Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Body Talk: Conversations on Transgender Cinema with Caden Gardner: Part Seven

Dante "Tex" Gill
Body Talk is an ongoing series of conversations about Transgender Cinema as we prepare to write our book "Corpses, Fools and Monsters: An Examination of Transgender Cinema:. This installment is on the question of Cisgender actors playing Transgender characters.

WILLOW MACLAY : Caden, it was about three weeks ago when news dropped that Scarlett Johansson was going to play Dante “Tex” Gill in a movie about his life entitled, "Rub and Tug" and for the most part cisgender people seemed surprised that there was a controversy. This is just the latest example of a cisgender actor playing a transgender person in a movie through outdated cross-gender casting, but the major difference here is that Scarlett actually stepped down from the role, but the film sadly, doesn't seem to be going forward. I'll admit that I was dubious of Rupert Sanders being allowed to make anything that could be considered a motion picture again, but it's frustrating that this movie has just proven that for mainstream Hollywood it's either cis actors playing trans characters or nothing at all. Typically, it's cis men playing trans women, the legacy of which has been nothing short of damning, but this would have realistically been the first mainstream film about a trans man since Boys Don't Cry, which we've already crucified. Rub and Tug likely would've been compromised under any circumstances due to Sanders complete lack of talent, but I want to hear your thoughts on this issue, and later in this discussion we'll get into the history of cisgender actors playing transgender characters.

CADEN GARDNER: The Rub & Tug press release initially seemed to be dubious about Dante “Tex” Gill’s life story being a trans one. Tex Gill identified as a man, It appeared that those working on the film saw it as an Albert Nobbs situation where a cis woman disguises herself as a man for societal reasons rather than the root cause of gender dysphoria. There was an instant ferocity in the internet blowback after the film was announced, to which Johansson foolishly said: “Tell them that they can be directed to Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto and Felicity Huffman’s reps for comment”. This statement is essentially a defence built around the status quo of cis actors in these roles, and the ways in which they’ve been accepted by prestigious film and television voting boards. It is interesting that Johansson never mentioned an instance of a trans man role. She only brings up Huffman, a cis woman playing a trans woman, and Tambor and Leto, cis men, both playing trans women. It was incredibly tone-deaf. Johansson and her people definitely were leaning on the fact that Hollywood has given permission for her and other cis actors to take these roles like masks and costumes and bypass hiring a trans actor for the role. Honestly, when I got wind of Lukas Dhont’s Award winning film at Cannes, Girl, I found myself slightly taken aback by that film being cis actor in a trans role. I thought we were past this. I thought A Fantastic Woman and Tangerine were signifiers: films that got critical plaudits and made noise on the Hollywood industry radar. I thought that cross-gender casting was becoming something of the past and that we were going to be getting more trans stories as played with trans actors. I felt so naïve to have thought that. So when this announcement happened, I was hurt by the news of the casting , but even moreso by how Johansson handled our criticism. I wanted the project to sink once she made that statement and frankly, I am glad it is gone. Then of course, through this whole controversy, I heard from cis people who seemed confused, as you said, by why this would be controversy. It was after all, ‘just acting’, according to them. I had many arguments over this casting dating back to Girl mostly on the conceit of casting and this continued with Rub & Tug, going from trans women as the target of this mis-casting to trans men. It was exhausting, and frankly, I felt even less heard and understood (Editor’s note: Take a look at how many trans women, including myself, who were asked to cover this issue compared to trans men). I felt many cis people, consciously or not, showed their true colors in reacting to this debacle. They seem mad that I wanted this project to sink given the circumstances. I’ll just repeat for this piece my reasons that I restated over and over: I do not know a trans man, myself included, who wants their life story told from the perspective of a woman. I do not know a trans woman that wants their life story portrayed by a man.

I do not think this is at all difficult to understand but what I am noticing is the power of telling stories on the screen, be it television and film, is that cis people do not want to abdicate a sliver of control. They are interested in our stories but on their terms. This was just another case. It died, but I doubt it will be the last time.

WM: You nailed it with that last paragraph. I, similarly, thought we were past this with the release of both Tangerine and A Fantastic Woman. I don’t like AFW, but that’s not because of Daniela Vega, who is excellent, but because the film is only interested in her oppression through redemption. I thought there would be a shift where we slowly chipped away at preconceptions of transness on screen, but that doesn't seem to be the case in mainstream Hollywood. Television is a little bit different, and we'll get to that later, but when there's money on the line they only want big money stars. I found that to be an awkward excuse as well, where cis people would say things like "it can't get made unless it has a big star attached and there are no trans stars that an average person wants to watch" I saw that excuse a lot and it was mildly humorous because they pointed out the problem without realizing it. There are no trans stars and the reason for that is they won't fucking cast people like us. You can’t become a star if you’re not even given the chance to compete. There has to be a starting point, somewhere, in mainstream movies. We're still waiting for that to happen.

A Fantastic Woman (2017)

wm cont: I was asked by the CBC to be a guest on their film program for Q Radio on this very topic, and there was 100s of comments in my mentions afterwards like "I guess superheroes can only play superheroes" or whatever, but if they had actually taken the time to listen to me they would have known my reasoning that I'll repeat now: "if you would find it ridiculous for Colin Firth to play the Queen of England in cross-gender casting or any other man playing a woman, why make an exception for transgender people? If it's because you don't actually see us as who we are then that's a problem you have to fix." Cis people know in their heart of hearts if they REALLY consider us as who we say we are, and this whole ordeal has pointed me in the direction of a lot of people who don't see us as the gender we are, but the one we were assigned at birth. Hollywood thinks that way.

