Although German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld popularised the word ‘transvestite’ and co-wrote the first explicitly gay film, Different from the Others (1919), before supervising the first sex reassignment operations, there is little which might be called transgender cinema before the 1960s, disregarding cross-dressing farces such as I Was a Male War Bride (1949) or Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959).
Although many of the first transsexual and openly transgender-identified people were trans men, the cinema, like newspapers and television, tended to focus on trans women, perhaps because the idea that people might voluntarily relinquish their male privilege mystified the men who controlled the western media. After Ed Wood’s risible Glen or Glenda (1953), which took the fame of American transsexual woman Christine Jorgensen and turned it into a semi-autobiographical story about a man who liked angora sweaters, came Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), based on Robert Bloch’s novel about serial killer Ed Gein, who killed over a dozen women and made a vest of their skins. The depiction of Norman Bates as a gender-troubled murderer set a template for the portrayal of trans people as psychopaths, with 2 further films based on Gein – The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and The Silence of the Lambs (1991), besides Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill (1980).
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During the 1960s, underground filmmakers cast trans people – and not always in trans roles. Jack Smith put Mario Montez and others in short films such as Flaming Creatures (1963) and Normal Love (1963), as did Ron Rice, and Andy Warhol’s work included actors who challenged the gender binary. Later, in Europe, Pedro Almodóvar and Rosa von Praunheim cast transgender people in transgender roles, but this remains unusual: even when it aims for sympathetic portrayals, popular cinema continues to cast non-trans people in trans roles, most recently Jared Leto’s Oscar-winning turn as Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club (2013).
Below is a selection of 10 trans-themed films from the last 50 years. It’s limited to those easily available on DVD, which sadly excludes von Praunheim’s trans/queer musical City of Lost Souls (1983) and a host of others, but offers a crash course in the changing representation of trans people on the big screen.
Women in Revolt (1971)
Director: Paul Morrissey
Paul Morrissey’s Women in Revolt didn’t deal with trans issues, although it spoofed the US radical feminist movement which often excluded trans women, made as a response to SCUM (Society for Cutting Up Men) Manifesto author Valerie Solanas coming to the Factory and attempting to kill Andy Warhol.
It opens this list because it features the Factory’s 3 trans ‘superstars’ – Candy Darling, Holly Woodlawn and Jackie Curtis – as the leaders of P.I.G. or Politically Involved Girls, a feminist group torn apart by infighting, personal ambition and the lack of coherent goals. Curtis refused to be involved unless Warhol was behind the camera, but Darling in particular shines as their self-appointed, self-interested leader, reproached for her impure motives at the film’s end. Twenty-five years later, Darling was portrayed sensitively by Stephen Dorff in Mary Harron’s biopic of Solanas, I Shot Andy Warhol (1996), which is an excellent companion piece to Women in Revolt and Warhol’s earlier films.
In a Year of 13 Moons (1978)
Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s works were often bleak and few more relentlessly so than In a Year of 13 Moons, conceived as a ‘hate letter’ to Frankfurt and written as the director tried to process his grief and guilt over the death of his former lover, Armin Meier, who killed himself shortly after their relationship ended in 1978.
This film follows Elvira, formerly Erwin, who went to Casablanca for sex reassignment surgery after the man she loved, Anton Saitz, said “I’d love you if you were a woman.” He rejects Elvira, as does everyone she ever cared for: it starts with Elvira being beaten by strangers and then humiliated by a male ex, and becomes progressively more harrowing until its brutal termination. It’s particularly difficult for trans people, not least because of the connection that Fassbinder makes between surgery and butchery, but it’s also an eye-opening exposition of social challenges for gender-variant people of its time.
Paris Is Burning (1990)
Director: Jennie Livingston
Jennie Livingston’s documentary about African-American and Latino people of various gender identities who competed in New York’s glamorous balls explores race, class, sexuality and gender with intelligence, sensitivity and humour. Following entrants who walked down a runway, being judged on the ‘realness’ of their clothes – aiming to “look as much as possible like [our] straight counterparts” – and their dancing skills, Paris Is Burning shows the communities formed by contestants who had finally found a place where their difference was celebrated rather than scorned.
The participants speak candidly about facing racism, homophobia, transphobia, poverty and the AIDS crisis, being thrown out of their homes, shoplifting or becoming sex workers as they struggle to survive in “a rich, white world”. Their stories are often sad – Venus Xtravaganza was murdered during filming, and several others died young – but Paris Is Burning continues to excite and inspire. It’s full of brilliant statements of defiance.
The Crying Game (1992)
Director: Neil Jordan
- Spoiler warning! This section reveals a plot twist
On its release in 1992, The Crying Game’s promoters fiercely protected its famous ‘twist’ – which turned out to be the revelation of the genitalia of its leading lady, Dil, played by Jaye Davidson. The audience learned at the same time as Dil’s lover Fergus (Stephen Rea) that she had been born male, her naked body causing him to vomit, before their relationship evolves further.
Like In a Year of 13 Moons, this is a love story involving someone moving between male and female, but Dil is far less passive, becoming caught up in a love triangle with the IRA member who has killed her previous partner (Forest Whitaker) and emerging with the most power. Alongside Sally Potter’s adaptation of Orlando, released in the same year, The Crying Game was one of several mainstream films to rethink the old stereotypes of trans people, encouraging its audience to empathise with Dil without asking only for sympathy.
The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert (1994)
Director: Stephan Elliott
Starring Terence Stamp, Hugo Weaving and Guy Pearce as a transsexual woman, a transvestite and a drag queen who travel across the outback to resurrect their old cabaret act on the other side of Australia, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert was one of the most significant trans-themed films of the 1990s.
There are plenty of scenes of them performing in clubs and bars, or in front of strangers when their bus broke down in the desert – but Priscilla is smartest and warmest when Bernadette (Stamp), Tick/Mitzi (Weaving) and Adam/Felicia (Pearce) are in ‘everyday’ situations, particularly when responding to prejudice and exclusion with grace and wit. Elliott’s script shows the challenges of appearing before a hostile audience on and off stage, moving the characters beyond stereotypical performers and making everything they do seem special and yet refreshingly normal.
Ma vie en rose (1997)
Director: Alain Berliner
Alain Berliner’s film about Ludo, who is seen as a boy but keeps telling people that she is a girl, won the Golden Globe for best foreign film in 1997. Rightly so, as it was one of the most sensitive of a wave of 1990s trans movies: it invited its audience to empathise with the protagonist, who is constantly patronised, told that her gender is “a phase” by her parents and ostracised by her neighbours and her school, with her mother and father being punished by their community after letting Ludo wear girls’ clothes.
Ludo’s emotional journey is deeply powerful, with writers Berliner and Chris Vander Stappen providing light and darkness in equal measure. Few could be left unmoved by the scene where Ludo’s hair is forcibly cut – above all, Berliner’s grasp of the simplicity of gender markers for children, and their importance, is what makes Ma vie en rose so affecting.
Boys Don’t Cry (1999)
Director: Kimberley Pierce
Trans women became more popular as subjects of feature films and documentaries throughout the 1990s, but it was not until the end of the decade that a major picture centred around a trans man. Based on the true story of Brandon Teena, raped and murdered in Humboldt, Nebraska in December 1993 after 2 acquaintances discovered that he was trans, Boys Don’t Cry starred Oscar-winner Hilary Swank as Brandon, whose struggle to fit in with the local guys while keeping his gender identity secret results in tragedy, for which his community blames him.
Alongside Kate Davis’ 2001 documentary Southern Comfort about trans man Robert Eads, Boys Don’t Cry deals intelligently with exclusion and prejudice, asking viewers to understand the layers of difficulty imposed on its protagonist. It’s ultimately heartbreaking, but an important record of trans living in a particular time and place.
All about My Mother (1999)
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Pedro Almodóvar often used trans subjects and had a progressive attitude to casting, sometimes having cisgender (non-trans) women as trans women and trans women as cisgender women, notably with Carmen Maura playing transsexual Tina and Bibiana Fernández as her niece in Law of Desire (1987).
All about My Mother, focused on femininity and womanhood, was Almodóvar’s most sustained and sensitive look at trans women’s lives. It starts with Manuela’s attempts to find the father of her son Esteban, who died in a road accident – she never told Esteban that his father was a trans woman, Lola, and that Lola, like her transsexual friend Agrado (played by Antonia San Juan), is a sex worker. The highlight of Almodóvar’s intricately plotted and beautifully written masterpiece is Agrado’s monologue, where she talks about the price of being “authentic” in a hostile society, but throughout, it accords trans women a level of dignity and respect that they had rarely experienced in feature films.
Wild Side (2004)
Director: Sébastien Lifshitz
Also focusing on a transsexual sex worker is Wild Side by Sébastien Lifshitz, a French-language film which premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2004. Non-professional actor and trans woman Stéphanie Michelini plays the central character, also called Stéphanie, who returns to her small hometown to look after her sick mother, who still uses her old name. Her flatmates, an AWOL Russian soldier and an Algerian street worker, come with her, and she begins relationships with both men, who are also attracted to each other.
Named after Lou Reed’s famous song, ‘Walk on the Wild Side’, and including a cameo by Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons (now Anohni), Wild Side was impressionistic, telling its story in non-chronological fragments. Its non-judgmental script and cinematography contrast Stéphanie’s sadness about her relationship with her mother with the joy she finds in her ménage à trois with Mikhail and Jamel. Michelini’s casting allows her to move well beyond the usual clichés that established characters as trans, and lifts Wild Side into a subtly defiant piece of poetry.
Director: Duncan Tucker
Unlike Wild Side, Duncan Tucker’s film did not employ a trans woman as its protagonist. It featured Desperate Housewives star Felicity Huffman as transsexual Bree, who goes on a road trip after getting a call from her previously unknown son Toby, 17, jailed in New York.
Although it is very much Huffman’s movie, plenty of trans people feature – Transamerica begins with a recording of writer and activist Andrea James providing voice training for trans women, with several scenes showing Bree attempting to integrate with trans communities, a challenge rarely before shown on screen. The script – on which James was a consultant – displays impressive awareness of the issues that trans people face and the language they use, especially with Felicity struggling to live in ‘stealth’ by not revealing her gender history. It’s sometimes ridiculous and occasionally uses Bree’s body for shocks or laughs, but it’s also often touching, and crucially, never allows her to become a victim.