Wednesday, November 25, 2015

A Look at Transgender Culture at the Oscars

Scene from The Danish Girl
Among the most anticipated films from this year's Oscar season is director Tom Hooper's The Danish Girl, starring Eddie Redmayne as the first transgender woman. While the film is likely to rake up attention for its subject matter, it isn't the first LGBT film to tackle such subjects and get some Oscar love for it. It's not even the only trans film of 2015 that has gotten acclaim (just look at Tangerine). With the release of a film that's sure to rack up plenty of attention in the months to come, here's a look back at the films that won and were nominated for their representation of trans characters in the media, including one familiar Best Picture winner.

Dallas Buyers Club

Category: Best Supporting Actor
Actor: Jared Leto as Rayon
Was It Nominated for Best Picture?: Yes

The most recent LGBT film to win this category is also among the more controversial, with many activists complaining about the films secretly transphobic messages in which a straight white man saves the AIDS-stricken Rayon. It's a move that's a little tricky, as Rayon's story is inevitably the tragic and emotional crux of what makes most of the film's third act work. It's with good reason, too. Jared Leto gives a compelling and charismatic performance that captures the struggles of trans characters in an interesting light.

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert

Category: Best Costume Design
Was It Nominated for Best Picture?: No

While this list is populated with performances by actors giving their all to gay characters, it's sometimes important to remember that LGBT culture is also about the look. In the case of this Australian comedy drama starring Hugo Weaving and Terrence Stamp, it's all about the vibrant colors and energy that has made this classic so memorable. It's only a relief then that The Academy wasn't too shy about honoring their inner queen by giving the film a Best Costume Design award.

The Silence of the Lambs

Categories Won:
Best Picture
Best Director
Best Actor (Anthony Hopkins)
Best Actress (Jodie Foster)
Best Adapted Screenplay

While The Silence of the Lambs is not the only Best Picture winner to feature gay characters (Midnight Cowboy, American Beauty), it is one of the very few that features a trans character. This time in the mold of the film's villain: Buffalo Bill. In such an unforgettable role, he kidnaps women and throws them into a pit. While the role was deemed offensive by LGBT groups at the time, director Jonathan Demme famously went on to make the AIDS drama Philadelphia as a sort of apology. Even though Ted Levine was not nominated and had trouble having an additional career, his role as one of cinema's scariest villains lives on.

Boys Don't Cry

Category: Best Actress
Actor: Hillary Swank
Was It Nominated for Best Picture?: No

In one of the few trans performances to win an acting Oscar, Hillary Swank gives a performance that is as great as it is unflinching. The film deals with harrowing issues surrounding a trans man who suffers abuse when his identity is discovered. The independent drama scored highly with critics and gave Swank the first of two acting Oscars (the other for Million Dollar Baby). It also showed early on that she had the gift for playing complicated and fascinating individuals, whether they be straight or trans.

The Crying Game

Category: Best Original Screenplay
Was It Nominated For Best Picture?: Yes

It's the film that sparked a lot of debate in the early 90's cinema, even overshadowing the film itself. The story follows members of the IRA as they explore themes regarding race, nationality, and even sexuality. Despite the film's other subjects, it became the film in which a woman is revealed to be a man. It was a reveal so popular that it quickly appeared as a joke on shows such as The Simpsons and has not been forgotten since. If nothing else, it's an interesting take on how different LGBT themes are explored in cinema and our discussion of cinema in the 23 years since this film's release.

Kiss of the Spider Woman

Category: Best Actor
Actor: William Hurt
Was It Nominated for Best Picture?: Yes

While the film is largely forgotten by contemporary audiences, it's important to note that this was the first independent film to be nominated for Best Picture. It also is a film with a challenging text that follows the story of two prison inmates as they try to survive. As the story progresses, it is revealed that one of them is a transsexual. Much like many of the films on this list, it features the familiar stories of discrimination and abuse to the LGBT members. William Hurt won for playing Molina, who is a gay man accused of having sex with an underage boy. This leads to some heartfelt and emotional moments, including some reminiscing that involves a film-within-a-film technique.


Category: Best Actress
Actor: Jessica Lange

While not technically trans in the traditional sense, Tootsie was a film that used a man dressed up as a woman in order to explore the benefits of acting among the genders. With a charismatic and Oscar nominated performance by Dustin Hoffman, the film explored gender issues with a mixture of comedy and drama that remains iconic. While this isn't a traditional trans woman in that Hoffman merely uses his female sexuality for work, it still counts as one of the more mainstream and safe takes on the subject. It's by no means offensive nor is it the definitive take on the issue. It merely is entertaining.

Mrs. Doubtfire

Category: Best Make-Up

While it does seem questionable to include trans performances that have nothing to do with sexuality, it's interesting to explore the use as a story device. In this case, Robin Williams disguises as a woman to be with his kids. Her name? Mrs. Doubtfire. While, much like Tootsie, it isn't a definitive or great example of LGBT culture, it's definitely evidence of how man-as-woman stories were used as comedy during the early 90's. While the story itself holds up thanks to Williams' motor mouth humor, it also is just a heartwarming story that may be just a tad too creepy if you overthink the Mrs. Doubtfire angle.

Dog Day Afternoon

Categories Nominated:
Best Picture
Best Director
Best Actor (Al Pacino)
Best Supporting Actor (Chris Sarandon)
Best Editing

Among the work of Sidney Lumet is this crowning achievement that turns a failed bank robbery into the exploration of the shifting changes in society. Along with Al Pacino's unflinching, iconic performance, this remains one of the most definitive films to explore LGBT themes within a mainstream market. The robbery in question is done to help pay for his boyfriend's (Chris Sarandon) gender reassignment surgery to become a woman. The story is harrowing and full of compelling points that deal not only with gay rights, but the general treatment of the middle class in the mid-70's.

The World According to Garp

Categories Nominated:
Best Supporting Actor (John Lithgow)
Best Supporting Actress (Glenn Close)

While many still considered Robin Williams to be a funny man, this film remains one of his earliest examples of his dramatic chops. Starring as writer T.S. Garp, the story follows his life as he is overshadowed by his mother (Glenn Close), who is a writer of more important note. Among Garp's friends is Roberta (John Lithgow), who is a trans woman who formerly played football. Lithgow received a nomination for his performance, which was full of heart, vulnerability, and class in ways that worked against Williams' charismatic performance.


Categories Nominated:
Best Actress (Felicity Huffman)
Best Original Song (Dolly Parton - "Travelin' Thru")

While another lesser known films this film follows the life of a more conflicting trans woman. Following the news that he (Felicity Huffman) has a son, the two go on a road trip that includes a variety of colorful people. The story is interesting because it follows a transition of sorts for a trans man as it follows his journey before the transition and the emotional experience that happens when Sabrina becomes Bree. 

Albert Nobbs

Categories Nominated:
Best Actress (Glenn Close)
Best Supporting Actress (Janet McTier)
Best Make-Up

Among the more recent films to tackle trans films, there's Albert Nobbs. It's a story that follows the journey of a woman (Glenn Close) as she disguises herself as a man in order to get work during the 19th century. While the film failed to garner much attraction for its story, many critics praised Close and McTier's performances, of which were the highlights of the film. It was a drama full of memorable performances and commentary in ways that gave deeper insight into the struggles of women during the era.

No comments:

Post a Comment