CG: Yeah, and cis people really gave us no solution when they essentially asked us to wait our turn. When is that happening? What exactly is your idea of progress for our community? They do not answer because they do not know or they do not care. When there is this opportunity available to tell a trans story, why should we not speak out and protest this when there are actors in our community who could play Tex Gill? Again, they will just say it is acting, and then mention things like ‘I don’t need an actor having cancer to play a character with cancer’ because I totally like my gender dysphoria compared to a deadly disease, truly. There are no trans stars but there can be if given the opportunity. I would rather see some Hollywood player, be it a major Hollywood producer, or an actor, actress, or director with cachet push to tell these stories. If it means, loading the cast with known names but in the service of also raising the profile of the trans actor at the center with their story being told, I can support that. Instead it is more or less stuff like the ScarJo controversy and something similarly with her Avengers co-star Mark Ruffalo producing an independent film called Anything about a trans woman sex worker played by…. Matt Bomer. Ruffalo assured us he “got woke” when pushback to his film’s casting led him to watch one trans web series, but the casting and movie still happened. It is just so ridiculous but I suppose I should be thrilled that people were aware about the controversy and pushing back, but it also just seemed like this was people attuned to ScarJo stepping into shit once more in their eyes rather than just focusing on the casting problem itself. At least that was how I saw it and why I fear this will still happen again in the future.

It’s really rare for Hollywood to tell a transgender story or even feature a transgender character. They need to recalibrate. All of these performances are going to look offensive in one hundred years. The industry is having another kind of identity crisis with their current filmmaking models. There exist only two modes and no in-betweens. You have the big studio action tentpoles for the spring and summer and the others are prestige films, the so-called “Oscar bait” dramas that give the studios their air of respectability in the fall and winter. It’s there where we see transgender stories. This decade we have seen a wave of prestige films that included trans people as a major part of the narrative, if not the very center of the film. But, as you mentioned, these films were the compromised versions of a trans story. I am talking about The Danish Girl and Dallas Buyer’s Club and the performances given by Eddie Redmayne and Jared Leto. I should be unsurprised that people seem to think that the culture at large- or rather, the extremely narrow and privileged sect of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences- rewarding these performances was a signifier of the supposed quality and authenticity in these performances, but they were deeply surprised to find out that trans people hated these performances.

The Danish Girl

WM: I think there's this notion that we should be happy we're served a meal, even if it's fried dog shit. That's what it feels like to me when these movies come out. They cloak themselves in respectability politics or messages and position themselves as important movies for our cause, but any lasting positive impact almost never happens. Images inform culture and if the only image of trans womanhood is a guy in drag then that's all we're going to be, but my body flies in the direct face of these notions. I have the hormone levels of a cis woman, breasts that grew from my body through estrogen, same as any cis woman, a pair of XX chromosomes, because I'm intersex, no adam's apple to speak of and if I may be vain for a moment, absolutely killer legs. But even if I didn't pass and didn't have these things I still wouldn't have a body like Eddie Redmayne's or Jared Leto's. My body is different. Our bodies are different. Trans women aren't built like cis men and Trans men aren't built like cis women, but I think some cis people are a little surprised by that truth, and have been very slow to learn. We’re still getting articles about the shock and awe of trans women being able to breast feed for example, when we’ve been doing this for a long time.

I want to get into the nuts and bolts of these performances and why they don't work. Let's start with Eddie Redmayne, who plays trans woman, Lili Elbe. Redmayne plays her like an alcoholic with sensory disorder and a paraphilia for things like stockings and lingerie. Redmayne's conception of womanhood is ORGASMIC, with heaving exterior moans and blurred vision. A trans woman if she were on the verge of climax at the very notion of womanhood. Like a fictionmania fetish story made real, and Tom Hooper directs it with cinematic form that feels like dried semen on hosery. It's a gross movie, and Redmayne's gigantic expressive acting shutters any way to understand the interior of Elbe's life or who she was as a person. The portrait of Elbe is one of an insane fetishist who died reaching for the perfect orgasm to meet her fetish of surface level womanhood. It’s telling that the final image of the movie restructures her as a piece of fabric that gets blown away in the wind. I suppose one could argue that is a happy ending if you’re sadistic and only watch these movies out of sheer exhibitionist curiosity, but in truth it's offensive. I'm not sure any actor could have saved this movie as it was conceived, but the end product is maybe the worst possible depiction of transness I've ever seen and Redmayne's performance somehow tops Leto's mid-crucifixion martyr with a death wish and a perfect bikini wax in the equally bad, but somehow not as awful, Dallas Buyer's Club.

