Hello friends! So remember that time I went to a Hanson concert a month ago and then you never heard from me again? Well basically, a bridge went out on my way home and I was forced to live in the wilds of Connecticut, skinning squirrels with my teeth to survive. I only just made it back to DC alive! Or something like that happened. I’ll tell you the whole story later this weekend. But for now it’s time for another installment of The Importance of Being Alix’s Friends Family!
Last week, I received an email from a friend who was interested in seeing more films around Transgender topics. Knowing that I have never met a gender-switching plotline I haven’t loved, she contacted me. But sensing that she was perhaps looking for a little more high-brow content than I habitually watch, I forwarded her request to my father. Dad is a philosophy professor who, among other things, has a particular interest in both LGBTQ issues and film. Despite all his protests, he is probably as close to a subject matter expert in transgender film as lay people like me and you will ever find. In my request, I accused him of having a Netflix recommended viewing category called “Obscure Transgender Art House Films from 1963-1978.” The following is his most excellent response, which I enjoyed so much that I decided to post it here. Get ready to queue up Netflix/place holds at your local academic library!
I’m afraid I won’t quite live up to Alix’s billing. For starters, I can’t name a single instance in the category of “Obscure Transgender Art House Films from 1963-1978.” That was the era of Myra Breckenridge (1970), starring Raquel Welch as Myron/Myra B., and Freebie and the Bean (1974), a James Caan/Alan Arkin police action movie which features a cross-dressing seductress in a secondary villain role (who James Caan blows away in a public restroom–doubtless to the cheers of mid-seventies audiences). These were both commercial Hollywood exploitation efforts, not art-house, and quite execrable films. I wouldn’t recommend either for actual viewing.
If it’s obscurity you want, I would recommend Glen or Glenda (1953), Ed Wood’s very first film, and absolutely, tragically, terrible–so much so that it’s good camp entertainment. (As in, if you thought Plan 9 from Outer Space  was bad…) Glen or Glenda was conceived as an exploitation film motivated by the press frenzy over Christine Jorgensen’s sexual reassignment surgery. But the execution was something else again. It’s actually pretty interesting as a period piece about what passes for (Ed Wood’s own) socially “progressive” attitudes about gender back in the early Fifties. But as an art form, be forewarned: it is really, really bad. (It’s also featured in Tim Burton’s 1994 biopic, Ed Wood, which features Johnny Depp as the title character, and includes Martin Landau in the role of Bela Lugosi (of Dracula fame), who Wood persuades to play an absolutely ridiculous gratuitous part in this film at the end of his life. But I digress.)
Another obscure example, even more interesting as a period piece, is Sidney Drew’s silent era kind-of-sort-of transgender film, A Florida Enchantment (1914). It’s a cross-dressing romantic comedy of sorts, but unlike Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959), there is a “real” gender switch involved. (Again, of sorts.) It might be a little hard to find, but it is available now in DVD, in a collection with other silent films, and also on its own. Your public library might not have it, but a DC-area university might. Sidney Drew is a member of the Barrymore acting clan on the distaff side, incidentally. He would be Drew Barrymore’s great-great uncle, I believe.
I assume that what you’re really interested in though, would be more contemporary films (last two decades?) that are reasonably sympathetic to the transgender characters that they portray. Many of them you may have already seen, or you already know about, but here’s a reasonable list of readily accessible films that are generally pretty good, and some of them absolutely wonderful, in my opinion. I’m putting asterisks next to the ones that I think are most compelling…
The Crying Game (Neil Jordan, 1992)*
This film, one of the earliest commercial films featuring a trans character, as distinct from a cross-dressing character, gets some criticism in the gender studies academic world for being manipulative of audiences (which it is), and for portraying it’s transgender character negatively (which it doesn’t–readings to this effect are just ideologically obtuse, in my view). It’s interesting to think about the impact of this film on 1992 audiences who didn’t know what was coming (because, at Neil Jordan’s request, film critics played along; there is a lot going on in this marvelous film, so they had plenty of other stuff to write about anyway).
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (Stephan Elliot, 1994)
Terence Stamp plays transgender character Bernadette, travelling with a couple of cross-dressing (but not transgendered) pals in a quixotically quirky road film.
Ma Vie En Rose (Alain Berliner, 1997)*
Belgian tragicomedy (upbeat ending) about a little boy who is determinedly transgendered in the face of a hostile world. It’s an absolutely priceless gem.
The Adventures of Sebastian Cole (Tod Williams, 1998)
Clark Gregg plays the title character’s transgendered father, Henrietta, in this coming of age comedy.
The Brandon Teena Story (Susan Muska, Gréta Olafsdóttir, 1998)
Compelling documentary about Brandon Teena / Teena Brandon’s life history. Should be watched in conjunction with Boys Don’t Cry (below), but definitely after seeing the latter, so as to get the full dramatic impact. It’s interesting then to think about what gets included in the dramatization, and what gets left out–how the tale gets modified.
