It’s been nearly seven years since I wrote this piece, and I was asked to revisit it this year, so I was honestly prepared for the worst to look at it with eyes that have been opened a little bit more in the time since I put this together. To my surprise, I still stand by most of it — the biggest issues I have with it is that I’d used the phrase “transgendered,” which I asked our editor to remedy, and that I forgot to mention Rosa Von Praunheim’s excellent CITY OF LOST SOULS, which you should definitely check out for the performances of Jayne County and Angie Stardust.
I realize parts of the piece can come off as a little bit dismissive, but it’s not meant to be a study of how gender identities are portrayed on screen, only a list of characters that have non-traditional gender identities that I find personally compelling. Some of them (hell, most of them) are misguided and wouldn’t be acceptable in a film now — though who the hell knows, Walter Hill’s THE ASSIGNMENT has some of the most bizarre ideas of trans identity I’ve ever seen and that just came out three years ago. But even the transphobic portrayals of a character in a film can be fascinating, noting how non-traditional gender identities were actively feared or mocked so routinely for so long, and how a committed actor can bring pathos to a role that the filmmakers may have dismissed as an easy application of the “transsexual killer” archetype. (See Lincoln Kilpatrick in TOGETHER BROTHERS for a great example of this.)
There are still a few things I would change — I’d delve deeper into the reasons behind the SILENCE OF THE LAMBS protests, for one thing, and I probably give SLEEPAWAY CAMP more credit than it deserves, but I do think it still hands out as highlighting some fantastic performances that still haven’t gotten their due. (Someone please release MASCARA on Blu-ray!) I hope this list stands as a celebration of the performers that are listed on it — and the characters they portrayed, whether they be good, bad, or ugly.
Barbara Walters may have chosen her most fascinating people of the year, but we here at Daily Grindhouse are far from impressed. After all, none of them are secret agents, ninjas, homicidal maniacs or vengeful strippers. (Well, maybe Kim Kardashian.) And even more upsetting is the fact that all of her “fascinating” people are split along traditional gender binary lines. Boring!
While the battles for transgender rights are still being fiercely fought all across the world, exploitation film has long been a source of characters with genders that are more on the malleable side. And unlike most mainstream films, it’s not uncommon for the transgender character to be a lead, or at least the central focus of the events that happen in the film, and often they’re the most fascinating presence on screen.
Okay, so most those leads happen to be “murderers” or “victims” and most of those events happen to be “murders,” but that’s a small price to pay to be the dramatic center of attention. After all, what’s a good psychotronic movie without a little bloodshed? At least those with questionable gender identities bring a little mystery into the situation.
With that in mind, I’ve put together a list of the top 50 gender-bending characters in psychotronic film. I didn’t want to define the characters as “transgender,” because when you’re dealing with possessed dolls and aliens, the term tends to lose a little bit of its meaning. I specifically list only gender-bending characters, rather than performances, so the likes of the Cockettes, GIRLS WILL BE GIRLS, RuPaul in STARBOOTY, Oscar winner Linda Hunt in THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY, Charles Busch and, most notably, Divine aren’t presented here, as while the actors involved were male, the characters they played were cis-females.
In order to limit the listing to psychotronic film, I had to make some judgment calls, so a film had to either have genre components (Murder! Outer space! Secret agents!) or be obscure enough to qualify as a cult film – hence, why favorites like THE ADVENTURES OF PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT or HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH didn’t make the cut. Essentially I took the stance that any film that wouldn’t look out of place in an issue of “Psychotronic Video” or “Shock Cinema” could be included. I also tried to trim “joke” characters in which their non-traditional gender identification is meant purely as a source of mockery rather than a distinct character attribute. Unless they were really funny.
