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Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Hollywood hypocrisy

The Bay Area Reporter

Let's hear it for Felicity Huffman. To play the role of Bree in the film Transamerica, she had to be trained in how to play a transsexual learning to present as a woman, alter her voice, wear extensive makeup and a wig, and even don a phallus she nicknamed "Andy." All part of presenting her character – a pre-operative transsexual – to the masses.

As a result of her heartfelt portrayal, she won a Golden Globe Award. That's the latest in a slew of awards for this flick. There is even some Academy Award buzz around her performance. This would, of course, lead to comparisons between her and Hilary Swank, who took home an Oscar for her portrayal of Brandon Teena in the 1999 film Boys Don't Cry .

It really is great that Transamerica has done so well, and that Huffman's portrayal of a transgender woman has been so highly regarded. At the same time, I feel that the film and its accolades reveal another story, one that shows the shallowness, even hypocrisy of the world that is Hollywood.

The same week that Huffman won her Golden Globe, another story was unfolding on the small screen. On American Idol , we met Zachary Travis. Travis identifies as male, but has a look and sound that is decidedly female. He preformed Whitney Houston's "Queen of the Night" for the judges, and gave his all.

As fate would have it, I saw this performance with my sister, who just so happens to be active in music. She agreed that Travis's singing – while not the best out there by any stretch – was nonetheless better than some of the others who made the cut for American Idol 's Hollywood studios that night.

Unfortunately, Travis was not chosen. This was hardly a surprise, given that all the teasers leading up to his performance were playing up the gender issues. They made sure to save this one for last, telling us about high heels, and offering a clip of Idol judge Randy Jackson questioning said contestant's gender.

Simon Cowell – who is known as the tough judge of the trio – did indeed take Travis's gender to task, referring to him as "atrocious" and "confused." The softest of the judges – Paula Abdul – also nixed Travis, reassuring him and everyone else that she was basing her opinion purely on Travis's singing.

Also within this same week, a Rolling Stone article came out on one of the two Wachowski brothers, of The Matrix fame. It is hardly a new story that Larry Wachowski has – fairly firm rumor has it – begun to show signs of some pretty heavy feminization. There is also the issue of a name change from Laurence to Laurenca.

This Rolling Stone article – like those American Idol teasers – was plenty salacious, promising their real-life story may be "stranger than fiction." It was replete with tales of bondage clubs and pornography, and even quotes on "autogynephilia" from controversial professor J. Michael Bailey.

This is the heart of the issue. Huffman – and before her, Swank – did highly commendable portrayals of transgender people. They were showered with accolades for same. Yet the reality is that transgender people can only be portrayed: they will be hard-pressed to be accepted in Hollywood.

I am reminded of an issue several years ago, where it became obvious that Hollywood was hiring non-disabled actors and actresses to portray disabled characters. These performances also garnered those actors some acclaim.

Consider Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump, Dustin Hoffman as Raymond "Rain Man" Babbitt, and Billy Bob Thornton as Karl Childers in Slingblade. One could contend that these performances gained so much notoriety because a non-disabled actor was able to "act" convincingly disabled. This is the same thing that Swank and Huffman have, perhaps, done within Transamerica and Boys Don't Cry .

Yet you would be hard-pressed to find actual, visible transgender people either in front of or behind the cameras. Huffman did indeed bring a reality toward playing the part of Bree – but why not a film featuring one of our real, actual transgender performers, written by transgender scriptwriters, and produced and directed by transgender filmmakers?

When Huffman appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman, she was faced with a host focusing on "Andy" the phallus – and making disparaging comments about transgender people. Those watching got to hear Letterman say that he feels those who are gender variant might have once behaved as "normal," framing all who are transgender as being, by extension, abnormal.

The most telling moment in this interview, however, was when Letterman spoke of a former staffer of the show, now named Hope. Hope is a former staff member of the Late Show, and one who transitioned at that job.

Of course, to Letterman, Hope will always be – to paraphrase the talk show host – "Howard in a dress." Somewhere out there, Hope had to cringe through this, being both outed and disparaged in a single breath on late night television.

To her credit, Huffman corrected what she could correct, and appeared visibly pained over the things she could not. She has learned a lot from playing the part of a transsexual woman, I am certain – but there are far more people out there who would side with Letterman or Cowell before they'd side with her.

So kudos again to Huffman on her win, and for giving life to the character of Bree -- but let us not pretend that the dream factory that is Hollywood is enlightened. It remains a place of great stories, but precious little substance.

Gwen Smith wishes Hope, Laurenca, and Zachary the best out of a rough world. She's online at www.gwensmith.com.

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