Regarding Susan Sontag

HBO film pays tribute to the iconic bisexual writer and filmmaker

By David-Elijah Nahmod – Dec. 18, 2014

Susan Sontag (1933-2004) lived a life immersed in the arts, in politics and in intellectual thought. She authored books, scores of magazine articles, made groundbreaking documentary films and was considered one of the most brilliant writers of her generation.

At a time when the women’s movement was first gaining momentum, Sontag’s voice was heard loud and clear. Her topics ranged from gay culture to the conflicts in the Middle East and her own battles with cancer, to that she succumbed at age 71.

In Nancy Kates’ new film Regarding Susan Sontag, now airing on HBO, Sontag is recalled not only for her brilliant intellect, but also for who she was as a person.

Kates employs archival footage of Sontag speaking to her son, sister and a few of her female lovers. Throughout her life Sontag’s relationships alternated between women and men, though she never came out as bisexual, though her relationship with photographer Annie Leibovitz became public toward the end of her life.

Kates’ film takes viewers on a journey through the decades and includes glimpses into Sontag’s childhood, her marriage, her visits to gay bars some 60 years ago and to such cities as New York and Paris, where a variety of her female lovers open up about the time they shared.

Kates, who has created a fascinating portrait that puts a very human face on a name that was in danger of becoming a footnote in libraries, talks with Echo about Regarding Susan Sontag.

Echo: What attracted you to Susan Sontag as a subject?

Kates: I was greatly saddened by her death in late 2004, which followed my father’s death by about seven months. I felt that an important voice had been silenced, and one that we needed. She is a fascinating, complicated subject for a film, and the project led me in numerous interesting directions, from interviewing the Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer to three residences in art colonies.

Echo: How would you describe Sontag’s work with someone unfamiliar with it?

Kates: Sontag was interested in “everything,” but she also refused to be pinned down or put into a box. This makes it a little complicated to describe her work. She wrote about photography and the images of impact in the culture, including images of war, cancer and AIDS, theater, film, performance art, dance and painting, and many other subjects. She wrote four novels, two plays and directed four films. She bore witness to war in Vietnam, Israel and Sarajevo.

Echo: Can you describe why Sontag may not have been open about her bisexuality in the very different world she lived in?

Kates: Sontag became a prominent intellectual at a time when it was considered professionally detrimental to be out as LGBT. As time moved along, many people asked her to come out, wanting to claim her as a gay icon, but she refused. Ironically, lesbians are still not taken all that seriously in the intellectual world, even today. While many people think the film outs her, her son published two volumes of her diaries and notebooks, which are quite explicit about her same-sex loves and heartbreaks.

Echo: What is Susan Sontag’s legacy?

Kates: On one hand, Sontag is less prominent in the public consciousness than she was during her lifetime. On the other hand, she is having a wonderful afterlife, with a play based on her first volume of journals, memoirs, our film and other works. One of my friends has this name she calls “Sontag bingo”, because Sontag’s name comes up almost weekly in the New York Times, particularly the books review section. We didn’t really deal with the question of her legacy. I wanted to show what she accomplished and how she lived her life, and not necessarily give audiences a simple statement about what her work means or how long it will endure. One viewer of the film suggested that her greatest work of art was actually her life and how she lived, which was the greatest compliment.

Regarding Susan Sontag can now be seen in rotation on HBO and HBO on Demand or online at hbo.com.