Tony Curtis passed away last week. While he's been in several movies, he is most remembered for THE DEFIANT ONES and SOME LIKE IT HOT, which the AFI (American Film Institute) has ranked as the number one comedy of all time. Curtis and Jack Lemmon play musicians who witness a mob crime—they hide out with a group of female musicians to escape. While Curtis ends up also posing as a rich man with a Cary Grant accent to court one of the musicians, it's Curtis and Lemon in those skirts, dealing with the skirt chasers, that gets most of the laughs.
Lemmon and Curtis in Some Like it Hot
Comedy and cross-dressing are inherently tied. Some of the earliest forms of comedy—from the Greek comedies to Shakespeare's comedies—used the mandate of male only performers to work in jokes about men in drag. Later, in the Restoration period, when women were allowed on the stage, it was common to have the women in drag as
well—both for the comedy and for the opportunity to show off their legs in men's breeches.
Though I'm being a bit loose with the terms here, I do want to note that being in drag is not the same as being a transvestite. As executive transvestite Eddie Izzard reminds us, of the two, straight people tend to be transvestites and queer people tend to do drag. Of course, when it comes to sexuality and identity, any kind of generalization is surely faulty.
There are several different tropes of cross-dressing in 20th and 21st century film.
First, there are the dramas that feature characters with non-normative gender/sexuality identities, such as BOYS DON'T CRY, THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP, BREAKFAST ON PLUTO, HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH, TRANSAMERICA, SOLDIER'S GIRL, ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER, and M. BUTTERFLY. Many of these films end in murder or heartache.
Sometimes this is because they're based on true stories; sometimes it just seems like we treat alternative identities and sexualities the same way we used to treat "the tragic mulatto."
Julie Andrews in Victor/Victoria
A very few comedies are able to feature transvestites, drag queens, and transsexual characters—PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT, SORDID LIVES, THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW, THE BIRDCAGE, STARDUST, and, on the small screen, the ground-breaking SOAP.
Then there are the films featuring "straight" characters who find themselves "forced" to cross dress for some practical reason: YENTL (education), ALL THE QUEEN'S MEN (defeating Hitler), MULAN (war strategy and self-sacrifice), VICTOR/VICTORIA (getting a job), TOOTSIE (job stuff again), NUNS ON THE RUN (hiding out), I WAS A MALE WAR BRIDE (immigration), MRS. DOUBTFIRE (hanging out with the kids), and, on the small screen, BOSOM
BUDDIES (cheap rent). Arguably, HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH and M. BUTTERFLY could go on this list, too, depending on how you want to interpret the motivation of the cross-dressing.
Are there any men here today?
There are a few films that prey on our fear of people who are different, where cross-dressing is seen as a pathology (Izzard would caution us to distinguish between weirdo transvestites and executive transvestites), like PSYCHO and SILENCE OF THE LAMBS.
Movies that come from sketch comedy troupes do something a little different, although what they're doing is much older, from a comedic standpoint. Thus, MONTY PYTHON films and THE KIDS IN THE HALL's BRAIN CANDY simply have men playing women. While we can certainly think through the gender politics implied, we can also do what we're supposed to do when the Python men are playing women who are dressed as men so they can go to a stoning—laugh.
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Oct 13, 2010 12:18 PM
|Good Column. Have you found that Women dressing as men have been more dramatic than the reverse? It seems that women cross-dressing usually ended up tragically.|
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