Friday, August 15, 2014

Addressing the issue of cross-dressing in Hollywood

By Steve Crum
Two occurrences prompted my writing about actors cross-dressing on TV and in movies: the recent death of Robin Williams, and this week’s Entertainment Weekly cover that features Kevin Spacey in drag. Williams’ arguably best film role is that of the title character in Mrs. Doubtfire, which features him in a dual role of father/ex-husband who has lost child custody and chooses to pose as an elderly female nanny to be near his kids. The film is both hilarious and touching, and Robin Williams is brilliant.
The Kevin Spacey gag cover is his impression of Vice-President Selina Meyer (played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus) from the TV show Veep. An alternate cover for the same issue showcases Louis-Dreyfus dressed as Spacey’s President Frank Underwood in House of Cards, another hit television show. Tit for the proverbial tat. 
Cross-dressing has been around since the beginning of motion pictures and television. Glancing further back, I would not be surprised if cavemen sometimes dressed as cavewomen. There has to be a Neanderthal joke here somewhere.
Although I am not much of a fan of cross-dressing extremists like RuPaul and the like, there are some c-d bits and sequences that have made me laugh. I think the key is the c-d is done either by comedians or very good actors in the context of a script. A guy merely dressed like a babe, singing like Judy Garland, or traipsing around a stage like a female model is novelty at best. Transgender or not, his drag bit is a drag. 
Listed in no particular order, here are my favorite cross-dressing memories (or mammaries) throughout TV and movie history. This is not a definitive listing. These are my picks.
•JULIE ANDREWS—Victor/Victoria (1982)…Andrews is superb as a Depression era talent in Paris who finds fame posing as a man posing as a woman singer. To make matters hilariously more complicated, James Garner’s hoodlum character falls for her/him/her.  
•BOB HOPE—The Princess and the Pirate (1944)…Hope poses as a woman to avoid being hurt. He also dresses in drag in Casanova’s Big Night (1954), The Lemon Drop Kid (1951), and several other flicks. In many comedies, Hope’s included, the leading male comic dons a wig and dress to elude the bad guys. 
•MILTON BERLE—from his Texaco Star Theater and onward (1948-throughout his long career)…Berle’s frequently portrayed drag queen was so identified with him he repeated it on a classic Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour episode in 1959.
•ROBIN WILLIAMS—Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)…Williams is simply hilarious, from accidentally setting his (Mrs. Doubtfire’s) breasts on fire while cooking to his frantic quick changes at the restaurant. 
•CURLY HOWARD of The Three Stooges—Uncivil Warriors (1935)…Romancing a Yankee general; and Micro-Phonies (1945)…Lip synching a record by a female opera singer.
•JACK LEMMON and TONY CURTIS—Some Like It Hot (1959)…In 1920’s Chicago, two musicians witness The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, and are soon on the run in an all-female band. But “nobody’s perfect.” 
•CARY GRANT—I Was a Male War Bride (1949)…Grant dresses as Ann Sheridan’s French female friend officer so he can return to the United States with his wife (Sheridan) during WWII. 
•TOM HANKS and PETER SCOLARI—Bosom Buddies (1980-82)…An entire series was inspired by Some Like It Hot, except this is set in an all-female boarding house in which the two young men are living out of desperation. 
•HARVEY LEMBECK—Stalag 17 (1953)…Lembeck gussies up as a makeshift woman to dance with Animal (Robert Strauss) during Christmas in a German POW camp. 
•ALAN HALE with male cast members—This Is The Army (1943)…Irving Berlin’s song, "Ladies of the Chorus," gets cross-dressing laughs.
•JACK BENNY & RAY BOLGER—Charley’s Aunt (1941) & Where’s Charley? (1952 ), respectively…In both Benny’s comedy take and Bolger’s musical comedy version (“Once in Love with Amy”), the stars portray a friend’s proper, dowdy aunt. On TV and stage, Benny occasionally dressed up as Gracie Allen to play comedy opposite George Burns. 
•MARY MARTIN—Peter Pan (1955)…It was an original, live television spectacular when Mary Martin acted, flew, and sang as the boy who never grew up.

