However, aside from cross-dressing farces like I Was A Male War Bride (1949) or Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959), which popularized the term “transvestite” and co-wrote the first explicitly gay film, Different from the Others (1919), there is little that could be called transgender cinema before the 1960s (1959).
When it comes to movies, television, newspapers, etc., trans women tend to get more attention than trans men. This may be because the concept that people would willingly give up their masculine privilege mystified men who controlled the western media. A few years later, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) was released, based on Robert Bloch’s novel about serial killer Ed Gein (who killed more than a dozen women and used their skins to make a vest) and Ed Woods’ Glen or Glenda (1953), a semi-autobiographical story based on the fame of American transsexual woman Christine Jorgensen. Films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), and Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill based on Gein set the precedent for portraying trans individuals as psychopaths (1980).
Transgender actors and actresses were frequently used by indie filmmakers in the 1960s, even if they weren’t always playing trans characters. Mario Montez, Ron Rice, and Andy Warhol all appeared in short films by Jack Smith, including Flaming Creatures (1963) and Normal Love (1963). While Pedro Almodóvar and Rosa von Praunheim played transgender persons in trans parts in Europe later, popular cinema continues to cast non-trans people in trans roles, most recently Jared Leto’s Oscar-winning performance in Dallas Buyers Club as Rayon as a recent example, it is still exceptional (2013).
Here is a look at ten films with transgender characters over the last half-century. It lacks von Praunheim’s trans/queer musical City of Lost Souls (1983) and a slew of others, but it provides a fast-paced look at how trans people have been portrayed on the big screen throughout the years.
1. Women in Revolt (1971)
Paul Morrissey’s Women in Revolt did not deal with trans issues, but it was made as a response to SCUM (Society for Cutting Up Men) Manifesto author Valerie Solanas’s attempt to assassinate AndyWarhol at the Factory.
P.I.G. or Politically Involved Girls, a feminist group broken apart by infighting, personal ambition, and a lack of cohesive aims, is the organization that Candy Darling, Holly Woodlawn, and Jackie Curtis lead in this episode. However, it is Darling who shines as their self-appointed and self-interested leader, reproached for her corrupt intentions at the film’s end. Mary Harron’s biopic of Solanas, I Shot Andy Warhol (1996), is a wonderful companion piece to Women in Revolt and Warhol’s previous works. Darling was represented compassionately by Stephen Dorff in the film.
2. In a Year of 13 Moons (1978)
It is said that Rainer Werner Faßbinder’s films are typically depressing, but few are as depressing as In a Year of 13 Moons, which the filmmaker wrote as a ‘hate letter’ to Frankfurt and as a way to deal with his sadness and guilt over the suicide of his ex-lover Armin Meier in 1978.
After the guy she loved, Anton Saitz, told her that he would love her “if you were a woman,” this movie follows Elvira, a woman who was once Erwin and underwent sex-reassignment surgery in Casablanca. It begins with strangers beating Elvira and then an ex-boyfriend humiliating her, and it gets increasingly distressing until its brutal conclusion. Everyone Elvira ever cared about rejected her. Transgender people find it particularly challenging because of the link Fassbinder makes between surgery and butchery, but it’s also an eye-opening exposition of social obstacles for gender-variant persons of its time.
3. Paris Is Burning (1990)
With wit, empathy, and humor, Jennie Livingston’s documentary about African-American and Latino persons who competed in New York’s glitzy balls examines race and class, sexuality, and gender. In Paris Is Burning, the communities formed by candidates who had finally found a place where their diversity was cherished rather than ridiculed are shown as they parade down a runway, being judged on the’realness’ of their clothing and their dancing talents.
As they battle to exist in a “rich, white society,” participants openly discuss racism, homophobia, transphobia, poverty, and the AIDS problem, getting kicked out of their homes, shoplifting, or becoming sex workers. Venus Xtravaganza was slain on set, and several others died tragically early, but their stories never lose their excitement and inspiration because of this. It’s brimming with magnificent declarations of dissent.
4. The Crying Game (1992)
In 1992, The Crying Game’s promoters fought hard to conceal the film’s iconic “twist,” which turned out to be Dil, played by Jaye Davidson, revealing her genitals. Dil’s lover Fergus (Stephen Rea) learns that she was born male, prompting him to vomit, before their relationship progresses further. The viewer learns this at the same time.
Like in A Year of 13 Moons, Dil finds herself in a love triangle with the IRA member who murdered her previous partner (Forest Whitaker), but she’s lot more assertive in this narrative about a woman who switches genders. Sally Potter’s Orlando adaptation from the same year, as well as The Crying Game, were both examples of mainstream films challenging preconceived notions about transgender persons.
