tagReviews & EssaysCan a Woman Be a Man On-Screen?

Can a Woman Be a Man On-Screen?


Cinematic female-to-male impersonations have usually been meant to fool the characters on-screen but not the audience, which is typically in on the ruse. Critics have often raised the question of whether a woman can play a mature man with enough conviction to deceive the other characters (except in farce). Indeed, girls and women have more often been deployed to play boys than adult males, an innovation that seem to go over better with critics and audiences.

National Velvet, set in a romanticized and picturesque English village of the 1920s, is typical of the latter sort of movie. A pre-pubescent Elizabeth Taylor plays Velvet Brown, who is all fresh-faced, wholesome enthusiasm -- a role utterly devoid of the sensuality and worldliness that would come to define the adult Taylor's screen persona. The family father tries to impress upon his daughters that "your faces are your fortunes"; but Velvet, unlike her older sister played by Angela Lansbury, has not yet hit the teenage years and thinks nothing of romance. Her interest is in horses. Velvet's mother is eminently happy in her domestic role but tells her daughter that she once swam the English Channel despite warnings from those who thought, "a girl couldn't do it." (Athletic talent seems to run in this happy family.) In this way, she encourages Velvet to train her dear horse Pie for the Grand National Steeplechase.

Just before the race, however, Velvet decides she can't trust the cynical jockey that she was about to hire to ride Pie. The night before the race she disguises her gender by cutting off her long hair and donning a jockey's uniform. (At the time she made National Velvet, Elizabeth Taylor had not yet developed the breasts that Richard Burton would one day describe as "apocalyptic.") "His" fellow jockeys don't immediately see through the disguise but do question why a boy so young would be in the race. Velvet wins the race but doesn't get the prize, in part because her true gender is discovered. Nevertheless, she returns home to her village a kind of conquering heroine.

Sylvia Scarlett, starring Katherine Hepburn, is another example of a cinematic girl-to-boy impersonation. Made in 1936, it was a box office flop. As with Taylor, the transformation from girl to boy is accomplished by simply snipping off hair and getting into boys' clothes. The title character pretends to be male so she can join a band of roving con men. The movie exploits the comedic possibilities of gender confusion and sexual fluidity when, in her male disguise, Sylvia receives a kiss from an infatuated female and again when a male artist senses that Sylvia has a crush on him while the artist still perceives her as a boy.

In neither National Velvet nor Sylvia Scarlett is the audience meant to be fooled. Nor do we seriously believe that either girl would "pass" as a boy in real life. A woman traditionally plays the part of Peter Pan, the boy who never wants to grow up. To some extent, this originated because of the unique demands of live theatre. Peter requires a fairly high-pitched voice. Few adult men would be light enough to fly around on the wires as the part demands while actual boys might grow out of the role in a single season. But perhaps the fact that Peter is played by a woman says something about the way we view boyhood and manhood in our society. If boyhood is a time of innocent and freedom, manhood brings a suit-and-tie uniformity (á la Mr. Darling in Peter Pan) accompanied by the capacity for lust and all the concomitant guilt that afflicts grown men. Women, by contrast, embody even in adulthood an innocence and exuberance that's closer to the spirit of boyhood.

There are films in which women impersonate adult men, but where the disguise was never intended to fool the audience and is scarcely good enough to reassure us that the other characters are taken in. In Queen Christina, for example, Greta Garbo effects this type of impersonation and the characters are fooled, but this is a world of deliberate artifice in which no character is realistically portrayed. When Garbo goes to a bar dressed as a man, the other patrons are engaging in a farcical brawl over the question of whether the queen of their country has had six or nine lovers that year. The recently arrived pseudo-man corrects them, saying, "You are both wrong, the sixes and the nines. She's had twelve lovers this year."

One of a handful of genuinely convincing female-to-male impersonations occurred in 1961's Homicidal, a William Castle film that left the audience wondering even after the projector stopped rolling. Homicidal is a brazen rip-off of Hitchcock's Psycho, which had been released a year earlier. Its major characters are Warren Webster, an ugly but seemingly nice young man who's about to inherit a fortune, his pleasant, older half-sister Miriam, an elderly paralyzed and mute former nurse named Helga, and the sultry blonde young woman named Emily, who now acts as Helga's caregiver. It turns out that Warren and Emily are the same person. Born a girl, Warren was raised as a boy by "his" mother, who wanted her child to get Daddy's millions and knew that the father was a virulent sexist who had willed his fortune "either to a son or the oldest daughter." To secure the money, Warren must eliminate the two people who know his true gender and then murder his sister, who's really entitled to their inheritance. So he invents Emily, a female alter ego, to do his dirty work.

The gender mystery in Homicidal doesn't end when the story does. As the credits roll, a split screen shows an androgynously named "Jean Arless" taking a bow as both Emily and Warren. Thus, viewers are left to wonder whether they've seen a man disguised as a woman or vice versa. Jean Arless never performed again; an actress named Joan Marshall played Emily/Warren. Warren's maleness is so credible that even an observer as sophisticated as Rebecca Bell-Metereau remained perplexed in 1985 (in Hollywood Androgyny). Indeed, she leaned toward the wrong conclusion, listing Homicidal along with some late 1960's and early '70's films featuring drag queens, saying that the film "relies on the completely undetectable female impersonation performed by Jean Arless." Later she states that "the only hint [to the true gender of the actor/actress] is the possible dubbing of Emily's voice."

