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Forgotten Gender-Bending Classics

What do Tilda Swinton, Suzy Amis, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman all have in common? Fantastic gender-bending performances.

In honor of the Oscar nominations secured by Glenn Close and Janet McTeer for their powerful performances as women living as men in Albert Nobbs, we at The Reelist decided to take a look back at some of our favorite gender-bending roles in film. Sure, everyone remembers Tim Curry as Dr. Frank-N-Furter, Dustin Hoffman as Dorothy Michaels, Hilary Swank as Brandon Teena and Linda Hunt as Billy Kwan, but we think it will be fun to revisit some of the great gender-bending performances that are more often overlooked.

From films that run the filmic gamut from sex comedies to art house cinema, check out our favorite forgotten performances from actors who have successfully blurred the lines between the sexes.

Ladybugs (1992)
Actor: Jonathan Brandis
Role: Matthew/Martha

Ladybugs, a family film that holds a special place in our hearts, succeeds (despite the presence of a miscast Rodney Dangerfield) because of an excellent gender-bending performance by Jonathan Brandis. Dangerfield plays Chester Lee, an unlikely corporate go-getter who agrees to coach a girls’ soccer team, along with his faithful assistant (Jackée), in order to secure a possible promotion. Realizing that his team is awful, Chester forces his fiancée's son Matthew (Brandis) to join the team as “Martha.” Matthew agrees only because his crush (the boss’s daughter) is on the team. After a few wacky montages of dress shopping and a hasty girlie makeover, Martha is ready to go! The rest is predictable fun: Martha helps the girls win the championship, becomes a better person, and oh, gets the girl.

The Ballad of Little Jo (1993)
Actor: Suzy Amis
Role: Josephine/Jo Monaghan

Life in the Wild West sure wasn’t easy for women. Nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for her performance in The Ballad of Little Jo, Suzy Amis plays Josephine Monaghan, a woman thrown out of her home after being seduced by a family friend and giving birth to his illegitimate child. She leaves the baby with her sister and heads west to make a life for herself. Faced with two options—marriage or prostitution—she scars her face, dresses in men’s clothes and calls herself “Jo.” Jo withstands hard work, treachery, and violence, but ultimately finds love with a kind Chinese laborer. Based on a true story, The Ballad of Little Jo forcefully depicts how difficult it was for women and minorities to survive in the  intolerant frontier society. Little wonder that Josephine/Jo turned to gender bending for survival. 

The Velocity of Gary (1998)
Actor: Chad Lindberg
Role: Kid Joey 

The Velocity of Gary is a strange little movie starring Salma Hayek and Thomas Jane as two people who are both in love with Vincent D’Onofrio. It is a gender-bending turn by Chad Lindberg, however, that makes the film memorable. Lindberg plays a deaf transvestite named Kid Joey who arrives fresh off the bus in New York City, dressed to the nines and happy to be alive. His beauty is immediately noticed by a group of rowdy guys who attack him once they realize that “she “is a he. Gary (Jane) is a hustler who happens by and rescues the vulnerable Kid Joey. Smitten with his savior, Kid Joey follows Gary, and the boy’s sweet naïvete and kind spirit endear him to Gary’s friends—a group of porn stars, misfits and outcasts—who happily take him in. The most memorable scene in the film has Kid Joey, dressed as Patsy Cline, lip syncing Walking After Midnight to a receptive audience in a diner. It’s truly movie magic. 

Just One of the Guys (1985)
Actor: Joyce Hyser
Role: Terry Griffith

Twenty years before Amanda Bynes made She’s the Man, Joyce Hyser appeared in Just One of the Guys. Hyser plays Terry, a girl who wants to be a reporter, but there is just one problem: no one takes her seriously because she is so beautiful. When she fails to win a journalism contest, she knows it’s because of her gender and looks. What’s the logical thing to do? Cut her hair, dress as a man, and switch schools to get another shot at the prize. Terry plays the role well, stuffing her jeans, dressing like Elvis Costello and becoming “just one of the guys.” However, Terry gets more than she bargained for as she must fend off a persistent female admirer, avoid attacking bullies, and fight her own amorous feelings for her new best friend, Rick. Fun fact: There is a 1993 remake of this film starring Corey Haim and Nicole Eggert aptly titled, you guessed it, Just One of the Girls.  