The Danish Girl

CG: Redmayne’s idea of gender dysphoria is so indicating and contorting in ways that feels like a bad 1960s sci-fi TV serial. The trembling his character has in reaching down below her waist, particularly in that scene where Lili goes to a peep show and mimics the cis women performer, is so laughable and infuriating all at once. The film treats the character’s male presentation and female presentation like two separate identities and womanhood for Lili in this film is getting an uncomfortable proposition from Ben Whishaw (Editor’s note: Poor Ben Whishaw) or wearing an androgynous pantsuit out in the park trailed by two gawking men straight out of a Tex Avery cartoon. Then there is the central relationship of Lili and her wife, Gerda (Alicia Vikander) where the triggering moment that sets this whole “journey” in motion is Gerda making Lili pose with a dress for her painting. I should note that even if the casting was done better, The Danish Girl is a truly reductive portrait of two famous artists. The film manages to trivialize their relationship and turn these two real-life Bohemians into neurotic messes who want to play house, but a very constrained conservative one. There are several bedroom scenes of Lili assuming more femininity with Gerda, and is treated like a fetish object. Again, back to the 60s sci-fi TV camp that is happening with this performance, Redmayne treats contact with the dress like a mad scientist who gets exposed to his deadly formula that now spreads disease through the body. It is all so preformative and exaggerated, dialed up into something that by the end renders Lili Elbe as someone so glum and upsetting in a really reductive, useless way. She’s Icarus flying too closely to the sun, but that’s most films about trans people made by cis filmmakers.

Martyrdom and transness are interlinked in these films and that extends to Jared Leto as Rayon. Where Lili Elbe was a real person, albeit The Danish Girl was speculative fiction by a writer and the adaptation even further twists a lot of facts, Dallas Buyer’s Club made a fictional composite character of Rayon. According to screenwriter Craig Borten, the creation of that character came from research in interviewing trans AIDS activists. And yet, the leaked script that I saw of Dallas Buyer’s Club constantly spoke of Rayon in male pronouns and referred to the character as a cross-dresser. Even if the final product presented a trans woman you have the fact that Rayon is misgendered and deadnamed constantly, even referred by McConaughey’s protagonist as ‘Mr. Man’. You can say that is the product of the time but with the exception of one moment, Rayon almost never pushes back or reacts in a way of hurt in being dehumanized this way. Additionally, the film hardly ever explores her story. We get bedroom décor of T. Rex and glam rock (my kingdom for a Todd Haynes trans movie), assuming that’s her connection to queer life. She frequents gay bars of Texas that are apparently chill with trans women. And what of Rayon’s life? Well, she puts on a full male presentation, an ill-fitting suit, to ask her father for money. Rayon left a charmed life and that moment is treated like a cheap revelation that is only in the service of the central protagonist’s story. Rayon returned to Ray (Matthew McConaughey) to get her father to give her money from her life insurance policy to pay off her debts with her homophobe turned friend and business partner Ron. Rayon’s story is treated so superficially: a series of various wigs, cheap makeup, faux fur coats, and mirror shots. Cis people love showing us looking in mirrors, particularly in giving ourselves a pep talk about our looks but it is best to see us completely exposed. Except you know, Redmayne and Leto do not have trans bodies. It is a man in a dress and every mirror shot underlines that over and over. Those mirror shots confirm for me I am watching bullshit but apparently for cis people it’s revelatory, but in truth, they are looking at something that is not us by their own design. It’s their conception of transness, not our reality.

Dallas Buyers Club

WM: It's a dissection, piece by piece, an outfit, something to construct rather than something inherent. To show a trans woman with real breasts would be to say that this isn't an act. Rayon is built, rather than someone who is. And Leto did absolutely nothing to dispel these notions with his waxing comments and general method acting macho swagger of playing woman. A fake woman, but that’s trans women at the movies. These movies aren't even about trans women. They're about tragic men who died because they followed a foolish notion that they could become women. These movies for a second don't treat these characters as women. Not at all. I'm not sure any of the films we are discussing during this series does, but some of our other examples we will get to like Dog Day Afternoon, at least have a current of decency throughout.

I want to get to your mirrors comment now, because that's the resolute language of transness in the cinema as conceived by cis people. It's a model of vanity, a reflection of who these people "truly" are, and a way in which to try and slam together something resembling a metaphor image, even with no real depth. It isn't just trans women who get this treatment either. We've brought Boys Don't Cry up before, but the scene where Hillary Swank as Brandon Teena poses in front of full length mirror so we can see the full dimensions of Swank's body is one of the most dangerous ever put in cinema with regards to transness, because it unravels identity and points a giant fucking arrow in visual language to Swank's dickless briefs. It's genitals as destiny, forever and ever amen. On the opposite side of things there's a scene that is almost identical to Swank's in Under the Skin, a film we both love, and it has completely different intent. In that scene it's a realization that the alien's (Scarlett Johansson) body is hers, warts and all, and how she can find an identity in herself. It isn't directly saying there's anything wrong with her body or something is amiss. It's just hers, bathed in amber lighting as Mica Levi's music swells to something resembling warmth for the first time in the film. The visual language of that scene is acceptance. The visual language of Boys Don't Cry, Dallas Buyer's Club and others is political posturing and genital hysteria.

Boys Don't Cry
Under the Skin

CG: I want to get back to your comment about Jared Leto and method acting. I absolutely think the whole ‘living as a different gender’ (and let me note that is not what gender dysphoria is, gender dysphoria is being at odds with the sex you are assigned at birth) concept and conceit is something that absolutely appeals to actors in the same way that playing an athlete or packing on a lot of weight does. They want their Robert DeNiro as Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull moment but to me it just comes off as Robert Downey Jr’s performance of Kirk Lazarus in Tropic Thunder. They are suffering for their craft and want the plaudits and the credit for playing us, but they do not seem to care about how offensive it is and that it is not their role to play. What they are doing is something in the Hollywood tradition of a different kind that is closer to red face, yellow face, and black face. They are crafting something based in makeup and appearance- through their lens, of course- all on a surface level in playing somebody they are not innate nor inherently. It is something that Hollywood allowed and gives them permission to do until consumers back off and then it suddenly is acknowledged how bad it is and was, and only then does it get condemned. It did not suddenly become that but was built on years and decades of mistreatment and misrepresentation that included dangerous stereotypes and even well-meaning portrayals in prestigious films of the time period that were trying to get awards. These are problems and particular errors in casting that are entrenched in Hollywood history and there is a certain level of complicity to be found in actors not really understanding the trans experience. Laverne Cox and Trace Lysette are out there, but are actively ignored in favour of cis men looking to make their name. They see it as a challenge to ‘lose themselves’ in the role and in their day to day life through method acting. Joke’s on them, I only saw fucking Jared Leto in a dress.