This raises the question, what makes a female-to-male impersonation believable? The answer that emerges is that the credibility of a cinematic female-to-male impersonation depends heavily on the expectations of the audience. Linda Hunt in 1983's The Year of Living Dangerously played an Asian male dwarf named Billy Kwan. Unlike the actresses in the other movies under discussion (with the possible exception of Homicidal), Hunt was not playing a woman pretending to be a man but was in fact cast as male. The man Hunt plays is an unusual character, but Billy Kwan is never anything other than a man. As Professor Gene Stavis (of the School of Visual Arts, New York) has commented: "She was quite believable. But of course at that time no one knew who Linda Hunt was. I don't think you could get away with it so easily today."

The 1990's saw three important movies in which actresses assumed male personas (but that's about all they had in common). Orlando was a historical costume pageant, The Ballad of Little Jo a Western, and Boys Don't Cry a gritty contemporary drama. In all three movies, the male impersonation had to be believable for the film to "work," but invariably this exigency was found wanting by critics. Released in 1992, Orlando was inspired by Virginia Woolf's novel, in which an immortal character experiences life in both genders and under extremely varied social circumstances over four centuries. Tilda Swinton played Orlando in both male and female incarnations. The movie was a sumptuous delight to the eyes, but never took itself too seriously as cinema. In an especially inspired stroke, Quentin Crisp was cast as Elizabeth I. Orlando romances the Queen (in more respects than one) when "he" is supposedly in a male body. Thus we are treated to a love scene between a woman playing a man and a man playing a woman -- among cinema's more subversive portrayals of heterosexuality. And yet, critics found Tilden's male guise unconvincing. Judith Halberstam remarked that her character was "comfortably read as a boy, less comfortably as a man" (On Our Backs, Sept.-Oct. 1993).

The Ballad of Little Jo, released in 1993, is based on the true story of a woman who successfully passed as a man in the rootin'-tootin' environment of the Old West. A young woman, having given birth out of wedlock, is cast off by her family as a disgrace, so she decides to try to make a fresh start out West. But she finds life as a woman unbearable because she can't escape sexual exploitation from the hordes of mach cowboys. Following the if-you-can't-beat-'em-join-'em principle, she cuts her hair, dons men's clothes, and calls herself Jo instead of Josephine. Suzy Amis plays Little Jo. She was praised for her acting but faulted for her rendition of manhood. Roger Ebert wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times that, "I never really believed she could pass as a man . . . it's fairly clear there is a deficit in the testosterone department."

The powerful and acclaimed Boys Don't Cry was also based on a true story and stuck closer to the facts than did The Ballad of Little Jo. Born a female named Teena Brandon, the central character has endured a crisis of gender identity as she approached adulthood in Lincoln, Nebraska. Deciding she was meant to be a man, Teena rechristened herself as Brandon or Billy. Brandon -- now a "he" -- has moved to a new Nebraska town, Falls City, hoping to be accepted there as a man. He's also running from the law with a warrant for check forgery hanging over his head. In Falls City, he presents himself as a man and begins courting young heterosexual women. Indeed, the handsome, slender Brandon (played by the Oscar-winning Hilary Swank) is quite successful with the ladies, who like his old-fashioned courtliness -- the sentimental gifts and the way he takes his time in lovemaking, never rushing through to "the act." Unfortunately, he hasn't outgrown his criminal ways, and some of the "presents" he's so generously given his girlfriends were purchased with their own credit cards.

Even more impressively, Brandon is accepted by other men, and rides the tailgate of a pick-up truck with the best of them. He becomes a special friend of two young men, John Lotter and Thomas Nissen. More than a few guys are jealous of Brandon's winning way with women. Others think they detect "something different" about him. What are those fatty deposits around his nipples? Brandon explains that they're a deformity of sorts. Young women with whom he makes love never get to see his genitals -- her performs in the dark and uses a strap-on dildo. Inevitably, though, a hand is slipped down the trow, and Brandon is forced to improvise that in reality he's a hermaphrodite. To others he confides that he's transgendered and lacks only the final stages of surgery. The lies are exposed when the law catches up with him and he's booked as Teena Brandon. Lotter and Nissen, Brandon's two friends, see this report in the newspaper, make the connection, and turn on their friend in a fury, ripping off his pants to see for themselves -- and to show his girlfriend Lana -- that he's no really a man. Soon thereafter the two men rape and then murder Brandon, along with two others, crimes for which they're quickly arrested and eventually tried.

In his review of Boys Don't Cry, John Simon found Hilary Swank's depiction of a male unbelievable. In his view, Swank's character "might have fooled the folks at Andover or Exeter, but among these beer-swilling, roughhousing hillbillies would hardly have passed (National Review, Dec. 6, 1999). The odd thing about this critique is that Swank's Brandon is very close in build and appearance to the real-life one who did in fact -- and for quite a while -- pass as a man among the beer-swilling set. (This is easy to see in the documentary film, The Brandon Teena Story.) Why was the real-life Brandon able to be accepted as a male, slim and baby-faced as he was? Michael Hernandez and Sky Renfro, two female-to-male transgendered men, say simply, "Genetic men come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and so do we." John Lotter, one of Brandon Teena's murderers, says that since he wasn't expecting such an impersonation, "I didn't check anyone Adam's apple to see if he was really a guy."

It would seem that the key to what makes a female-to-male screen impersonation believable, both on-screen and in real life, is the condition of not knowing that such an impersonation is taking place. For a movie role to work, we mustn't know the truth or the illusion would be shattered. Their roles as men are convincing to the extent that we believe that Billy Kwan and Warren Webster are in fact men. On the other hand, even first-rate actresses are apparently unable to putt off what Little Jo and Brandon Teena pulled off in real life. We are left with women playing boys or women playing mature men only in the most fanciful of settings.


Previously published in "The Gay & Lesbian Review"

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