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By Gwendolyn Ann Smith
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. That’s the latest in a slew of awards for this flick. She’s even been nominated for an Academy Award for her performance.
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 Felicity Huffman won her Golden Globe, another story was unfolding on the small screen. On “American Idol,” we met Zachary Travis. Zachary 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.
Zachary 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.
Idol judge Simon Cowell did indeed take Zachary’s gender to task, referring to him as “atrocious” and “confused.” Judge Paula Abdul also nixed Zachary, reassuring him and everyone else that she was basing her opinion purely on Zachary’s singing.
This same week, a Rolling Stone article came out on one of the two Wachowski brothers, writers of “The Matrix.” It has long been rumored that Larry Wachowski has begun to show signs of some pretty heavy feminization. There is also a name change from Laurence to Laurenca.
This Rolling Stone article — like those “American Idol” teasers — was plenty salacious, promising a real-life story “stranger than fiction.” It was replete with tales of bondage and pornography, and quotes on “autogynephilia” from defamed professor J. Michael Bailey.
Here’s the heart of the issue. Felicity Huffman did a highly commendable portrayal. She was showered with accolades for same. Yet the reality is that transgender people can only be portrayed: they are hard-pressed to be accepted in Hollywood.
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” disabled. This is the same thing that Huffman has done in “TransAmerica.”
Yet you would be hard-pressed to find actual, visible transgender people either in front of or behind the cameras. Why not a film featuring one of our real, actual transgender performers, written by transgender scriptwriters, and produced and directed by transgender filmmakers?
When Felicity Huffman appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman, she was faced with a host making disparaging comments about transgender people.
The most telling moment in this interview was when Letterman spoke of a former staffer of the show, now named Hope.
To Mr. 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 Felicity Huffman — 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.