Laverne Cox
Trace Lysette

WM: It’s frustrating to say the least. When Dallas Buyer’s Club was initially released I had been out as a trans woman for a couple years, but I was still living at home with my parents. My mom wanted to see the movie, because she was a rabid fan of all things Matthew McConaughey. He’s one of her thirst actors, but her rental of this movie worried me, because I knew there’d be questions afterwards that I’d have to answer. My parents knew I was transgender and here they were watching this movie which co-signed all their anxieties about who I was, and frequently when we’d get into fights my Dad would dangle Rayon in front of me as “that faggot in the movie”. That was their image of transness. These things stick, and I’m not sure cis people 100% realize when that happens. Culturally, when you bring up transness you’re still likely to get comments about Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs, and while we both like that movie you cannot deny that the image has stuck.

CG: Now to return this discussion on mirrors, Swank’s bagging briefs in Boys Don’t Cry still makes me wince on memory. Most of the rare occurrences of trans men in movies have images like that one. BDC is genesis. The films I bring up in this case are 3 Generations by Gaby Dellal and 52 Tuesdays by Sophie Hyde. Like Boys Don’t Cry these movies are about trans men and are directed by cis women and well, I could definitely tell these were by people outside of my life experiences. The trans men in these movies are, Elle Fanning playing a trans teen in 3 Generations, and Del Herbert-Jane as a trans man who is dealing with transitioning amid having the worst teenage daughter (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) in human existence. The funny thing about these two movies are that they check off every conceivable box of a trans narrative: there are many mirror shots and body shots of these actresses getting masc, by leaning in on the revelation and transitioning as the entire story. Boys Don’t Cry made the choice of a cis woman in a trans man role because Brandon Teena was by reports too poor to go on hormones and these films also have cheats in their fictional narratives in justifying cis actress in a trans man role and keeping her around during the whole damn movie.

3 Generations makes the entire conflict around Ray (Elle Fanning) getting a consent form signed by both of his parents to start hormones. His mother (Naomi Watts) supports him, but remains conflicted, and his distant father (Tate Donovan) does not whatsoever. Every instance of physical transition happens offscreen. Elle Fanning is so lost in trying to convey maleness, masculinity, and expressing something about having a trans body, and there’s the obligatory mirror shots and a dramatic haircut you’d find in movies of this type.

3 Generations

52 Tuesdays was more infuriating. I will admit that I have an age disconnect to trans men of a certain age, some of whom went through motherhood before transitioning, and that made me wonder if I ever had a chance of liking this movie. However, this film thought it could pull a fast one and had a Deus Ex Masc-hina. They outright refuse to have this character transition, because James (Del Herbert-Jane) has a rare condition. The character stops taking testosterone so you don’t see him develop any more masculine traits that you see and hear early on, like his voice dropping or putting on muscle mass. This is why I hate transition narratives. They never ring true and yes, it is a dramatic experience of changes it is not just the only story or the only form of transition that we do when we come out. Physical transition is just one part of it and despite films keying in on that, they all seem to fail. It never feels real, just contrivances looking from the outside and never feeling that somebody like us has a grip on these narratives. Brandon Teena passed before hormone replacement therapy to the point where he had girlfriends, but we don’t focus on how that happened. That isn’t physical. That’s something else altogether. 
52 Tuesdays

WM: Oh my god, I love you for coming up with Dues Ex Masc-hina. Can we just use that forever? The thing that always blows my mind about these movies is that these characters have next to nothing in terms of an interior self, and isn't that supposed to be one of the things an actor looks for in a role? As of late these performances are just gymnastics, showy, mastubratory acting that has no depth whatsoever. It's like saying "look at my abs, it took so much work!" and Leto has always done this sort of performance. Somehow he's worse in Chapter 27. Somehow he's worse in Suicide Squad. The fact that we've let him stick around is the greatest sin of the millennial goths who popularized 30 Seconds to Mars in the first place.

I admittedly, haven't seen these movies about trans men, but your description of them sounds painful. One thing that has always bothered me is the logical fallacy of cross gender casting when it comes to trans people. If we absolutely must show the entire transitional process in the movie or have flashbacks then wouldn't it make the most sense to let the trans actor play the previous version of themselves? Because realistically if a cis man can play a trans woman in a movie then wouldn't that same line of thinking apply for trans women playing a more masculine version of themselves pre-transition? Because if this is all about transformation then why does it not apply to us? We’re the masters of that shit, aren’t we? I've said it before and I'll say it again: mainstream transgender depiction is vulture cinema for cisgender actors to make their name. It doesn't matter if a real life trans person died, a cis person will be there to pick up their mantle and tell it like it is. Barf. And It has only gotten worse in the last 5 years with increased visibility. We're in the mainstream now, so we can be sold. Not art by us, but art sold to us by cis people. We're just another demographic, but we don't watch these movies. We hate these movies. So how do we fix that problem? I honestly don't think they care. It was better in the 60s, 70s and 80s for trans depiction than it is now in some respects and that's absurd. In 2018 Candy Darling would not get to play a cis woman in anything, but that happened in the late 60s. Hypothetically, if all things were perfect and there was job equality in the field I wouldn’t have a problem with a cisgender woman playing a transgender woman or a cisgender man playing a transgender man. My issue is when you put a man in front of me and call him a woman. Don’t piss down my back and tell me it’s raining. That’s when you lose me in this day and age.

