Tuesday, September 10, 2019

He to She: They Changed It At the Movies

Gender-bending seems to be the rule of the day. On cable television, there’s Pose, an exploration of what is called New York’s gender-nonconforming ballroom culture: it’s currently vying for six Emmy awards, including one for Billy Porter as lead actor in a dramatic series. In 2018, a Chilean film, Una mujer fantástica, won the Academy Award for best foreign language film. Its leading lady, Daniela Vega, made history that year as the first -ever transgender person to serve as a presenter on the Oscar stage.

Recently I caught up with two film productions that tackle, with very different stylistics, the life of a man who chooses to live as a woman. The Danish Girl, from 2015, is semi-fictitious in its details but is based on the real-life Einar Magnus Andreas Wegener, a young painter who in 1920s Denmark evolved into a woman named Lili and underwent some of history’s first sex change operations. At the start of the film Einar (played by a totally engaging Eddie Redmayne) is married to a fellow artist named Gerda, a lively bohemian played by Alicia Vikander. As apparently happened for real, Einar first discovers the truth of his nature when asked by his wife to fill in for a missing model. Posing draped in a ballerina’s tights and tutu, he finds himself enthralled by the sensuous pleasures of female garb. This leads in the film to Gerda mischievously parading him at a posh art opening as Einar’s tall, shy cousin Lili. But the masquerade becomes all too real when another young man falls for Lili, and Einar becomes ever more convinced that he is meant to be female, even to the point of wanting to bear children.

There’s hardly a happy ending. But the actors are fully committed to their roles, managing to convince us that theirs is a beautiful love story, if a tragic one. The versatile Redmayne, who had previously persuaded Oscar voters that he was Stephen Hawking, remains credible and lovable whether dressed as a man or a woman. (His impishly secretive smile is essential in this regard). Alicia Vikander, as the woman who loves him too well to insist on keeping him, nabbed her own Oscar for her role. The music is lush; the muted but lovely scenery and costumes are to die for. I guess the film could be shrugged off as a weepie, but one beautifully executed in a Merchant-Ivory vein.

Then there’s Tangerine, which is a trans film of a different color. Indie filmmaker Sean Baker, who would go on to shoot The Florida Project two years later, got the film community’s attention when he shot this feature entirely on three iPhone 5s smartphones. No, the moviegoer isn’t required to watch this film on a tiny screen, though it will never be mistaken for Cinemascope. Tangerine tells a sordid but affecting slice-of-life story about a day in the life of an African-American transgender hooker named Sin-Dee Rella who plies her trade on the seedy streets of L.A. Just out of the slammer on Christmas Eve, she’s looking for the pimp who’s apparently cheating on her with a cisgender woman. Meanwhile her best buddy is trying to drum up business for a late-night singing gig, and a sad-sack immigrant Armenian cab driver is struggling to deal with his wife, his infant daughter, and his harridan of a mother-in-law. Somehow they all wind up in a late-night donut shop, where what happens is either very sad or very funny or both. In any case, it seems quite real: or about as real as L.A. on a sultry Christmas eve.  

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