5. The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert (1994)
In The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, a trio of trans actors—Terence Stamp, Hugo Weaving, and Guy Pearce—travel across the outback to revive their old cabaret act on the other side of Australia. It was one of the most important trans-themed films of the 1990s.
Priscilla is at her best when she’s around Bernadette (Stamp), Tick/Mitzi (Weaving) and Adam/Felicia (Pearce) in “everyday” circumstances, where she’s able to respond to discrimination and exclusion with grace and wit. When it comes to dealing with hostile audiences on and off stage, Elliott’s writing takes the characters beyond the traditional stereotypes of performers and makes every action distinctive and yet normal.
6. Ma vie en rose (1997)
The 1997 Best Foreign Film Golden Globe went to Alain Berliner’s film about a kid named Ludo who insists he is actually a female. One of the most sensitive of the 1990s trans film wave, it invited its audience to empathise with the protagonist, who is constantly patronised and told by her parents that her gender is “a phase” and ostracized by her neighbors and her school, with the punishment of their community after letting Ludo wear girls’clothes by their mother and father.
The writers Berliner and Chris Vander Stappen make an excellent job of balancing light and dark in Ludo’s emotional journey. Only Berliner’s understanding of the relevance and simplicity of gender markers for youngsters makes Ma vie en rose so moving. Few could have been left unaffected by the scene where Ludo’s hair was forcibly clipped.
7. Boys Don’t Cry (1999)
There were more trans women in feature films and documentaries in the 1990s, but there was only one significant film that focused on a trans guy by year’s conclusion. On the heels of two friends discovering Brandon Teena’s transgender status in December 1993, Boys Don’t Cry stars Oscar-winning Hilary Swank as Brandon’s effort to fit in with the local boys while keeping his gender identity a secret that results in catastrophe, which his town blames him for.
Boys Don’t Cry, like Kate Davis’ 2001 documentary Southern Comfort about trans man Robert Eads, explores issues of exclusion and prejudice by challenging audiences to comprehend the challenges faced by the film’s subject. An vital record of transgender life in a certain period and place, even if it is painful.
8. All about My Mother (1999)
With Carmen Maura playing transsexual Tina in Law of Desire and Bibiana Fernández playing her niece in the film of the same name, Pedro Almodóvar frequently featured trans people in his films and was known for his progressive approach to casting (1987).
My Mother, All About My Mother was Almodóvar’s most in-depth and empathetic study of transgender women. There’s the search for Esteban’s father, who died in a car accident because Manuela didn’t tell him that his father Lola was transgender and that Lola, like Agrado (played by Antonia San Juan), worked in the sex industry. Agrado’s monologue about the price of being “genuine” in a hostile society is the pinnacle of Almodóvar’s elaborately structured and beautifully written masterwork, but throughout it affords trans women a dignity and respect that they had rarely enjoyed in feature films.
9. Wild Side (2004)
Wild Side by Sébastien Lifshitz, a French-language film that premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2004, also features a transsexual sex worker. Stéphanie Michelini, a transgender actress and non-professional actor, portrays the main character, also known as Stéphanie, who goes to her small hometown to care for her sick mother, who continues to use her former name. Two of her roommates, an AWOL Russian soldier and an Algerian street worker, accompany her, and she develops romantic ties with both of them.
After Lou Reed’s song “Walk on the Wild Side,” Wild Side was named after the band’s lead singer Antony Hegarty (now of Anohni), who appeared in an impressionistic, non-chronological fashion. Non-judgmental narrative and cinematography contrast Stéphanie’s grief over her relationship with her mother with the delight she experiences in her ménage à trois with Mikhail and Jamel. Using Michelini’s casting, Wild Side rises above the normal transgender tropes and becomes an eloquent piece of poetry.
10. Transamerica (2005)
However, Duncan Tucker’s picture did not feature a transgender character. After receiving a phone call from her 17-year-old son, Toby, Bree, a transgender woman, sets off on a road journey to visit him in prison in New York.
Transamerica begins with a video of writer and activist Andrea James conducting voice training for trans women, with various scenes showing Bree trying to integrate with trans groups, a problem rarely seen on television. An outstanding grasp of trans issues and trans language is displayed in the script, which James was a consultant on, particularly with Felicity’s struggle to live in “stealth” by not disclosing her gender past. Bree’s body is occasionally used for shocks or laughs, but it’s also tender and never enables her to become a victim of her situation.