Sunday, June 26, 2005

Some Like It Drag: Men in Black (Dresses)


What is the appeal of a guy in a dress? Comic and pathetic by turns, movie transvestites (as opposed to your everyday TV) possess some magic that can turn a drab story around, or sink a poorly-conceived flick into B-movie oblivion. Donning a dress can gain an actor kudos, or haunt his life ever after with innuendo and rumor.

Director Ed Wood (Glen or Glenda, Plan Nine from Outer Space) was a real TV in the most classic sense. To borrow the tagline from his transvestite mystery, Glen or Glenda, "He Loved Women So Much, He Dared To Dress Like One!" Johnny Depp was able to portray the disturbed director, complete with cashmere cardigans, without significant harm to his acting career. (Although Depp seems "Teflon-coated" in this regard, having also survived charges of wearing too much mascara in Pirates of the Caribbean.)

The thoroughly-camp Rocky Horror Picture Show makes a dark hero out of the gender-confused alien Doctor played by Tim Curry. Thousands of otherwise-straight men around the world have put on the bustier-and-gartered-stockings costume, and sung—in public—their paean to muscle love. In one of its darkest themes, Rocky Horror first makes the TV an alien, then reveals the allure of transvestitism to even the squarest among us. Cross-dressing is about "absolute pleasure."

In a far more traditional men-in-dresses theme, it's actually about disguise. For Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, going drag in Some Like It Hot, a girl's band was the one place their pursuers would never look for them. The gentilely-comic antics of guys in dresses are predicated on their absolutely-straight sexuality; it isn't funny unless Curtis is conflicted about his desire for Marilyn Monroe, or Lemmon is trying to stave off the advances of Joe E. Brown.

In Tootsie, Dustin Hoffman took the diguise theme in a different direction. It's not gangsters he's trying to escape, but his own reputation. Here, again, is the conflict with the outward face and the inner desires, as Hoffman's Dorothy character melds both the would-be-lover of a woman (Jessica Lang) with the object of a man's affection (Charles Durning).

Some movies showcase the abilities of their actors by having them play both masculine and feminine roles. Diedrich Bader is genially goofy as Jethro Bodine of The Beverly Hillbillies, but truly hilarious as his cousin, Jethrine. And without the exquisite gay drag of two of George Hamilton's four roles in Zorro, the Gay Blade, that movie would have been fatally overwhelmed by the shouting performances of Brenda Vacarro and Ron Liebman.

Nathan Lane used his dress-up performance to poke some fun at the stereotypes of masculine and feminine in The Birdcage. Interestingly, Robin Williams' role** as the "masculine" partner of this gay couple was equally powerful and ambiguously-gendered. Where La cage aux folles, the film's French progenitor, was focused on the conflict between family values and gay partnerships, The Birdcage slid this debate to the battle between image (especially political image) and substance.

The best (and worst) drag-queen performances portray these men as what they are. To see what I mean, watch the amazing performances that give us the lonely, but coping with life, Vida Boheme (Patrick Swayze), Noxeema Jackson (Wesley Snipes) and Chi-Chi Rodriguez (John Leguizamo) in To Wong Fu, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar. Then contrast them with the scuzzy, sleazy, conflicted and lost men* of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, the movie that spawned To Wong Fu.

I've commented before on the fact that neither Snipes nor Leguizamo appear to have been hurt by their roles as drag queens, but that Patrick Swayze's star seems tarnished by his stint as Vida Boheme. This is despite the fact that, even in a dress, Swayze manages to get in some bare-knuckle fighting and rescue a woman—perhaps the problem is that, as in Pretty Woman, "she rescues him right back."

To Wong Fu gives us the glamor of the drag, but reveals its secret heart of alienation and yearning for something that can never be. Priscilla does the same thing, minus the glamor and a (somewhat) happy ending. And if one is Hollywood and trite, and the other Australian and bitter, these are the two faces of transvestitism in the movies.

Now, I know I've left some out. Y'all jump in here and tell me about them!

*Terrence Stamp in a dress has to be seen to be believed.

**Robin Williams has escaped entirely any stigma from two roles where he plays gays, and one—Mrs. Doubtfire—where he appears, not just in drag, but in frumpy drag. His greeting to the three drag queens in To Wong Fu is perfectly gay: "Oh, my God! I'm like a compass near north."

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Blogger samraat said...

4/03/2010 10:33 PM  

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