As it is, trimming the list down to 50 was troublesome enough, as I couldn’t find a place for such notable performances as Peaches Christ in ALL ABOUT EVIL (written and directed by her male self, Joshua Grannell), Christopher Morley in FREEBIE AND THE BEAN, Alexis Arquette in KILLER DRAG QUEENS ON DOPE, Scott Baker in NEW YORK’S FINEST or James Cousins in THE ANNIVERSARY, among others. I tried to get a mixture of portrayals, ranging from androgynous anarchists to classic killers in drag to a couple guys that just like to feel a little lady-like sometimes, from films that you’ve seen a hundred times to films that I hope you’ve never heard of.
(Final note: As a character’s transgender nature is often the “shocking twist” at the end of a film, this list contains spoilers galore. A majority of these, however, are for movies that are commonly known enough that the “spoiler” nature of the reveal is pretty minimal. And, seriously, nobody watches Brian DePalma films because of the intricate plotting.)
Without further ado, let’s bring out our girls! And boys! And all of the stuff in between.
50. “Chick With a Dick”
PINK FLAMINGOS (1972)
Elizabeth Coffey’s character doesn’t have a name. She doesn’t have any dialogue. She’s on screen for about ten seconds in all, easily the least amount of screen time of any character on this list. David Lochary’s Raymond Marble just wants to be a regular old peeping tom when he spots the beautiful Coffey in the park and whips his sausage out of his pants. In typical John Waters trickery, Coffey has a surprise in store for him, quickly exposing her perfectly healthy (and real) penis to him. Lochary and Coffey’s subsequent reactions are a thing of Waters-esque beauty.
Coffey was in the process of going through a sex-change operation at the time, and had not yet had her male appendage taken care of, creating one of the most hilarious slights of hand in any underground comedy. Transsexual characters have, as you’ll see, a long history in genre films, but virtually none give away the full monty, and even fewer manage to be funny, letting the character have the quick upper hand.
HIDE AND GO SHRIEK (1987)
Zach may be the most ill-conceived character on this list, and not because he’s a murderer. Much of HIDE AND GO SHRIEK is spent with a group of eight high school students who spend the night in a department store, as they pair off and do various sexy things before starting to get murdered. In the climax, the murderer is revealed to be Zach, the prison lover of the store’s newest employee, who has come back to reclaim his love.
HIDE AND GO SHRIEK is one of the few slasher films to feature equal-opportunity nudity, as there’s just as many male buns on display as bared breasts, so there’s a certain queerness already in place by the time you get to the reveal, but Zach’s identity is so clunky that it quickly loses any points that GLAAD might have given it. Zach dresses in drag for the murders on occasion, and wears leather, and make-up, and breaks down crying when his ex reveals that he doesn’t want him anymore instead of going on a good old fashioned crazed rampage. Zach is like every transsexual murderer cliché mixed up into one character, and that character is even so inept that he fails to kill a majority of his potential victims. Kubay tries his best, but the character is so incoherent and useless that it’s basically unsalvageable save for curiosity. It’s not bothersome that Zach is a gender-bending homicidal maniac – it’s that he’s such a crappy one.
THE NEWLYDEADS (1988)
THE NEWLYDEADS is a fairly routine (and fairly awful) slasher flick about a murdered female impersonator who returns from the grave to off honeymoon couples staying at a resort. However, director Joseph Merhi, the founder of direct-to-video staples PM Entertainment and City Lights Home Video, had a good sense for casting.
Actor Scott Kaske spends most of the movie under a wad of horrible burn make-up and isn’t really given anything to do, but at least he was an actual female impersonator at the time, as “Dolly Levi” in Las Vegas. Kaske is still active today as part of California’s Dreamgirls Revue, and while “Jackie” isn’t much of a role, it’s still one of the only slasher films in which where you’re actively rooting for the killer mostly because he’s the closest thing to a sympathetic character, even if that may hardly have been Merhi’s original intent.
