A man in the process of morphing into a woman: The very notion sounds inherently dramatic. But while tabloid TV has been exploiting transsexualism for years--it sometimes seems every pre-op transsexual in America has appeared on one TV talk show or another--Hollywood movies have been much more reticent on the subject.
Both The Christine Jorgensen Story and Myra Breckinridge came out in 1970, but it wasn't until John Lithgow traded in shoulder pads for a Maidenform in his sympathetic performance as Roberta Muldoon in 1982's The World According to Garp that transsexualism went mainstream. That studio foray was followed by occasional independent films such as 1992's The Crying Game, in which Jaye Davidson's secret is that he's saving up for the operation, and 1994's The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, featuring Terence Stamp's own song of Bernadette. Fully realized female-to-male tales have been even fewer. Tilda Swinton blithely switched genders in 1993's Orlando, but her character was more a metaphoric transsexual than a clinical case, while Nebraska murder victim Brandon Teena--whose tragic true-life story will be told in the upcoming Take It Like a Man--never saw the inside of a sex-change clinic at all.
All of which makes it something of a surprise when, in the first reel of the new indie film The Adventures of Sebastian Cole (opening June 25), Hank, the teen hero's regular-guy stepfather, matter-of-factly announces to his family that he has decided to become a woman.
"I did have a close family friend who was a transsexual," explains Tod Williams, the autobiographical movie's writer and a first-time director, "and that was the real inspiration for the movie. I realized I had had almost no reaction. I was probably too self-obsessed back then to realize what was going on."
To portray Hank's low-key transformation into Henrietta, Williams chose New York stage actor Clark Gregg, "the first actor I saw who was willing to play the part and not the dress," the director says.
"I didn't want to play a cross-dressing male," Gregg says. "With Henrietta, what you see is what you get. The cool irony that Tod came up with is that the person who's making the most radical life choices--and who some people might consider, in a simplistic sense, the most flaky--is also the most solid, dependable person in Sebastian's life. I felt like any tremendous level of artifice would only impede Henrietta's ability to be a good parent."
Adds Williams: "The crux of the movie for me was defining that relationship [between Sebastian and Henrietta], finding out what was real about it and how the labels that are attached to it were irrelevant."
That confounding of easy labels is probably one reason so few transsexuals have appeared on film. In the year-end release Flawless, for example, Philip Seymour Hoffman stars as a drag queen, but as director Joel Schumacher explains, "Philip's character doesn't see himself as gay. He doesn't consider himself a man at all, but a woman trapped in a man's body. I know most people find that idea confusing, but I've known people like that, and for them, it's very real."
Kilday is a freelance entertainment reporter who contributes to Premiere and Los Angeles magazines.