Flawless (1999)
Actor: Phillip Seymour Hoffman
Role: Rusty

With Phillip Seymour Hoffman being increasingly recognized as one of the finest American actors, we are surprised that more people don’t talk about his complex performance as a drag “artist” in Flawless.  Rusty (Hoffman) lives next door to Walt Koontz (Robert De Niro), a tough, ultraconservative New York cop who suffers a stroke while trying to prevent a crime in their building. When Walt is assigned to a rehabilitation program that includes singing lessons to help recover his speech, he has little choice but to turn to Rusty, who needs money, for help. At first, they bicker, but Rusty tells Walt: “You got a rough break, who didn’t? I see you sitting there all alone, hiding from life. Poor me, poor me, pour me another. Trust me. I’ve been there before, sweetheart. Come upstairs and face the music like the man you’re supposed to be.” Even when the movie takes an unexpectedly dark turn, Hoffman and De Niro work well together, portraying two lost souls who overcome their differences to find comfort and friendship. 

Orlando (1992)
Actor: Tilda Swinton/Quentin Crisp
Role: Orlando/Queen Elizabeth

Based on Virginia Woolf's novel Orlando: A Biography, this film features two very special gender-bending performances. The movie opens in the Elizabethan Age as Queen Elizabeth I (Crisp) lays dying.  The androgynous monarch makes a deal with the equally androgynous Orlando (Swinton) that she will give him land, a castle and a large inheritance as long as he obeys these admonitions: “Do not fade. Do not wither. Do not grow old.” Orlando agrees and lives in isolation for centuries, writing poetry and studying art. When he travels to Constantinople, he magically turns into a woman and faces the threat of losing his home and money because people suspect that Orlando was a woman all along. Sally Potter’s film is a strange but fascinating one, as Orlando, employing a Woolfian device, addresses the audience directly throughout and will seemingly live forever.  

Kinky Boots (2005)
Actor: Chiwetel Ejiofor
Role: Lola

Is there any problem a drag queen can’t solve? Charlie Price (Joel Edgerton) is in trouble. His father bequeaths him a struggling shoe factory that keeps the tiny town of Northampton employed. A chance encounter with Lola (Ejiofor), a fabulous drag queen from London, gives him the brilliant idea to create a line for shoes for men who dress as women. Though some may dismiss this frothy British comedy as silly, Ejiofor’s performance is nuanced and complex. His Lola is a wise figure with a conflicted past who prefers to live as a woman, confessing, “If I put on a frock, I can sing Stand by Your Man in front of five hundred strangers; if I put on a pair of jeans, I can't even sodding well say hello.” Northampton will never be the same. 

M.Butterfly (1993)
Actor: Jonn Lone  
Role: Song Liling

David Cronenberg’s M.Butterfly is a big screen adaptation of David Henry Hwang’s play with the playwright himself providing the screenplay. Jeremy Irons plays Rene Gallimard, a French diplomat in Beijing during the 1960s who becomes infatuated with the Chinese opera sensation, Song Liling (Lone). It is unclear whether Gallimard is unaware of or willfully ignoring the fact that the roles of women in Chinese operas are traditionally played by men. The two have a love affair that lasts for years, made even more complex by Song serving as a spy for the Chinese government. Lone is excellent as a man leading a double life, torn between duty and love. When Song finally reveals himself to Gallimard, both men are surprised at the depth of their feelings. Their tragic romance that began with a double deception changes into something real.

Tomboy (2011)
Actor: Zoé Héran
Role: Laure/Mikael

Featuring a miraculous performance by Zoé Héran, Tomboy features the 10-year-old Laure, who, with her family, moves to a new town over the summer. In a new environment, she decides to introduce herself as “Mikael” to the neighborhood boys and is soon assimilated in their group. Her mother is heavily pregnant and her father is preoccupied, so the only family member that notices is her six-year-old sister, who agrees to keep her secret. As Mikael develops a crush on a girl (and she reciprocates), Mikael goes to even greater lengths to hide her gender. When her family discovers what has been going on, her mother is more disturbed by her lying than her switching gender, leaving the audience with some hope for the child’s future.  

Girls Will Be Girls (2003)
Actor: Jack Plotnick, Clinton Leupp and Jeffery Roberson
Role: Evie/Coco/Varla

If you haven’t seen this movie yet, open another browser and immediately add Girls Will Be Girls to your instant Netflix queue. In this groundbreaking camp movie, every female character (including background extras) is played by a man dressed as woman. The plot focuses on three actresses at various points in their careers. Evie is an aging starlet whose career is derailed by an accident and a lifetime full of addictions. Coco never becomes an actress at all because she falls for her abortionist, even though she longs for a child. Sweet Varla wants to be an actress, like her departed mother, and dreams of getting discovered at the legendary Schwab’s drugstore. Plotnick, as Evie, gets to deliver lines like, “I'm sorry to hear your mother off'd herself… oh, I'm sorry: passed herself away.” If this hilarious movie is not your cup of tea, don’t blame us.

Albert Nobbs opens wide nationwide this Friday, January 27. To find tickets at a theater near you, click here.



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