica strip in Los Angeles; "Out of the Closet, Off the Screen: The Life of William Haines" (2002), the story of openly gay film actor, William Haines, who was forced out of the film business by Louis B. Mayer after refusing to keep his lifestyle secret (Haines would go on to become a prominent interior designer who later decorated the White House for Ronald Reagan), "Monica In Black and White" (2002), where Monica Lewinsky, free from the gag order that was part of a deal that ensured immunity from prosecution, answered questions from a gaggle of law students; and "Dark Roots: The Unauthorized Anna Nicole," an unauthorized look at the blonde bombshell's early years.
Bailey and Barbato made their first foray into feature films with "Party Monster" (2003), a fictional account of the party promoter-cum-murderer Michael Alig. This time around, Bailey and Barbato focused their narrative on the strange and co-dependent relationship between Alig and mentor James St. James. Bailey and Barbato suggested to St. James that he write a book while they filmed the documentary. The book, "Disco Bloodbath," along with the documentary, became the source material for the film, which was shot in 25 days for under $2 million. Starring a grownup and glammed out Macaulay Culkin, the film attempted to show the superficial and drugged-up Alig as less of a monster and more of a sympathetic character dragged down by the demonizing world of celebrity and New York's nightlife. However, the film was panned by critics (sans Roger Ebert) and faired poorly at the box office, though only released in a few theaters.
Returing to their documentary roots, Bailey and Barbato stirred the pot with the stylish and provocative NC-17 release "Inside Deep Throat" (2005), an in-depth, behind-the-scenes chronicle of the unexpected explosion behind the first-ever mainstream porn film "blockbuster" of the early 1970s ("Deep Throat" was filmed in six days for $25,000 and has subsequently grossed over $600 million).