Candy Darling
Stephen Dorff in I Shot Andy Warhol

CG: It raises the question (and I think we know the answer) that Hollywood has no clue what the difference is at all between somebody trans versus some dude who puts on a dress to play trans. Granted words have changed over time and what people considered cross-dressers, drag queens, and transvestites were and are trans women. I question how the late Holly Woodlawn and Candy Darling could have made a mark in culture in transcending the films they were in and rubbing shoulders with A-listers at clubs, but film then has this dead period of nobody from the mainstream or the underground to take their place and follow in their footsteps. Even when the likes of a Mya Taylor come along she and many other trans actresses get pushed aside for men to play these roles, sometimes in the very stories of these figures. Stephen Dorff played Candy Darling in I Shot Andy Warhol, which is still wild to me. Given Candy’s whole relationship to hormone replacement therapy that casting is something I doubt she would have given approval.

WM: Stephen Dorff playing Candy has always bothered me. In a piece I wrote on Women in Revolt I talked bout this a little bit, but every single cinematic portrait of her has characterized her as a man, and she detested that completely. It's even more tragic if you consider the lyrics to the Velvet Underground song "Candy Says", specifically the stanza that asks "I'd like to know completely, what others so discretely talk about, what do you think I'd see if I could walk away from me?". The answer to that question in terms of Hollywood is that they saw her as a man at worst and a drag queen at best. That's the real truth of the matter at hand: to cross-gender cast in these roles is to cosign societal notions that our gender is fake. We aren't who we say we are.

CG: It does become clear that it seems the rare ways for a trans movie to get what it is doing right is not just hire a trans consultant or a trans coach, but also have creative pull, beyond the role of a consultant. The Danish Girl and TransAmerica had trans consultants, but spare me if you think those films are about our community. For me Tangerine worked because the actresses had some say. Even if there is well-meaning intent in telling a trans story, having us absent leaves some major probability that things will be amiss and just flat-out wrong. This can even happen when telling a true story like Dog Day Afternoon, a film that I love, and still a film where I do find it admirable on certain levels for even engaging with a trans love story, and having a character talk about having gender dysphoria. But you know, screenwriter Frank Pierson and director Sidney Lumet preferred going with Chris Sarandon for the trans role (John Waters player and trans woman Elizabeth Coffey did try out for the part but did not get it, supposedly for being seen as too feminine) and they saw the character as being closer to transvestite than transsexual despite well, the whole plot of the bank robbery being set in motion was to pay for the character’s sex change. Despite all of this I feel like that is a product of the time and that it was still significant and important that the details of the story were not completely white washed even if some of it in hindsight is now awkwardly presented. I am also not the biggest fan of Chris Sarandon’s whole body language in the film, constantly clutching his robe, although the character’s major tell-off about Pacino’s character whining that ‘he’s dying’ when he is the architect of his problems and the problems of others showed the movie wanting its audience to side with the trans character. That’s powerful. Sure, when her trans status is revealed a cop tries and fails to hold back a laugh, it is still a product of its time in many ways. My trans therapist told me that many trans people, himself included, in that time could see that film, while having some healthy criticisms of the performance, presenting their life experience on screen without animus.

Dog Day Afternoon
Elizabeth Coffey

WM: I really want to dive into Dog Day Afternoon now, because I think it's the only film we're talking about in this segment that we actually both love a lot. Despite loving that film, I do have some criticisms. I, too, am not particularly fond of Chris Sarandon's robe clutching, woman on the verge of collapse at any given second neurotic wife. I don't love that, and think that Elizabeth Coffey would have likely been better in the role, because she would have cut through what little bullshit there is in that film. I find it depressing that Coffey was turned down because she was too pretty, and that, if anything, should be our obvious entry point into the image of trans women in mainstream cinema. Coffey isn't the only trans actor who has run into the "you're too pretty to be trans" problem. They don't want a pretty trans woman, because they see us as men and if we appear like any other woman on screen that disrupts the narrative, even if that is the truth. That's where they keep us at a distance.

All this being said, I think Dog Day Afternoon is a near masterpiece, Sarandon's wonky body language and the frustrating 5 o' clock shadow aside. It's a shook up 2 litter bottle of pop ready to burst at any second and its centre is a man (Al Pacino) who is going to any lengths to get surgery for the woman he loves, because the world has fucked them over and it costs too much for any poor person to afford. That’s real. I appreciate Lumet including the title card for Elizabeth Eden stating she's "now a woman". The language is old, but the sentiment is there, and it is a happy ending in cinematic terms.

I do think there's a scene in the movie that honestly mirrors our experiences with trans casting and it's with John Cazale's character insisting he isn't a homosexual when that is announced on TV. He protests, but there it is on TV, something he asserts is wrong, but that is now the narrative. With us, we can look at the screen and say "that's not us" with cross-gender casting, we can look like cis people, and in Candy Darling's case look like a fucking supermodel and they're still going to run back into the arms of the men in dresses trope.

