Trent Harris made three films by accident. One day in 1979, he was testing out his camera outside of the Channel 2 building in Salt Lake City when he noticed a blond, bell-bottomed 21-year-old man taking pictures of the station’s news copter.
Richard LaVon Griffiths — otherwise known as Groovin’ Gary — was thrilled when Harris turned his camera on him. He gave Harris his impressions of John Wayne and Barry Manilow and showed off his car, decorated with drawings of Farrah Fawcett and Olivia Newton John. He never stopped smiling. He was excited to be on TV.
In the first film of what would become known as The Beaver Trilogy, Harris goes to visit Gary in his hometown of Beaver. It turns out Gary’s deep love for Olivia Newton John makes her worthy of an impression too. Calling himself “Olivia Newton Don,” Harris films Gary getting ready for and eventually performing in the local talent show. Gary dons a wig, go-go boots, and full makeup (applied at the neighborhood mortuary) and performs “Please Don’t Keep Me Waiting” to a sparse crowd. The guy is just smitten with the Aussie, even though he knows that as a man, he could never fully mimic her exceptional voice.
You can’t make up a guy like Groovin’ Gary.
But eventually, Harris decided to retell Gary’s story, not once, but twice, in padded-out reenactments. The first version, from 1981, clocks in at 20 minutes and stars, of all people, Sean Penn. It uses a lot of the same dialogue and even some of the same talent show footage, and it fills in some of the gaps that the accidental documentary leaves open, moments that Harris probably didn’t witness first-hand.
Chapter 2 is still fairly lo-fi, especially when compared to the final portion of the trilogy, named The Orkly Kid. Crispin Glover stars as the most grating version of Groovin’ Gary, who may or may not be the most hated teenager in the entire town of Beaver. His performance, and the encounters leading up to it, are more awkward and heartbreaking than any of the Garys who came before him.
And that’s the trouble with The Beaver Trilogy: The further away from reality the films get, the more pathetic the characters become. While we’re not given all the details in the original documentary, Gary seems like much less of a joke in real life than the fictionalized versions of him. Sean Penn takes the stage alone and uncomfortably as Olivia, and he’s chastised by his guidance counselor once his performance is through. Glover, as “Olivia Neutron Bomb,” has it even worse, before and after the show.
But the real Gary was supported on stage by a backing band, who we can only assume approve of his actions if they took the time to practice with him. The mortician makeup artist fondly smears his face with foundation and chats with him about his hobby, unlike the skeptical version of her character featured in The Orkly Kid.
Without a doubt, the first version, with the real Gary, really is the best version, because he’s genuine. The realization about his drag alter ego unfolds as his lipstick is applied. His version of “Please Don’t Keep Me Waiting” is the best too — there’s a dark, performance-art quality to it, however accidental that may be.
But the latter two films are, as a whole, much darker than the first. Each time, we see Gary in his bedroom, the barrel of a rifle in his mouth. The scenes are embellished, but doesn’t stray too far from reality. Gary succeeded in shooting himself not long after he met Harris.
Years later, The Beaver Trilogy would see some success, for Harris and, in a way, for Groovin’ Gary. It was shown as a whole at the Sundance Film Festival in 2001 and featured in an episode of This American Life, called “Reruns,” in 2002. Still, he was obviously never as successful as the pre-Jeff Spicoli Sean Penn and pre-George McFly Crispin Glover would become. Instead, he was a truck driver for 14 years before he died in a Salt Lake City hospital in 2009, leaving behind an ex-wife, two kids, and a trilogy of films.
Susan Cohen decided to leave her career in journalism to go back to school — for journalism. She's still not sure if she made a mistake. Visit susanjcohen.com to learn more about her.