Friday, December 26, 2008

When Girs Will Be Boys

As reported last month, Kristen Stewart and Nikki Reed, of Twilight fame, are going to be starring together yet again in 2009, this time not as snooty vampire and human vampire wannabe/love interest, but rather as- and please, prepare yourselves-dudes.

It's kind of news, I guess, since Shakespeare's name isn't anywhere near it. The girls aren't just dressing up as boys, Amanda Bynes in She's The Man-style, but they'll be playing male characters. And, given the incredibly hype about Twilight and these two new(ish) actresses, a lot of people are scratching their heads in confusion. K-11's mysterious plot (is it comedy? drama? dramedy?) doesn't offer any more clues: the girls will be gay inmates, separated from the general prison population, in a Los Angeles jail. Stewart's set to play young, and presumably more innocent, in comparison with Reed's character, a 30-year old tatted-up meth addict. No mention if they'll be playing lovers.

I think it's pretty cool. A couple of years ago I wrote this Myspace blog about how cool cross-gender casting is. Not only does it directly engage my love of drag, cross-dressing, and genderqueerness, but it also strikes me as much more egalitarian and equal opportunity than our current policy that reinforces the belief that gender is so biologically essential that it can't be performed believably by someone of the opposite sex. I do wonder, of course, if that was the reason for the casting was truly "They would make the best gay prison inmates, I know it!", or if it's meant to be gimmicky, a way to catch viewers by throwing out two big names and the expected freakishness of girls playing boys. I guess time will tell, although I am rather excited about the movie itself.

But this blog is a little look into the past. Stewart and Reed are not the first to be cast as men, not by a long shot. So let's take a look at those who came before:

Film: Ein Mann wie EVA

Actress: Eva Mattes

Character: EVA (Rainer Werner Fassbinder)

The 1984 film Ein Mann wie EVA chronicles but one crazy filming in the career of the legendary German director/screenwriter Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the man whose avant-garde work epitomized New German Cinema and whose turbulent life spawned seven documentaries (not counting this biopic).

Of course, this is all rather unimportant- what we want to focus on is who ended up playing Fassbinder (a.k.a. EVA). The role went to Eva Mattes, who played in many of Rainer's films. Perhaps this is the rationale for the choice in casting- letting someone close to him portray him on-screen. Perhaps it was simply the most avant-garde choice for an avant-garde director.

Whatever the reason, she donned Rainer's trademark black leather jacket, battered hat, dark glasses, scruffy face, and "perennial scowl", and played the hell out of him. Of course, the cross-gender casting is not only old and foreign, but also with some pretty obscure subject matter, it didn't get much press or acclaim in the U.S.. Indie films have the luxury of making such fun and interesting choices, but that unfortunately doesn't exactly leave anybody with new impressions about the feasibility of cross-gender casting.

Film: Hook

Actress: Glenn Close

Character: Gutless The Pirate

I can think of no logical explanation for the appearance of Glenn Close in serious disguise (i.e. not just a man, but an older, heavily bearded pirate man) for less than five minutes' time in the movie. For those who never got to experience the whimsical Robin William's flick ("Ru-fi-o!"), Gutless the pirate appears as a random pirate and then begs and pleads a little bit (apparently as testament to that gutlessness) for not being tossed into a chest full of crabs (I think? or else something that will be quite bite-y). Never appears again. How's that for random?

Maybe Glenn was trying to audition and show off her versatile skills to Disney in an audition for 101 Dalmations. I just don't know. Or maybe it's the name of the character-acting game, wherein actors take the small parts as license to really stretch themselves in fun ways- something that might not be possible as leading or main roles that will be scrutinized and will affect their marketability and the roles and salaries they're offered in the future. Or maybe it's a way to attach yourself to a film that you are really interested in. I mean, let's face it- there aren't many female roles on a pirate ship (at least, not if we're being historically accurate . . . in which case the ladies would at least have been dressedin male disguise, Anne Bonny and Mary Read-style). So who knows why Glenn decided to put on a beard and play a guy . . . it's an interesting fact, at the very least.

Film: Angels In America

Actress: Meryl Streep

Character: Old Rabbi

If Glenn Close as Gutless was an example of equal opportunity casting- anybody can play a role-then Meryl Streep's cameo in Angels In America is what I'm going to deem "actor recycling". Streep's main role was as Ethel Rosenberg, but alongside that, she also got to play the small role of a very, very wizened rabbi right in the beginning.