STRIPPED TO KILL (1987)
On the surface, the killer reveal to Katt Shea’s stripper serial killer flick falls along the same lines as HIDE AND GO SHRIEK – oh, yawn, another transgendered murderer. However, STRIPPED TO KILL’s oddball finale, in which we discover that the killer is actually one of the strippers, or actually the stripper’s brother, who’s been impersonating her with convincing fake boobs after killing her when she threatened to move away with her girlfriend, works partially because it’s unexpected and partially because actress Kamakahi, in her only film, manages to be convincing and even attractive in either gender.
The movie itself is a bit of a mess, as Shea’s intent to make interesting characters and situations out of the setting of a low-rent strip club managed by Norman Fell comes across only in fleeting doses, as the editing seems to hurry these scenes along in order to get to the stripper sequences. Word is that Ruben originally sent producer Roger Corman a much longer cut that was reduced to emphasize the stripping – one wonders how good STRIPPED TO KILL would have been if that cut had actually been released.
46. Albert Rose/Rose Albert and Dominita
(Leslie Marlowe and Dorian Wayne)
SHE-MAN: A STORY OF FIXATION (1967)
Bob Clark has one of the strangest filmographies in cinema history, ranging from A CHRISTMAS STORY to RHINESTONE to BLACK CHRISTMAS to SUPERBABIES: BABY GENIUSES 2, but there’s no stranger enigma in his history than SHE-MAN, a low-budget psychothriller about a military man blackmailed into the world of drag. After a heavy-handed introduction about how the events we’re about to see are presented to give us “a better understanding of our fellow man,” we are introduced to Albert, a playboy Korean War vet whom we’re told has a domineering father and a submissive mother. Albert, however, was a war deserter, and when approached by tough-as-nails ruler of her domain Dominita, he agrees to join her roster of multi-gendered servants as a female maid in order for his secret to stay concealed.
While the acting is pretty poor (even for a pseudo-roughie), the leads weren’t unknown — Marlowe and Wayne were both noteworthy female impersonators, and both seem quite comfortable in their ladygarments. Wayne in particular is great fun to watch as the psychologically abusive Dominita, and she’d actually be convincing enough as a woman if it weren’t for her voice. Dominita’s deep, slyly effeminate tones would suggest a drag queen, or at least Stockard Channing, to anyone born after 1960, but it’s certainly possible that viewers in 1967 found the final twist of Dominita’s true gender shocking. In any case, SHE-MAN is a compellingly weird little movie, one of the few moments where the worlds of drag and low-budget exploitation film collided.
45. The “Exotic” Adrian Street
GRUNT! THE WRESTLING MOVIE (1985)
Technically a great deal of professional wrestling could be considered a form of drag, as musclebound men wear ridiculously over-the-top outfits in order to accentuate their flamboyant characters. Adrian Street, however, took the performance and costume to another level, gleefully embracing the glamour of it all and even recording the song “Sweet Transvestite with a Broken Nose.” The hetero-married Street had a history of unrepentantly fabulous antics, dating back to his appearance in Pasolini’s THE CANTERBURY TALES, and established his effeminate identity as a response to fan ridicule, figuring that if they’re going to laugh at you for being fabulous, you might as well go all the way.
In Allan Holzman’s GRUNT!, a surprisingly funny SPINAL TAP of the ‘80s wrestling world, Street plays a wrestler with a talk show on which the lead, The Mask, appears. Street and The Mask later team up in the climax, and the film manages to be without the hint of homophobia as Street kicks ass in the ring. He’s allowed to be a voraciously glitzy omnisexual without any character poking fun at his “femininity,” a fascinating representation of just how joyously anarchic the ‘80s age of pro wrestling was.
44. Bearded Lady
“When I arrived here, I was nothing like I am now,” The Bearded Lady, played by Mr. T as, essentially, Mr. T but with women’s clothes, announces during the scene where all of the freaks tell their stories. “I was confused; a walking contradiction, and I was so full of questions.” Defensive when mad scientist Elijah Skuggs (Randy Quaid) tells him he’d look a lot better without a dick, he’s okay with the idea when Skuggs tells him he can keep the beard.
