Cross-dressing in Film
Today’s release of ALBERT NOBBS on premium rental (before it comes out on DVD) gives us a chance to reflect on how cross-dressing functions as a dramatic element in contemporary film. We’ll skip the fascinating history of Shakespeare’s male actors filling the women’s roles and other Elizabethan traditions, in order to focus on how cross-dressing in films of the last thirty years.
ALBERT NOBBS is remarkable for performances by Glenn Close and Janet McTeer as women passing in 19th century Dublin as men. It’s the virtuoso acting of two of Hollywood’s finest (and beautiful) stars – who deserved the Oscar nominations they received – that gives this film its power. We love to see great acting, and this film delivers it on a silver platter.
With its Irish setting, ALBERT NOBBS introduces one clear distinction between cross-dressing in films from Europe and from America. Here in the U.S., films generally dress men as women to be funny – as in TOOTSIE (1982), starring Dustin Hoffman, or DIARY OF A MAD BLACK WOMAN (2005) starring Tyler Perry and the MADEA films Perry has also made.
In contrast, European films are more likely to use cross-dressing as a way of going below the surface of complex human emotions. The Irish drama, THE CRYING GAME (1992), looks at the depths of love – can love survive terrorism and gender/sexual taboo? The British film ORLANDO (1992) uses a novel by Virginia Woolf to imagine a character whose gender shifts from male to female, in this beautiful art film starring the amazing Tilda Swinton. Likewise, the Belgian film MA VIE EN ROSE (1997) considers gender through the vantage of a six-year-old boy who believes he should be a girl.
Alfred Hitchcock even used a transvestite in MURDER! (1930) to fool the audience in one of his early murder mystery films (set in a circus), made while the director still worked in his native England.
There are so many films with cross-dressing -- read more here. Some of these films aren’t available in digital format, some are out of print, and many are terrific films worth watching. ALBERT NOBBS is a great place to begin.