Critic's Choice: Gender Benders
I don’t care what the critics say about Switch. As a woman, I think Ellen Barkin’s performance as a brutish guy trapped in her feminine body is hysterical. She has the guy stuff down: the spitting, the tugging and scratching, the leering. But the theater of androgyny almost always involves men playing women, usually with as much subtlety as chest hairs popping out of a blouse. Here are some comedies on video that go a step beyond the physical and push the psychological boundaries of gender as well.
Some Like It Hot
My father, a hunky 60-year-old Texan, tells of an old frat-house game in which a bunch of drunken fellas raced to dress themselves in women’s lingerie. This Billy Wilder flick is an extended version of that. Two musicians, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon, escape from the mob, put on dresses, teeter precariously through their spike-heeled travels with an all-woman band, and learn what it’s like to be groped by male pigs like themselves. They both seem to be impersonating their costar, Marilyn Monroe (and she always seemed like a female impersonator to me anyway). For some reason, their silly falsetto voices and daffy personae don’t offend, but Curtis’ unbelievable natural eyelashes do. No man deserves lashes like that. B+
La Cage Aux Folles
By day, Michel Serrault is a balding middle-aged man living happily with his lover, a macho St. Tropez nightclub owner played by Ugo Tognazzi. By night, Serrault is all shiny buttons and boas — a female impersonator who doesn’t ridicule women but worships them. I find it flattering, actually. The couple has to play straight for a dinner with their son’s uptight future in-laws, and the fun begins. A surprise box office hit, La Cage inspired two sequels and Jerry Herman’s (Hello, Dolly!) giddy 1983 Broadway musical. A-
Dustin Hoffman has to put on heels to learn what we women already know, and I bet men fear: that friendship and love transcend sex (and that men are beasts). As out-of-work actor Michael Dorsey, Hoffman makes full use of his X chromosome, transforming himself into the matronly actress Dorothy Michaels so he can get a part in a soap opera. Hoffman was never my personal idea of Mr. Right (the nose, the height, etc.), but even I swoon when he tells costar Jessica Lange that he makes a better man when he acts like a woman. Go on, girl! A
In Blake Edwards’ pre-Switch crack at the gender-bending genre, set in 1934 gay Paree, his real-life wife, Julie Andrews, plays the man. Mary Poppins, a man? Actually, Andrews portrays a woman who disguises herself as a female impersonator as part of a get-rich- quick scheme devised by her gay buddy, played with robust abandon by Robert Preston. The farce speeds up with the arrival of James Garner, who learns to deal with the fact that everyone thinks he’s gay when he and Andrews fall in love. The musical numbers are lousy, and the ending is incoherent, but it’s fun for a gal like me to see Garner exorcise his macho demons. B
All of Me
Steve Martin gives a brilliantly dual-gender performance as a lawyer sent to oversee the will of a rich, wacked-out spinster (Lily Tomlin). She dies and her soul flies into him, so he has to fight her for control of his own body — the way God and Satan duked it out over Linda Blair in The Exorcist. Martin manages to hold onto Tomlin’s brilliant characterization of the old lady and give her full rein when director Carl Reiner calls for it. Once inside, she has to stand there and watch every time Martin urinates. They fall in love, nevertheless, but the nobility of this is shattered once Tomlin’s soul is transferred into young, blond Victoria Tennant’s body. The monochromatic Tennant is just too bland for Martin — on-screen and in real life, as far as I’m concerned. A
In the spirit of gender bender, male staffer Jess Cagle wrote this article under a female pseudonym, Georgette Sand.
La Cage Aux Folles