All of me.
It's true that between Rosalind/Ganymede in As You Like It and Roger/Edwina in All of Me the drag tradition was kept alive in those dark recesses of the id where acting meets acting out. The Hasty Pudding Shows gave Harvard boys a chance to breathe a little fresh air after all those awful winters in the closet. The traveling U.S.O. shows during World War II collected drag royalty from all over the country and put it to work for the duration. Halloween and Mardi Gras still empty the bars into the streets. Odd bits of sexual avant-garde satire, like Gore Vidal's Myra Breckinridge, kept the flame flickering. And every once in a while drag would peek out at a prudish world--Charley's Aunt, Flip Wilson's Geraldine, Uncle Miltie's campy turns--to test the prevailing winds.
But there's a vastly different cultural connotation to the current crop. For one thing, transvestite comedy dominates the scene, takes all the prizes and makes all the money. All of ME, for instance, is widely reported in the pop media as Steve Martin's breakthrough after repeated flops in Woody Allen updates (Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, The Man With Two Brains and The Lonely Guy).
More interesting, however, is the specific content of the drag routines. In all the recent examples, the cross-dresser learns something important about the ways and means of the opposite sex, and about sex in general. Not how they do it--although Martin has a hilarious bit in the men's room when his female soul can't figure out how to handle his male equipment--but how it feels to have a different identity, what it means and what effect gender-directed behavior has on lovers and friends. Dustin Hoffman's Michael/Dorothy in Tootsie finds that the barriers blocking his relationships with his girlfried are miraculously removed with a tasteful swish and a little makeup. Boy George must understand that his popularity with a female audience--from high-school teens to Joan Rivers--is due to the unthreatening figure he presents.
The new drags mock sexual stereotypes more than they ridicule the opposite sex. That was always the function of homosexual drag, but it has not usually been the purpose of straight-female impersonation in show business. Milton Berle's garish girls had no redeeming existential purpose: they were simply devastating insults to women. Craig Rusell's Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland (in his little gem of a film, Outrageous) expressed their pain by mimicking the mannerisms they employed to fulfill men's expectations of the female sex icon.
There's no viciousness in Steve Martin's Roger Cobb. As the story goes, he is already a schizoid spirit, torn by the demands of his life-role as a lawyer and his longings to be a jazz musician. His respectable love relationship with the boss's daughter is impossible, and he can hardly pronounce the terrible "m-word" looming at the end of their affair: m-m-m-m-marriage. When the incredibly rich, terminally invalid Edwina Cutwater (Tomlin) parks her persona in his body, Roger rebels. It's not easy to go about business, in the bedroom as well the courtroom, with a double identity. The funny stuff happens here, but in the end he grows rather fond of his female half, and in a delightful last dance he finds a fantasy to make his gender vacation last forever.
In All of Me, as well as in the other drag movies, simple transvestitism seems to be moving through transsexualism and approaching androgyny. That is, after all, the postmodern ideal: the liberation of human behavior from the prison of gender. Martin's best moment--the one that almost transcends comedy and sends out a shock about the future of sexual roles--comes when Roger's sleeping body is entirely taken over by Edwina's anima, which (because of the plot business) must exhibit masculine manners. So we see Martin doing Tomlin doing Martin; or is it Roger being Edwina Being Roger? It's back to Shakespeare's male actor playing Rosalind playing Ganymede.
What's too bad is the filmmaker's decision to defer Tomlin's talents to Martin's. She is one of the few actresses who can do male impersonations, and the only one who does them well. Tomlin's Tommy Velour (in several television appearances) destroyed Wayne Newton forever, and her job on the late, great Mariv Gaye (with a little Teddy Pendergrass and some Al Green thrown in) is a drag classic. Like Martin, Tomlin needs good roles and good directing to shine, and she deserves better than she was given in All of Me. I had the feeling that director Carl Reiner, who has a wonderful sense of post-Grossinger's humor, could never get the hang of Edwina. For obviouus reasons.