If you were forced to write a paper on FREAKED, you could get something out of The Bearded Lady’s gender-bending as a statement on the meaning of masculinity, and how it comes from appearance rather than genitalia. That would, however, be stupid, as a fully-bearded and mohawked Mr. T playing a lady giving beauty tips is just naturally funny.
WOLF GIRL (2001)
Christoph/Christine, a performer whose gender is split down the middle of his/her body, isn’t a major character in Thom (BEEFCAKE) Fitzgerald’s underrated drama, but s/he doesn’t have to be – s/he’s played by Grace Jones. Among the many folk who populate the wandering show of oddities run by Tim Curry and featuring the title character, a young woman (Victoria Sanchez) who wants to be rid of her hirsute curse, Christoph/Christine gets the chance to perform two musical numbers, one the memorable “Each Story Has Two Sides,” featuring a pair of stripping backup dancers whose climactic reveal surprises the hell out of the audience.
The enthralling Jones has only made a few films, but she stands out in all of them, and WOLF GIRL is certainly no exception. Even in her brief supporting role, she emerges as a fully-formed character, serving as a relationship advisor to the Wolf Girl. “My lovers need a sense of humor,” s/he states with a knowing cackle that could only come from Grace Jones.
42. Hershe Las Palmas
ESCAPE FROM L.A. (1997)
Like Christoph, Hershe Las Palmas is another piece of brilliantly gimmicky casting, and like everything else in John Carpenter’s batshit ESCAPE FROM L.A., any similarities to anything to be taken seriously are purely coincidental. It’s over an hour into the film before Pam Grier’s ass-kicking gang leader shows up, and when it’s revealed that she was once “Carjack” Malone, a former associate of Snake Plissken, it’s pretty much just par for the course.
With her brilliant-yet-silly name, Hershe’s gender-swap could have easily been played like a joke, but she’s never treated like one by the other characters, and Grier sells the hell out of the role during her brief screen time. Sure, she doesn’t make it out of the film alive, but few do, and she easily ranks as the second-best African-American transsexual gang leader to be part of a plan to attack their enemies by firing machine guns from personalized flying devices in film history.
(Alexandra Bastedo/Manuel de Blas)
I HATE MY BODY (1974)
When womanizing Ernesto gets in a car accident with the secretary he’s about to bang, his passenger ends up dead and he ends up at a clinic that seems to be run by a crazed doctor. The doc then transplants his brain into the body of beautiful woman Leda because of, er, science or something (also, he was a Nazi) and Ernesto/Leda, realizing what has happened, escapes the clinic, setting fire to the doctor on the way. After confronting his/her wife for daring to actually get the insurance money and find comfort after his supposed death, Leda tries to start a new life but soon finds that the world is full if misogynists that won’t let a lady get ahead in the world. Also, she apparently has a son that she bolts away from as soon as she learns of his existence. In the end, it looks as though Leda is finally going to start a life (by, naturally, blackmailing the wife) and she gets gang-raped and left for dead when she tries to defend herself. The end!
I HATE MY BODY, directed by frequent Paul Naschy collaborator Leon Klimovsky, is a strange mess of sleaze, a weird exploitation flick that wants to make a point about misogyny while simultaneously wallowing in it, as Leda quickly attempts hooking up with her female roommate and a long scene is devoted to her beating the hell out of her ex-wife. While Bastedo is eye-catching as Leda, the film is narrated by de Blas’s Ernesto personality, who even appears during some cut-aways when Leda is experiencing some particularly emotional moments (mostly sex). It’s a mess, sure, and it’s neither sleazy nor focused enough to be more than a curiosity, but it’s still fairly watchable thanks primarily to Leda’s shocked reactions to every single event that happens to her.
See you back here tomorrow for #40-31!
- JIM WYNORSKI RETURNS WITH THE CREATURE FEATURE ‘GILA’ - May 1, 2014