Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Gender Bender

At the 2016 Emmy Awards last month, Jeffrey Tambor won in the Best Actor in a comedy series category. I haven't watched Tambor's show for several reasons, most prominent of which is the fact that, produced by Amazon, I'm not able to watch it on my remote Philippine island. I am mentioning Tambor only because of what he said in his acceptance speech.

“I’m not going to say this beautifully: to you people out there … please give transgender talent a chance. Give them auditions. Give them their story,” he declared while accepting the Emmy for best comedy actor.
"I would be happy if I were the last cisgender male to play a transgender female,” added Tambor, who won an Emmy in the same category for the same role last year."(1)

When I first heard Tambor's remarks, and whenever the issue it addresses is raised, I remember the 1995 movie To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, directed by the talented woman director Beeban Kidron. It was afflicted by a terrible script, but it had three amazing performances: Patrick Swayzee, John Leguizamo and Wesley Snipes as three drag queens on their way from New York to Los Angeles to take part in a contest hosted by Julie Newmar. The three actors, all straight - or cisgender - men (even somewhat exaggeratedly so), responded to the challenges of their unusual roles with astonishing conviction. In fact, they were rather better at playing drag queens than they were at playing straight roles. Of course, a drag queen is not a transgender person, and I'm not altogether sure if they're included under the LGBTQ umbrella. But they have been a mainstay of popular entertainment for centuries. I think it must have grown out of the tradition of men playing women's roles in the theater. Drag queens, as Eddie Izzard has pointed out, aren't necessarily gay. So the casting of straight men as drag queens isn't as much of a stretch as it might seem.

But when straight actors play gay or lesbian characters on stage or screen, a whole different dynamic comes into play. When I reviewed the Gus Van Sant film Milk (2009) several years ago I examined the fact that all the lead gay characters are played by straight men. The decision to cast them in the roles, and the expectation of audience acceptance of such casting choices, probably had more to do with esthetics than politics. Clearly, Sean Penn, who won the Best Actor Oscar for his performance as Harvey Milk, was cast in the role because he's a well-known actor capable of giving a good performance.

Is it possible that an audience feels more confortable exploring the drag or gay or transgender worlds with a straight actor guiding them? When Sean Penn kissed James Franco in Milk, was the kiss somehow more palatable because everyone knew that neither actor - presumably - was getting anything out of it? I mentioned in my review that gay magazines and ezines often conduct polls among their readers to determine the top ten sexiest men, and that straight men, regardless of their hetero orientation, are included among their choices. I suggested that there might be some fantasy element to the appearance of straight men in gay roles - especially since Van Sant is gay.

Jeffrey Tambor was suggesting, somewhat self-servingly, that only transgender actors should be cast in transgender roles - so that they might have more opportunities for employment. But Tambor was cast in the role he plays in Transparent only because he was an excellent actor and recognizable to TV audiences. What does it matter, ultimately, what gender he is if he is a good enough actor to convince an audience that he's trans?

On January 29, 1997, African-American playwright August Wilson and theater critic Robert Brustein engaged in a highly-anticipated debate with the title, "On Cultural Power: The August Wilson-Robert Brustein Discussion." (I heard the debate on NPR.) It was inspired by Wilson's published remarks, among others, against the employment of actors in roles whose race differed from theirs. In other words, only Asian actors should be cast in Asian roles, African-American actors in African-American roles, etc. He stated that color-blind casting was, to him, an "aberrant idea" and that a black actor should not perform in, for example, a Chekhov play. "It is wrong for black actors to appear on stage as anything other than black characters," Wilson argued.(2)

Robert Brustein, a proponent of color-blind casting, insisted that political correctness was "freedom from speech," and presented what I consider to be the only acceptable argument for the casting of any actor in any role: it wasn't a matter of acquiring the right actor for the right role, but the best actor for the role, regardless of race, orientation, or gender. Since definitions of gender are being questioned lately, audience acceptance of such gender-blind casting, in contradiction to Jeffrey Tambor's view, would appear to be where we are headed.

(1) "Transparent's Jeffrey Tambor calls for more trans actors in Emmy Speech," The Guardian, 19 September 2016.
(2) I wonder if Wilson has perhaps softened his views on race-specific casting in recent years since the productions of some of his plays in China featuring all-Chinese casts.

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