Boys Don’t Cry (Kimberly Pierce1999)*
A dramatization of Brandon Teena’s last few weeks of life. This is the film that made Hilary Swank famous. Didn’t hurt Chloe Sevigny’s career, either. It’s absolutely gripping, and will tear you apart. So if you haven’t seen it, you might want to think twice about watching.
Better Than Chocolate (Anne Wheeler, 1999)
A charming Canadian romantic comedy featuring Peter Outerbridge’s square-jawed big-boned Judy as a secondary transgender character who does a great musical number. (It’s not a musical, but there are some musical performances in it.) The central characters are a young lesbian couple, and the film takes place in a Vancouver BC counterculture gay neighborhood: what happens when oblivious straight mom and uninformed but open-minded younger brother come to town to stay.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch (John Cameron Mitchell, 2001)*
Very quirky (& wonderful) musical featuring Mitchell in the title role. There’s at least one academic article criticizing it, quite fairly, as using transgender identity as a metaphorical vehicle for a discourse on gay identity. (Mitchell is gay, not trans.) I personally don’t think that’s all that’s going on here, but the view is well argued.
Southern Comfort (Kate Davis, 2001)*
Very moving documentary about the last year in the life of Robert Eads, a trans man living in rural north Georgia with his trans woman partner, Lola Cola. He is dying, ironically and tragically, of ovarian cancer, after being turned down for treatment by various unsympathetic doctors because of his trans status. The title refers to the Southern Comfort trans conference held each fall in Atlanta, a pretty big deal in the trans world in our society (and quite fascinating; I’ve been once). Eads attends So-Con with his partner and friends for the last time during the film. The film will make you sad, but it is also very beautiful.
Normal (Jane Anderson, 2003 [made for TV: HBO])
Tom Wilkinson’s non-comic role as the awkwardly masculine Roy/Ruth Applewood going through transition in the rural heartland with his wife’s help (Jessica Lange). This film is a sympathetic effort, but a bit too earnestly didactic.
Soldier’s Girl (Frank Pierson, 2003, [made for TV: Showtime])
Story of the tragic real-life romance between Calpernia Addams (played by male actor Lee Pace), a trans woman working as a professional showgirl when she first met Barry Winchell (played by Troy Garrity), an enlisted soldier residing at a not-to-distant military base. Calpernia Addams, who worked as an advisor for Soldier’s Girl, is a model of feminine beauty by western cultural standards. Lee Pace, a male actor, does an interesting and credible performance as Addams. (The real Addams appears as the fiddle player at Mary Ellen’s house party in Transamerica [below], if you’ve already seen that film. All the actors at the houseparty, with the exception of the “GG”, are actually transgender individuals, incidentally.) Be forewarned, though: like Boys Don’t Cry,Soldier’s Girl has a very grim ending that you might simply prefer to avoid.
Transamerica (Duncan Tucker, 2005)
Starring Felicity Huffman; quasi-comic road film. Huffman does a good job in her role as the very repressed MtF Bree Osborne on her way to California for reassignment surgery, although like Normal, it tends to be a little too didactic in its aim to reach mainstream audiences. But not quite as heavy-handed in the education department.
Breakfast on Pluto (Neil Jordan, 2005)*
Patrick “Kitten” Braden (Cillian Murphy) is the ambiguously-gendered central character in a wonderfully weird odyssey through life in this film. Kitten Braden is a liminal case, illustrating just how porous the boundary is between transgender and transvestite. Is Kitten a gay man engaged in expressing his feminine side, but ultimately self-identifying as male? Or does she think of herself as fundamentally female? The character’s performance is ambiguous on this point. For much of the film, Kitten goes back and forth between woman and nellie gay man. Her female presentation is sometimes performative drag—e.g., Braden’s Little White Dove act, early in the film, when she joins Billy Hatchett’s Mohawks for their cover of the J.P. Richardson/Johnny Preston 1960 hit, Running Bear. By the end of the film, however, she appears to be presenting exclusively as female. Dil, the trans character in Jordan’s earlier Crying Game(above) is, by way of contrast, much more unambiguously female.
[Editors Note: This is my contribution to the list! It’s awesome and everyone should go watch. If you live in DC, I have a copy you can borrow.]
Boy I Am (Documentary; Sam Feder & Julie Hollar, 2006)*Absolutely wonderful documentary which explores the challenges experienced by twenty-something individuals Nicco Baretta, Norie Manigult, and Keegan O’Brien, as they struggle with the real-life economic, psychological, and socio-political issues associated with undertaking top-surgery to become, in their own eyes, more fully integrated trans men. There is also some discussion of the significance of hormone treatments (two on, one not, until an epilogue at the end). This one again may be available only at university libraries. Definitely worth watching.