•ANTHONY PERKINS—Psycho (1960)…Norman’s murderous momma is shown from above, in silhouette, and through a shower curtain at various times throughout Alfred Hitchcock’s chilling thriller, but he/she is finally seen in closeup during the basement scene near the end. 
•TIM CURRY—The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)…Curry’s transvestite from Transsexual, Transylvania is a highlight of this cult musical comedy. 
•DUSTIN HOFFMAN—Tootsie (1982)…He can only get a job acting in a soap opera if he is a woman, so Hoffman’s character dresses and acts (very well!) as a woman. 
•BARBRA STREISAND—Yentl (1983)…Babs plays a Polish Jew in early 1900’s who poses as a male to study the Talmud.
•GWYNETH PALTROW—Shakespeare in Love (1998)…Paltrow’s 16th Century Shakespearean actor won her a Best Actress Oscar.
•MARTIN LAWRENCE—Big Momma’s House (2000)…An FBI agent goes undercover. Lawrence can be very funny, and he is here.
•EDDIE MURPHY—The Nutty Professor (1996) as Granny Klump + the same role in the 2000 sequel. Murphy should have been Oscar nominated for brilliantly playing Granny and a half dozen other characters. Credit the makeup man as well. Tyler Perry’s Madea character was reportedly inspired by Murphy’s Granny Klump.
•GLENN CLOSE —Albert Nobbs (2011)…To make more money as a male butler in a posh 19th Century Irish hotel, she dresses the part. Close was Oscar nominated.
•BUSTER KEATON—Sherlock Jr. (1924)…Buster briefly wears dress and scarf to help him escape. Buster also went drag during The Hollywood Revue of 1929.
•MARLENE DIETRICH—Morocco (1930)…Dietrich, as cabaret singer Amy Jolly, wears a tuxedo, which turns on Gary Cooper’s legionnaire character. The very thought of her in a tux caused a minor sensation in 1930.
•STAN LAUREL (1934)—The March of the Wooden Soldiers aka Babes in Toyland…Stan dresses as a woman to trick the villain. He became a ballerina in 1943’s The Dancing Masters. In fact, Laurel posed as women in numerous movies. 
•LIONEL BARRYMORE (1936)—The Devil Doll…Barrymore plays a murderous ex-con who hides as an old woman, sending out shrunken humans to kill his enemies.
•LON CHANEY—The Unholy Three (1925 silent and 1930 talkie)…”The Man of a Thousand Faces” plays both Prof. Echo and elderly Mrs. O’Grady, so disguised to help Echo and his gang perpetrate robberies. 
•ELIZABETH TAYLOR—National Velvet (1944)…Taylor’s Velvet Brown disguises herself as a male jockey so she can ride in a steeplechase. 
•LOU COSTELLO—Abbott and Costello Meet The Killer, Boris Karloff (1949)…Lou is dressed as the hotel maid to hide from Karloff and associates.
•ALEC GUINESS—Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)—One of Guiness’s many disguises is that of the distinguished, daffy Lady Agatha D’Ascoyne.
•CHRISTOPHER HEWITT—The Producers (1968)…As c-d director Roger De Bris, Hewitt (later TV’s Mr. Belvedere) is expectedly flamboyant and funny. 
•JOHN TRAVOLTA—Hairspray (2007)…Edna Turnblad is a major part of this musical comedy, and Travolta carries that big momma persona well. 
•JOHNNY DEPP—Ed Wood (1994)…In character, Depp dresses as a woman in a couple of scenes.
•HARVEY KORMAN—Korman’s buxom Jewish woman popped up in multiple sketches on The Carol Burnett Show (1967-77).

•FLIP WILSON—Geraldine Jones on his Flip Wilson Show (1970-74)…His/her catchphrase was “The devil made me buy this dress!”
•KENAN THOMPSON—Saturday Night Live (2003-14)…Thompson has hilariously played a variety of characters, including female.
•JAMIE FARR—M*A*S*H (1972-83)…While Farr’s Corporal Klinger repeatedly tried to get out of the Army by dressing as a woman, he eventually gave up. Then he married a Korean woman.  
An addendum: Radio had its own c-d star. Actually, he was a cross-talker since radio was an audio medium. Beulah featured a black maid, Beulah, who was voiced by Marlin Hurt, a white male. When the show was later renamed The Marlin Hurt and Beulah Show, Hurt did both Beulah’s voice as well as her white male employer. 

No, I did not forget ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, who voiced the very astute female Effie Klinker in addition to male dummies Charley McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd.

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