Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Transamerica review

Felicity Huffman’s performance in Transamerica has already been praised to the skies, but it’s worth looking again at how difficult a role this must have been. We’ve seen actors playing people who masquerade as members of the opposite sex (eg Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie), we’ve even seen actors actually playing members of the opposite sex (eg Linda Hunt, who won a best supporting actress Oscar for her performance as a man in The Year of Living Dangerously). Both types of performances are demanding enough, but in a sense they require just one degree (albeit one huge degree) of separation between the character and the performer’s real self – and the characters being portrayed are “complete men” or “complete women”.

What Huffman has to do here is more complex, more layered and it must have been personally disturbing. She plays a character whose “body is a work-in-progress” – a man (Steven) who has always felt like a woman, wanted to be a woman, and who is now halfway through the process of transforming himself into a woman (Bree). At the point where the film begins, most of the hormonal changes have been set into motion and all that’s left is the final surgery – which means Huffman doesn’t have the actors’ luxury of playing the part in drag; of hiding behind a mask. She has to be herself physically (more or less: make-up is used to make her face seem less feminine and allow us to imagine what Steven must have looked like as a man) – but at the same time she has to convey male habits and tics accumulated over decades, plus the awkwardness of a transition period where all those tics must be unlearnt. The more conventional decision would have been to have a male actor play this role (it would, among other things, allow the actor greater scope for showing off in the more obvious ways). But Huffman does a better job than I can imagine any other performer (of either sex) doing. She carries the film from beginning to end.

Transamerica is engrossing all the way through, but a bit uneven. For much of its duration it’s a nicely paced road movie, built on the gradual development of a key relationship. Then it sinks briefly into The Addams Family territory, but comes gasping to the surface just in time to provide an ending that is neither too maudlin nor a cop-out. The film is hampered slightly by the inscrutability of the other main character – the 17-year-old son Bree never knew she had, a delinquent named Toby whom she bails out of jail and takes on a cross-country trip from New York to Los Angeles (he doesn’t know who she is). Toby is hard to get a fix on, and I’m not sure whether the fault lies in the script or in Kevin Zegers’ strange, two-dimensional performance. You sense he’s a little boy at heart, a kid who’s had to grow up too soon - during the drive with Bree he seems to enjoys the chance to drop his defences. But when the more street-wise side to his character emerges, it seem at odds with that other personality – almost too conniving.

The introduction of Bree’s crazy family - the mother in particular a shrill, overbearing caricature – also poses a bit of a problem. One understands the point the film is trying to make here: that compared to these people, the transsexual is the one who’s normal, living a life of dignity, relatively sure of her place in the world. But in another sense, by showing us that Steven/Bree came from this background in the first place, the film can also be read as suggesting that his leanings are the result of a troubled childhood.

Ultimately, however, Transamerica succeeds in showing how harmful it is to expect people to stay in their pre-defined roles for all time – to never step out of their little compartments or grow into other roles. It’s a theme that shows up in a minor key through the film – as in the scene where Toby is surprised, almost offended, to see an American Indian (Graham Greene in a neat cameo) wearing a cowboy hat. (“Keeps the sun out of my eyes better than a band and two eagle feathers would,” the Indian explains with Clint Eastwood-like taciturnity.) And of course it permeates the film through Huffman’s performance, which helps us see Bree not as a deviant but as someone we can immediately relate to.

One thing I haven’t mentioned is how funny the film is in its own quiet way – especially in the running joke involving Bree’s efforts to correct Toby’s grammar (“Hustling is degrading, not degradable!”) and in the (admittedly clichéd) depiction of Middle America’s White Trash. Also, though there is no prolonged nudity, there are a couple of brief scenes (including one with a prosthetic) that are quite graphic and disturbing – and I find it interesting that the film is being released (presumably uncensored) in multiplexes in Delhi. I went for a preview screening where few others were present but I wouldn’t mind being a fly on the wall at a regular show with lots of clueless college kids in attendance!


  1. yeah; i generally agree that Huffman's performance (and makeup) was quite good. I especially appreciated the opening scene of the movie, where we have Huffman watching a video on how to sound feminine. Her vocals were admirably gender-vague. (the movie's soundtrack was also very nice, extremely well-thought out, and well-timed.)

    However, would it have killed the filmmakers to put a transgendered actress in the role of the transgendered woman? It's the gender version of blackface, as far as I am concerned. One of the very few movies out there about transgender issues, and it's played by a straight woman.

    Also a comment on "helps us see Bree not as a deviant but as a completely believable human being":

    When did deviants become inhuman?

  2. Sony pony: thanks for pointing that out - have reworded the sentence.

    I'm not sure that it matters so much whether the part is played by a transgendered actress or a straight woman - given that Huffman has done so well by the role. Also, casting her (in light of her popularity from Desperate Housewives) was the filmmakers' stab at injecting some commercial appeal. Nothing wrong with that if the resultant performance is so good.

  3. This seems to be the year of the sexual minority as far as the Oscars are concerned -- what with Transamerica and Brokeback Mountain both in running for Best Film.

  4. Transamerica isn't a best picture nominee. But yes, generally speaking there has been a sexual-minority buzz this year.

  5. Thought your point on having Huffman play it instead of a male really interesting. Was thinking of why-not-a-male lead when I was already into your post, and there you were...

    My point, now that I'm making it, seems really silly: Isnt there always a somewhat ok-will-grant-you-a-handicap attitude when you watch a transsexual depiction on screen? As if you kind of give a leeway for an actor playing the role?

    Haven't watched too many of those. But apart from what you've mentioned, I suddenly thought of Nathan Lane's portrayal of Albert in "Birdcage". Albeit, he is a drag queen partner (easier to play, as you said) to a gay guy... But when I saw Albert, I thought his activities were more like antics. I unconsciouly stopped judging him because neither he nor me would know what the perfect depiction of such a character should be like, as in how such a person would be/feel/think in real life... Then again, Albert is what I remember most in that film


    BTW, always admired you as one of the rare sincere and honest bloggers... aaargh, two heavy words