Here is another documentary I’ve only recently managed to see, somewhat late in the game. Fortunately, Beauty is Embarrassing is still playing in theaters and touring the film festival circuit, so adding my kudos to the praise it’s already received isn’t simply academic. Wayne White may not be a household name, but anyone in a certain age group will respond to the fact that he won three Emmy Awards for designing Pee Wee’s Playhouse in the 1980s. As we learn in this intimate profile, that revolutionary TV show marked a turning point in White’s life and career, and a unique opportunity to let his imagination run free for the benefit of an unusually wide audience. Since then, White has reinvented himself, bringing a disarming sense of humor and silliness to the fine-art world.
A successful designer himself, first-time documentary filmmaker Neil Berkeley provides a lively, intimate portrait of White and his world, tracing his “hillbilly” roots, introducing us to his family and early environment, and showing us how an unquenchable creative spirit has dominated every aspect of his life, including his marriage to fellow artist Mimi Pond.
Beauty is Embarrassing is a funny, enormously entertaining film, built around an autobiographical show White performs for a theater audience. This provides a perfect through-line which Berkeley uses as a springboard to explore the many facets of his subject’s life and work, drawing on interviews with colleagues and admirers, vintage home movies, behind-the-scenes footage of Pee Wee’s Playhouse, and more. It’s one of the most pleasurable moviegoing experiences I’ve had this year.