So what could possibly be the rationale here? Meryl's got plenty of screen time for all those Golden Globe awards. I presume that old, wrinkled, liver-spotted actors are not that hard to come by. We might say it was an attempt at stretching one's resources- using the same actors and actresses for multiple roles as a way to save money and time- but I have a feeling that all the makeup artistry at work here would take much more time and more helpers and equipment to get her looking like that than simply hiring an old guy. So we'll chalk it up to, perhaps, the designated actor not showing up and Meryl being the only one around. Or maybe a joke. Or her desire to, as I mentioned above, try something she probably wouldn't get to do otherwise. All I can say is, it's quite a transformation.

Film: The Year Of Living Dangerously

Actress: Linda Hunt

Character: Billy Kwan

One of the cooler examples of women portraying male characters on-screen comes from Peter Weir's 1982 film The Year Of Living Dangerously, adapted from the fiction novel of the same name. Linda plays one of the major characters. And, most awesome is the lack of crazy makeup effects to turn Linda male; she's not hidden away under a mountain of fake facial hair that seems to question why they would have cast a woman in the first place.

I'm not saying that all women cast as men must be masculine . . . certainly not. I've seen some spectacular drag kings who are quite femme in real life- and they don't need slabs of makeup and prosthetics to achieve it. But Linda looks the part, easily, and moreover, her casting seems genuine: according to Weir, he had great difficulty finding someone appropriate for the role of Billy Kwan and, unable to recreate the character in his film, he wanted to find a way of equaling the originality of the character, accomplished by casting Linda Hunt in the role. And, even cooler is that she got some recognition, winning an Oscar for the role. I've still yet to find another similar situation- where a woman was cast as a main character in a fictional story.

Film: Hedwig and the Angry Inch

Actress: Miriam Shor

Character: Yitzhak

One of my favorite movies of all time, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, has quite a lot of gender-bending going on with its main character (the incredible John Cameron Mitchell as Hedwig, of course), but second favorite is Miriam Shor as Hedwig's self-proclaimed "man Friday", Yitzhak. I watched the movie half a dozen times without realizing that the character was played by a woman, and even now, it amazes me- her acting is spot-on.

The rationale for casting Shor is probably two-fold. On one hand, it certainly is in line with the film's theme of gender queering and ambiguity. (Although I do not, as I have heard discussed, proscribe to the theory that Yitzhak is in fact female and in drag, either voluntarily for Hedwig's sake or forced by her). But the main reason is practical: it's mostly women who can hit those beautiful high notes in Stephen Trask's music. Miriam also starred in the stage production for that exact reason, and the transfer over to film caused no problems. Even now, this portrayal is visually one of my favorites- where good acting and some facial hair create a great effect (and also a testament to how women do not need bald caps or male wigs to transform themselves, and can keep their long hair and still look male).

Film: I'm Not There

Actress: Cate Blanchett

Character: Jude a.k.a. Bob Dylan

And finally we come to the most recent of cross-gender casting, with Cate Blanchett playing Jude, the 60's incarnation of Bob Dylan in Todd Haynes' 2007 film I'm Not There. She won several awards for the portrayal, and it was indeed pretty hyped up (to the point where some people think it overshadowed the wonderful performances of guys cast to cover the other various incarnations of Dylan). But it is still quite remarkable that a woman was chosen amongst many men to hold her own- not the main actor, but one of many.

One of the main reasons for casting Blanchett, of course, is probably just plain looks. Any casting director with a good eye can see that her face lends itself well to masculinity and especially androgyny with the right help, and moreover, she looks a helluva lot like Bob Dylan. But of course it also added a lot of interest to the film- still hot off The Lord Of The Rings and with other good movies only adding to her repertoire- her mention, along with the eye-catching line about her doing a male role- certainly would attract more viewers, particularly of a youthful audience not that into or knowledgeable about Bob Dylan. Add in her strength as an actress, and her willingness (she "viewed it as a challenge"), and there you go. A great example for current times, a call for a more gender-neutral approach to casting.

Is it in Haynes' footsteps, then, that K-11 director Jules Mann-Stewart is doing cross-gender casting? Or was it perhaps the only way she could offer her daughter and daughter's close friend a role in a film about gay men? Or is it all about stirring up some hype? Only time will tell, I suppose. But for anybody who is shocked, I just want to point it out- Kristen Stewart and Nikki Reed and certainly not the first to play men, and hopefully, they won't be the last!

No comments: