Transvestites in the Cinema

The Moviegoer Confronts Cross-Dressing

In a continuing effort to make this column relevant to the average movie watcher, today's column will be all about transvestites.

Although, as a columnist, I am required by law not to substantiate my opinionated assertions, I will offer you proof that drag is king (or, I suppose, queen) of the movies.

Currently there are no less than three movies playing in the Square that address this time-honored and classic cinematic subject: that old standby, "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," and two new entries in the cross-dressing cavalcade, "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" and "Ed Wood."

Transvestitism is nothing new in Tinseltown. Dustin Hoffman won raves for his performance as a soap opera leading lady in "Tootsie." Marilyn Monroe wasn't the only one in a dress in "Some Like It Hot." Eric Idle of Monty Python fame brought drag to a new level by putting on a habit in "Nuns on the Run." During "Belle Epoque," the 1993 Academy Award winner for best foreign film, we got a chance to see what the hero looked like in a frock (rather fetching, as it turned out, but really not his color). And there are many, many more movies that serve as variations on the transvestitial theme. Why?

Perhaps Hollywood, always on the lookout for an opportunity to make more money, thinks that transvestitism appeals to something basic in all of us. I mean, who hasn't had the urge to get dressed up in women's clothing every now and again?

Well, not me. And actually, I think very few people. An unofficial survey I recently took led to the conclusion that I'd better not ask that kind of survey question any more if I want to retain any social standing whatsoever. That, I think, is the point.

If I may get sort of thoughtful for a moment (sorry), I think most of these movies are presenting transvestitism as a metaphor for social difference. Because of some characteristic action of a certain group, that group is feared, shunned and ostracized by society--but at the same time, is watched with a certain fascination.

They're so different, after all.

And the movies are a perfect place to show that dynamic. When the drag queens prance and dance in "Priscilla" or in "Rocky Horror," we are repulsed and amused at the same time. We can feel whatever we want in the protected silence and darkness of the theater; we don't have to worry about our neighbors or friends gauging our reactions. But at the same time, we are intensely aware of the way we are feeling--and it may not be a way that makes us proud of ourselves or that fits in with our stated beliefs. The movies' effects, if properly carried out (admittedly a big if), are visceral; our emotional reactions to the men in women's clothing tell us a great deal about ourselves.

Of course, that same theme of social difference is treated in a lot of different ways. It is a problem that can and must be overcome in order to return to the general social norm. In "Tootsie," for example, Dustin Hoffman only dresses up as a woman to make money--but he wants to be a man again so he can date Jessica Lange.

Alternatively, this social difference can be seen as something to be accepted and exulted in, as a mark of individuality. This latter approach is taken in "Priscilla" and even (I argue with a certain amount of hesitation) in "The Rocky Horror Picture Show."

As a result, the appearance of transvestitism in the movies reflects a major preoccupation of late twentieth century America: our ambivalent reaction to difference in a land where individuality is prized as long as you're not too different from everyone else.

On the other hand, there may just be a lot of costumes left over from the seventies that the studios wanted to get some good use out of. You never can tell.

Well, maybe next time we'll talk about comedy. Keep the letters coming.

Oh--a public service message: from Oct. 28 to Nov. 3, "Dr. Strangelove" will be playing at the Brattle. If you have never seen this Cold War classic of black comedy, shame on you.

For those of you wondering who the Moviegoer is, he's a man (or is she?).