Thursday, July 19, 2018


Exactly what is "acting"?

Fool that I am, I always believed that it was the process of someone abandoning his/her own identity for the opportunity to examine and define someone else's. For years - nay, decades - British actors have been hired routinely to play Americans, and vice versa. No problem. It's called acting.

But with special interest groups and political correctness, the rules have changed. Unofficially. I bring this up because Scarlett Johansson stepped down from Rupert Sanders' planned film, “Rub & Tug,” after LGBTQ campaigners complained that the casting was “insensitive.” She was to play transsexual Dante “Tex” Gill, a woman who transitions in the hopes of boosting her massage parlor/prostitution business in 1970s Pittsburgh.

On the other hand, there are too few opportunities in mainstream entertainment for LGBTQ actors. A rare (extremely rare) case in point is Ryan Murphy's revolutionary FX series, "Pose," a compelling hybrid of Joseph Mankiewicz's "All About Eve" and Armistead Maupin's "Tales of the City" that has showcased trans performers in a most extraordinary way.

Set in 1987 and against the backdrop of the era's Vogue-ing nightclub scene and the emergence of the AIDS crisis, "Pose" is superficially about the competition between an imperious mentor, self-named Electra Abundance, and her former protégé (now competitor), Blanca Rodriguez.

Electra, a true diva, oversees her group of bejeweled strutters in what she calls the House of Abundance, while the maverick Blanca has named her creation the House of Evangelista (named after Linda Evangelista, natch).

Both Electra and Blanca also pride themselves on being doting "mothers" to an assortment of outcasts, each of whom form an alternative, rag-tag family, very reminiscent of Maupin's cozy San Francisco of the 1980s. 

While every performer excels in this specific universe meticulously recreated by Murphy, there are two outstanding performances that make "Pose" accessible even to the reluctant, resistant viewer - MJ Rodriguez, so heart-breakingly soulful as Blanca, and the incredibly charismatic Indya Moore as Angel (one of Blanca's "children"), a streetwalker caught in a hopeless relationship with a sexually ambiguous married man (played by the very good Evan Peters).

And a special bravo for Billy Porter (from Broadway's "Kinky Boots"), who is authentically touching (and impressively restrained) as a vibrant man, now deflated and yet aggressively defiant while in the throes of AIDS.

That said, both the success of "Pose" and the empathic decision by Johansson reminded me that transsexuals are not exactly a new movie/TV novelty. There have been many occasions, off and on over the years, in which actors (none of them trans, however) have excelled in these roles and have honored the people that they've portrayed. Today, these 15...

Jean Arless (aka Joan Marshall) in "Homicidal" (1961) - William Castle's modest masterwork is about (spoiler alert!) a little girl who is raised as a boy by her mother because the father wanted a son. Joan Marshall, who was billed as Jean Arless here (and who went on to marry filmmaker Hal Ashby), is incredible both as "Warren," the boy who has grown into a faux man, and as "Emily," the caretaker (created by Warren) who oversees an old family retainer (the great Eugenie Leontovich) who has the misfortune to know the Warren/Emily secret. Uh-oh.

John Hanson in "The Christine Jorgensen Story" (1970) - A very good exploitation film, directed by veteran filmmaker Irving Rapper ("Now Voyager" and "Marjorie Morningstar") and released by United Artists, that contains an impressively committed, heartfelt performance by Hanson as real life George Jorgensen Jr. and his brave decision to transition.

Rex Reed and Raquel Welch in "Myra Breckenridge" (1970) - This landmark but now forgotten film, directed by Michael Sarne and based on Gore Vidal's book, has pedigree to spare, what with John Houston and Mae West (!) in the cast. It's about Myron (played by movie critic Rex Reed) who undergoes gender reassignment surgery and becomes aspiring actress Myra (Raquel Welch), who travels to Hollywood to claim an inheritance. Why has this film remained virtually unseen in recent yeears?

Chris Sarandon in "Dog Day Afternoon" (1975) - Based on a true story, this Sidney Lumet hit details a chaotic bank robbery, staged by a guy (Al Pacino) who needs the money to pay for his boyfriend's gender-reassignment surgery. Sarandon is the boyfriend and Lumet made the relationship palatable for audiences by keeping the two actors apart. They are never in a scene - or rather, on-screen - together. They connect only via telephone conversations. 

Tim Curry in "The Rocky Horror Picture Show:" (1975) - Curry, as the masculine-feminine Frank-N-Furter, sings "Sweet Transvestite" in this iconic fringe movie. Say no more.

John Lithgow in "The World According to Garp" (1982) - Arguably, the greatest transsexual performance committed to film. Under the direction of George Roy Hill, Lithgow was/is indelible as Roberta Muldoon, a character who is the size of a large man but has the warm empathy and gentleness attributed almost exclusively to women. Lithgow was nominated for best supporting actor. He should have won.

Karen Black in "Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean" (1982) - In one of Robert Altman's best (and least-seen) films, adapted by Ed Graczyk from his play (which Altman also directed on stage), a gay man named Joe returns to his unforgiving and small-minded home town as trans woman Joanne, a role absolutely nailed by Black.

Jaye Davidson in "The Crying Game" (1992) - The talented Davidson seemingly disappeared after turning in an indelible performance in this Neil Jordan film (an indie exploited to the hilt by Harvey Weinstein's Miramax), in which an exposed penis reveals her character's true identity.