CG: Lumet’s direction to Sarandon, after going through many bad casting auditions for the character of Leon (the character’s name in the movie. The real life woman was Elizabeth Eden) saw the character as a full-blown neurotic, tragic Tennessee Williams heroine(Editor’s note: Tennessee Williams cast Candy Darling as the lead in one of his play, Small Craft). Lumet wanted the character played as an exasperated housewife. The results are Chris Sarandon being closer to sitcom matriarchs like Edith Bunker or Weezy Jefferson, but I think Lumet’s note was not a bad one. You do still feel these two- Pacino and Sarandon’s characters- have a very domesticated relationship and they are not playing dress up, it is real and so are their arguments, miscommunications, and doomed quality. It is normative but does not strive for, ‘They’re just like us!’ type of pleading to the audience. Lumet and Pierson were extremely aware of the need to still be delicate in telling this story that had the potential to not be taken seriously. Lumet was furious about how audience test-screenings took the relationship and the images of the “gay” wedding in the film’s newscast segments. But they were showing these two people getting married and one of them has committed this crime on behalf of the other, even if she did not want him to do this for her. Those were the facts of the case and they were put on-screen, that while still imperfect, are at the center of a truly excellent film.

And I love that the title card at the end of the movie as you said, places the real Elizabeth Eden in a much better place, especially compared to everyone else in the movie. She has moved on, her romantic partner went to jail, Sonny’s ex-wife, who he does not care about at all, are in the welfare system to raise her children. You come off with the impression that the 'freak' that some characters and even some of the audience previously snickered at by the end has her life together much more together than one expects or is conditioned to assume with trans characters, based on so many tropes. And a lot of those tropes that you and I have seen came after Dog Day Afternoon.

Elizabeth Eden

WM: It's strange to me, that Dog Day had little effect in reshaping how we see transgender cinema. There wasn't a huge call for Hollywood to shift afterward. Where changes did happen to some degree, and DDA had some effect, was in pretty broad interpretations of queer cinema involving gay men. Cruising, I think is a bastard son of DDA in some respects.

I love that phone call between the two. Lumet just moves back and forth between close-up and for a moment the heist element slips away. It's just two people talking, like they always have, and sharing a language and rhythm of their own. Pacino is excellent, but if there is an argument to be made for Sarandon it's in this scene. It gives us a window into their relationship, and "why" he's doing this for her. They have a rhythm that he and his ex-wife do not. It's theirs, warts and all, and he wouldn't be doing this if there wasn't something between them. Elizabeth Eden sadly passed away from AIDS in the 1980s, and even if Sarandon looks nothing like her she at least gets that note at the end of the movie and Sonny did use his money that he got from the film to pay for her sex change surgery. It's an epic love story, a total fucking anomaly in cinema with transgender elements and one of the only films with cross-gender casting I'll go to bat for, even with some minor complaints here and there. I love Dog Day Afternoon, and a lot of it would still even be radical to this day, but Hollywood would never make this movie now. It's too complicated, messy and real. That, and the fact that Disney controls everything now.

CG: Dog Day Afternoon would not be made by a major studio today. It would not be made with the level of talent in front of and behind the camera as it did in 1975. That would not happen. I think 1970s America cinema, despite so many of my favourite films coming from that era, were admittedly heavily hetero-masculine. Dog Day Afternoon even feels like an anomaly as far as having one of the biggest stars in an explicit LGBTQ relationship. There may have been international cinema (Fassbinder) and underground cinema with LGBTQ characters getting more attention, but what took over were stuff for the masses that pushed aside that level of visibility for our community. After Jaws and Star Wars, Hollywood became heavily invested in monoculture and as a result were less audacious in telling narratives of characters off the beaten path. Trans figures like Candy Darling (although she passed in 1974), Holly Woodlawn, and even a trans punk rock singer like Jayne County was emerging (who would appear in films, like the incredibly great German queer film, City of Lost Souls) may have had presence in the culture as far as being photographed, subjects of visual art and music, but they were not really breaking out in feature films that were beyond the underground cinema. What can we conclude over why this happened? Well, Hollywood’s ultimate 1970s downer ending was the 1980s. Ronald Reagan was elected and there was conforming to this ideal of the lost nuclear family from decades ago. Hollywood was not Ronald Reagan conservative, but they still had to placate to conservative audiences and a universal culture, but LGBT people were not part of that, and you’d be hard-pressed to say we are today. There were still thriving pockets of culture in the LGBT community at the time- as we see in Paris Is Burning- but it was subterranean, not the type of visibility available at your neighborhood multiplex. If you were gay or trans, well, then film treatments of you at that time by Hollywood were pretty retrograde. Afterwards you had the HIV/AIDS crisis and hysteria based on prejudice and ignorance from mainstream society. Not to mention drug epidemics that was met with ineffectual, ‘Just Say No’ campaigns. Warhol Superstar Jackie Curtis died, and so did many like her. To be different then meant the possibility of the world turning their back on you and that also included a lot of visual media. The gap of suddenly having very little visual media looking into the trans experience brought further ignorance and misunderstanding. It is really an indictment on American popular culture that the only times there could be anything remotely close to a trans presence in pop culture was by appearing on Phil Donahue and not really being seen as a person, but as some anthropological subject. Come see the bearded lady.

