Growing up in Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta, actor-director Chris Bolan never questioned the relationship between his two “aunts”, Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel, who had lived together in Chicago for decades.
Henschel was not really related to Bolan, but the late Donahue was his biological great aunt and a player in the iconic All-American Girls Baseball League during the Second World War, who inspired the film A league apart.
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For Bolan, it was only two impressive women who brought a suitcase full of American treats and toys whenever they visited him when he was little.
For the rest of his family, they were close friends and colleagues in interior design who had a strong bond and shared an apartment in order to save money.
But a few years ago, that changed when Bolan and his wife visited the 80-year-old duo in their Chicago home.
“We had rum and coke, which is their drink of choice … and they said, ‘We have something to tell you – we are gay,'” Bolan said in a recent interview from his home in Westport, Conn .
“We obviously gave them a big hug and said, ‘We don’t care … we love you. We are so proud that you have finally told us. Then the gates opened and they were literally amazed to tell us, going back through seven decades of these stories of their lives together.
“While I was sitting there listening, I was just in awe and amazed. I’ve never heard anything like it. And that’s when I knew I had to tell this story. “
Their twilight exit story is in Bolan’s new and moving documentary, A secret love, which was featured on Netflix Canada on Wednesday.
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Bolan realized Joy co-creator Ryan Murphy with Brendan Mason and Alexa L. Fogel – produced the documentary, which was scheduled to premiere at the South By Southwest (SXSW) festival in March until the COVID-19 pandemic forced cancellation of the event.
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Shot from 2013 to 2017, the film describes the life and challenges of the Saskatchewan-born couple, who met in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, and stayed together for 72 years.
The cameras capture them taking advantage of the freedom and stigma of meeting their conservative family later in life and the difficult decision to move from their Chicago home to a long-term care facility in Alberta.
Donahue, who died in March 2019 at the age of 93, suffered from Parkinson’s disease and the film shows her niece with whom she was close (Bolan’s mother) imploring the stubborn Henschel to move to Edmonton to be closer to her family. .
This is where the two were married in 2015, which was captured in the film.
“I remember the first time they kissed in front of my family, which was huge, and then I saw them sitting together on the couch and holding hands,” said Bolan.
“Those little things – a hug here, a hug over there – that straight couples just don’t think about. But they had hidden this from their biological families all their lives. So every time I saw it, it was huge and wonderful and beautiful. And there was definitely a weight that had been removed from their two shoulders, I think. “
Henschel, 91, lives in Edmonton and “is as fiery as ever,” said Bolan.
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He was able to show the couple a film premiere about six months before Donahue’s death.
“We all sat around and looked at it and they just giggled,” he said, “and some parts were difficult. “
When Bolan was an actor in difficulty, Donahue always told him to follow his heart, like her.
“It was like,‘ I believe in you. Follow your heart. I followed my dream. “And she did. She told me that she had two loves in her life: Pat and baseball, in that order. “
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As the film shows, the charismatic couple was deeply in love with their entire relationship.
“They laughed a lot. It was their secret, “said Bolan. “They made fun of each other and had so much fun together.”
Mason said he thinks their bond was deepened by the fact that they are “two incredibly independent women who have relied on no one but themselves for their entire lives.
“It was remarkable to see these two women in their 80s experiencing growth pains that someone would normally go through in their late teens or early twenties,” said Mason from his Brooklyn home , New York.
“To see them go through these growing pains – do they hold their hands when walking in the supermarket, things like that – was really very moving and something I could identify with personally, having experienced this in my early twenties . “
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