Liev Schreiber in "Mixed Nuts" (1994) - I first encountered Schreiber on screen in this underrated Nora Ephron remake of a French comedy. I actually thought that Ephron hired a transvestite to play the role of Chris, clearly a cross-dresser who, at one point, invites star Steve Martin to dance (rather awkwardly). A terrific, under-seen performance.

Hillary Swank in "Boys Don't Cry" (1999) - Another true story, with Swank in a much-deserved Oscar-winning performance as Brandon Teena, who was actually born a female named Teena Brandon, but pursued a life as a man. Swank is abetted by strong performances by Chloe Sevigny as a woman who thinks she's having real sex with Brandon and by Peter Saarsgard who brutally exposes the Brandon/Teena identity.

John Cameron Mitchell and Miriam Shor in "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" (2001) - Mitchell, who wrote the role and created it on stage, is outstanding as a transgender punk-rock singer and Shor may be even better as her "husband," Yitzhak.

Tom Wilkinson in "Normal" (2003) - Playwright Jane Anderson adapted and directed her play for HBO in which Wilkinson stars as a Midwestern husband and father who announces plans for a sex change operation. Beau Bridges played the role on stage, with Laurie Metcalf as his wife - essayed by Jessica Lange in this excellent film version.

Gael García Bernal in "Bad Education" (2004) - Pedro Almodóvar takes on Hitchcock and Bernal is his Kim Novak in this compellingly evasive psychodrama that flits from time to time as it embraces the idea of sexual abuse and the fractured identity that results. Bernal is dynamite.

Felicity Huffman in "TransAmerica" (2005) - Hoffman was Oscar-nominated for her performance as a man who transitions to a woman in this little-seen indie. Hoffman made the decision to specifically play up the character's innate masculinity and she's never less than convincing.

Jared Leto in "The Dallas Buyers Club" (2013) - Leto is Rayon.

Note in Passing:  Finally, a special bow to actor Jeffrey Carlson who, in 2007, played a character named Zarf on Agnes Nixon's soap opera "All My Children," who transitions to Zoe, a first for daytime drama and a storyline which AMC took time unfolding with care and credibility. 
Regarding Comments: All comments are enthusiastically appreciated but are moderated before publication. Replies signed "unknown" or "anonymous" are not encouraged. Please sign any response with a name (real or fabricated) or initials.  Be advised that a "name" will be assigned to any accepted post signed "unknown" or "anonymous." Thank you.

(from top)

~MJ Rodriguez in "Pose"
~Photography:  FX Networks 2018©

 Indya Moore in "Pose"
~Photography: Ogata 2018©

~Chris Sarandon in "Dog Day Afternoon"
~photography: Warner Bros. 1975©

 ~John Lithgow and Robin Williams in "The World According to Garp" 
~photography: Warner Bros. 1982©

~Hilary Swank in "Boys Don't Cry"
~photography: Fox Searchlight 1999© 

~Jared Leto in "Dallas Buyers Club"
~photography: Anne Marie Fox/Focus Features 2013 ©  

~Jeffrey Carlson and Eden Reigel  in "All My Children"
~photography: ABC 2007 ©


Mike Schlesinger said...

With regard to "Tug," I assume this is going to be a not-inexpensive picture. They're going to need a name actor to get butts into the seats for what is already a dicey proposition. The closest to a "name" transgender actress is Laverne Cox, but I don't think she's big enough to open a theatrical film. What's more likely is that they're going to give up looking for someone "bankable" and pull the plug, and then the film doesn't get made at all. And once again, perfect becomes the enemy of good.

joe baltake said...

That was my immediate reaction to the situation, too, Mike. In fact, I believe that there's already been rumors that "Rub and Tug" will likely be shelved. You're probably be correct that a film of this nature needs a "name" to bring people out to see it.

Rick T said...

Love, love, love POSE. And I'm a straight white person. Just great storytelling and acting. It was quite a revelation to read all of the movies that have been made about this subject. Great job, Joe!

Laurie said...

How about Streisand in "Yentle"? Or Olympia Dukakis in "Tales of the City"?

joe baltake said...

Laurie- I'm not sure "Yentle" really counts, but in "Tales," Dukakis definitely plays a transsexual. She's the heart of that work. -J

Charlotte said...

I also have always been intrigued by how Pacino and Sarandon are kept apart in "Dog Day Afternoon," never really together in a scene. But I never really knew why. I think you explained it well.

Paul Margulies said...

Jaye Davidson went on to play Ra in the Kurt Russel starring Stargate.

I never had any wonder about Pacino and Sarandon in Dog Day Afternoon. The characters are never in the same location. Pacino in the bank, committing the robbery and Sarandon recruited to talk him down via phone. The setup of showing Sarandon finally, as the raison d'être for the robbery was an audience gasper. I doubt if it would have had the same impact otherwise.

P.S. I think I was the one in the audience who, after the first 30 seconds of screen time for Davidson, just said, "it's a guy."

joe baltake said...

Paul- I had the same reaction when I saw "The Crying Game," but that doesn't deny that Davidson was remarkable in the film. And, yes, Lumet's set-up of the Sarandon character in "Dog Day Afternoon" was a stroke of genius. -J

Sheila said...

Yes, "Pose"! Thanks for giving it the exact shout-out that it deserves. This series is amazing- so well-written, well-acted and genuinely heartfelt. I just hope that it's remembered next year this time for the Emmys. MJ Rodriguez deserves all the honors that there are - and a blossoming career as well.