John Lithgow in The World According to Garp

WM: To chart transgender cinema in Hollywood is difficult, because there are these gigantic gaps where there is nothing. You'd get an occasional film here and there like The World According to Garp (which I like), but Lithgow's portrayal isn't the main plot line in that movie or anything. Lithgow took the role with dignity and had no foolish aspirations towards becoming acting royalty through transness, which is appreciated. He is fine in context of the period and the practices of the 1980s. He does not touch Karen Black in 5 and Dime, but who does?

I like that you mention Phil Donahue, because I think it was around the mid-80s when the trap narrative, or GOTCHA, reveal started popping up in movies, and we're going to get to that in our next instalment in Body Talk, but it became such an overbearing presentation of transness. It was a trick. You never even had a character like Sarandon's in DDA who was openly trans from the start but these later examinations of transness in post, and that was popularized to some degree by Psycho, but really came into fruition with The Crying Game whose revel overpowered the rest of the movie in a cultural sense later being spoofed by Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, WWF Monday Night Raw and Family Guy while also giving reason for Jerry Springer’s entire existence. It's hard to talk about that movie without its cultural placement as THE trap film, but Jaye Davidson isn't horrendous as Dil. It's one of the more put together characterizations of a trans woman being played by a cis man. She's very much her own woman. I just wish a trans woman could have been given the right to make her name off of a movie that was about to be wildly popular, even if its popularity and staying power are dubious in context.

CG: I love The World According To Garp. What’s significant about that is the film is playing in this wild, quirky key a la Harold & Maude was that everybody from George Roy Hill to Robin Williams to Glenn Close to Lithgow were all so game into adapting the John Irving novel to the big screen. The Irving novel states that Roberta is a trans woman and provides her a biography as an ex-football player whose knowledge of the game gets ignored for her decision to transition and cannot get a job announcing football games. She is not this distrusting character with a secret. She’s open and Irving posits her as somebody the reader the audience should like because, ‘Garp loved her’, in Irving’s own prose. There are so many insane things that happen in the film as far as plot and character arcs that Roberta just is a character among the chaos. As far as Lithgow’s casting, the character is funny but Lithgow does not make Roberta a joke, but a funny character with feelings and ambitions, more than a device for the more central characters and more than a quirky ornament for the film. It’s casting for the time, but given what we have seen about trans military service members it is not unheard of that trans women can come from hyper-masculine environments and sure, I do like to imagine how that casting would have looked like with a real trans woman but Lithgow is pretty good. That said let’s not get this twisted. One good characterization does not open the doors for so many terrible ones before and after, especially after.

WM: The fact that Roberta even has a dream is note-worthy, because that’s rare in portraits of trans women. In Tangerine, Alexandra (Mya Taylor) wants to become a singer, but beyond her can you think of any other examples? I can’t. In these movies trans women seem to want to just file into line as a stereotype, which is not the case. Yes, I want to be a wife and mother, but I also want to be known as a writer my entire life. I have dreams to keep challenging myself to get better. What does Redmayne’s Lili Elbe want to do in The Danish Girl? She wants to be a girl and sell clothes. She doesn’t have to paint anymore! (p.s. that’s sexist)

Mya Taylor in Tangerine

CG: In a culture that birthed Jerry Springer, ‘A chick with a dick’ type of retrograde presentations of transness offricially become a revulsion and a joke. Livelihoods become plot twists, secrets and marks of those individuals being untrustworthy. Even before The Crying Game and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, there was the otherwise very junk food comedy Soapdish that spoofed soap operas with a top of the line ensemble cast. In that movie, the third act includes revealing Cathy Moriarty’s plotting, backstabbing villain to have be a trans woman leading to Garry Marshall’s television executive character to exclaim, ‘She’s a boy’ and Robert Downey Jr.’s character, who was sexually involved with Moriarty’s character being on the verge of vomiting- quite similar to how Jim Carrey’s Ace Ventura reacted to finding out Sean Young’s character was previously the vindictive ex-Miami Dolphins place kicker and Stephen Rea’s Fergus in The Crying Game finding out Dil is a trans woman. Gosh, a lot of men throwing up over this type of revelation.

The Crying Game’s whole plot takes a while to reveal itself but then takes over the whole movie, and there is no way to talk around it. Then it just became a Miramax (fuck Harvey Weinstein) pushed commercial phenomenon and there was a lot of critical complicity. I found out the twist of this movie before seeing it, and a lot of that film got its mileage from critics like Roger Ebert writing these coy reveals and winking to their readers with a, ‘Trust me. You’ll want to see this and tell your friends to see this but make sure to let them go in cold about that twist’. I cannot really say Neil Jordan’s film transcends that trapping as in the script of the film, it does make the revelation pretty much a conflict for Dil and Fergus and the script does write the scene as a, ‘She is really a man’ type of hushed tone but with an explosive revelation. I think Jaye Davidson gives the character a lot of dignity and depth but feels very at odds with the writing. Dil defends herself from Rea’s simultaneous initial rejection and allured fascination over her. Still, the film does something similar in having Dil in male form and that is when it gets maybe even more infuriating than the genitals reveal. I know of trans people put in that unfortunate position of having to wear clothing of the gender they were assigned at birth even as they identify trans, but here it is taken as a, ‘Well, she can live this double agent type of femme fatale because she’s really only wearing different clothing’. The character loses a lot of power towards the end and even her living, not dying like a martyr, is based on Fergus stopping her from offing herself, and frankly, it getting to that point in the film where Dil is suddenly a shifty, suicidal, mentally unstable person feels so uncharacteristic and an 180 degree switch from the sultry, seductive, confident, independent woman that viewers fir saw. That is not really on Davidson but unfortunate writing built off of several misunderstandings and misrepresentations.

The Crying Game

WM: The Crying Game is frustrating, because there's a version of that movie they could have realistically written, and chose not to where the character was this sultry femme fatale. In those terms Dil stands on her own in this characterization, because it's not like you can point to other examples where trans women played these types of characters. The writing undoes a lot of the good will established earlier on though like you said, and I'm in complete agreement with your other statement that these performances that have existed in the past and are contextually acceptable doesn't mean that it's okay to walk back down this path again today. Trans people have always been acting and for transgender cinema to truly feel lived in and authentic we have to actually be here don't we?

I want to shift gears slightly to what film looks like when we are present by talking about a couple movies and a few recent television shows. I have not seen Pose yet, because acquiring FX in Canada is tricky and expensive, but I have watched Sense8, which was spearheaded by The Wachowski sisters and there are transgender actors playing transgender characters. I was really drawn into Jamie Clayton's character Nomi and wrote about her briefly on Curtsies and Hand Grenades as a kind of revelation to finally see someone with a body and a history like mine on the screen. I cannot undersell the magnitude in which it affected me to see her in that role. I could only describe it as feeling like a blanket. Nomi’s character went through some shit with her parents so she felt real to me, but it was also this realization where I came to grips with the fact that it was possible to no longer be invisible. It had a profound meaning for me similar to Laura Jane Grace coming out and being mentioned on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. These were early moments in my own history as a transgender woman that I'll never forget. I never realized how important it was to see myself on screen, because it had never happened with me before, but I finally felt that with Jamie Clayton in Sense8 and I think she's great in the role. A totally perfect fit for The Wachowskis world of underdogs and connected human experiences.

CG: Pose is incredibly important remedy for the previously billed- by the mainstream entertainment press and not by the trans community, to be clear- ‘groundbreaking’ television series for trans people, Transparent. Despite that show giving exposure to various kinds of trans actresses, it was always still based on compromise in casting Jeffrey Tambor (editor’s note: Fuck Jeffrey Tambor) as Maura. Pose is unique and remarkable for doing a few things that on paper seem so simple. It centers trans people in front of the camera and that is boosted by the quality of writing and directing by trans people behind the camera (previously mentioned in Body Talk Silas Howard, who directed an episode, while Lady J wrote episodes, and Janet Mock did both). Pose carries a lot of responsibility in covering the 1980s ballroom scene in giving an incredible amount of visibility that most people can only reference Paris Is Burning, if they even saw that at all. And then of course it is carrying the responsibility of opening doors for trans actresses and trans talent in our presence. I knew of Mock, Lady J, and Howard before this show, although that doesn’t mean the entire Pose audience did and I hope that means more opportunities, and I hope this means more talent behind and in front of the camera get to be part of projecs in production. I know of a few other shows that have a trans actor or even a trans person on their writing staff, but I would like to see those experiences centered like Pose. I do not want Pose to be the only game in town because at some point, it is not going to be on. Then what?


I will also note that yes, Sense8 also existed and luckily, despite being short-lived got a proper sendoff recently. The Wachowskis are so earnest and both Lana and Lily definitely used their experiences in their trans identity to inform Jamie Clayton’s character. That whole argument she gets prodded into by a TERF-like figure, calling her a ‘colonizer’ on her gender feels like something that only we usually experience online and off-line in certain spaces. I felt similarly with Pose where multiple characters had anxiety about being misgendered even in supposedly ‘open-minded’ places or feeling the wrath of their family members who harbor disdain for them transitioning. It goes a long way to have characters on-screen and know that what they are doing and saying works because they not only get you, they are you.

We are real. I do think sometimes these discussions reveal that they don’t actually see us. We are treated like an abstract concept sometimes and so I thought it was important for our community to put our foot down on the ScarJo matter. I still felt like some people were not convinced and just think we were selfish for protesting this and I also felt like trans men in media still feel under-served. Netflix’s Queer Eye notably had a trans man makeover and while it had its bumps and was imperfect, I really felt like Skyler, the trans man, having his journey and story in plain view on Netflix was a good antidote to a lot of the bullshit that surrounded Rub & Tug. Still, not everybody has Netflix and it is clear that some people still do not get trans stories. It makes sense since they are spoon-fed some terrible, undercooked, inauthentic, and very much harmful narratives about our experiences. 


WM: I think that's our most important point. SEE US. LISTEN TO US. It is not incredibly hard. If 50,000 trans people say this casting is fucked maybe we know what we're talking about? I think you hit the nail on the head by saying that cisgender people sometimes think of us as abstract concepts. There was a poll recently where a high percentage of people said they didn't know a transgender person firsthand. I find these results unsurprising, but illuminating in how they view us. How can they possibly care if we're not real? The truth of the matter is that we're flesh and blood just like everyone else. We have wants and desires and needs. Our place in the world is informed by our experiences that we've had with gender, dysphoria and presentation and we have interesting stories to tell about lives that are sorely under-served. It's hard to imagine a transgender life going into old age, because no such image exists. It's hard to even exist as a trans person, because there's little format or structure for how to get there without direct help, because there's little cultural awareness of our issues. We only exist in the past tense in art. Our unique experiences are going to influence the kind of cinema that gets made about people like us, but Cinema also has a chance to shift the narrative. The ball is in their court on this one and if they continue to play dirty we're going to speak up. We'll stop when they start actually listening to us. We’re still waiting....