If you’ve missed our first two entries in our countdown to the most fascinating gender-bending characters of psychotronic film, check out part 1 here, part 2 here and part 3 here! Today we’ve got another ten plus bodies that won’t be boxed in by binary boyhood, with anarchists, space explorers, filmmakers and, of course, murderers! As before, there are spoilers here for some last-minute trans-formative climaxes, so be wary!
While the top 20 are firmly in place, feel free to e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know what folks I’m missing, what I got wrong, or fashion tips.
20. Paul/”Aunt Martha”
Sometimes Aunt Martha Does Dreadful Things (1971)
Sometimes?!? Aunt Martha is constantly doing dreadful things in this Florida obscurity about lovers Paul and Stanley, who retreat from Baltimore to the Sunshine State after a robbery. Paul assumes the title identity of a frumpy woman who dotes on her “nephew” Stanley (JAKE SPEED’s Wayne Crawford) in order to disguise themselves, but when Stanley starts doing drugs with local ladies, it’s up to “Aunt Martha” to take control after Paul freaks out by the suggestion of heterosexual sex.
Made during an era where the intended audience, it’s assumed, just wanted something sleazy, AUNT MARTHA is a wild curiosity with some jaw-dropping twists and brief roles by FLESH FEAST director Brad Grinter and BLOOD FEAST’s William Kerwin. And at the heart of it all is Abe Zwick as Paul, who’s not just a garden-variety psychopath but a manipulative mastermind, though when your prey is so stupid that they have to have their name painted on the door of the van in order to know which side to get in, it’s not that hard to do. It’s Zwick’s only film credit (it may be a pseudonym – Crawford is billed as “Scott Lawrence”), but he comes off like a high camp Charles Grodin, dispatching local Pizza Place employees (seriously, the local restaurant is called “The Pizza Place”) with just the hint of psychosexual frustration beneath the surface.
19. Billy Most
Together Brothers (1974)
William A. Graham’s TOGETHER BROTHERS is one of the most unjustly obscure entries into the “Blaxploitation” genre. Slightly too late to be part of the main wave of black-oriented features like SHAFT and SUPERFLY, though Graham had already contributed HONKY and GET CHRISTIE LOVE! to the genre, Graham’s film is a bit like an urban Encyclopedia Brown, as the murder of friendly police officer Mr. Kool leads a group of enterprising kids, led by A.J. (Ahmad Nurradin, in one of only two film roles), to solve the case when the cops fail to care enough.
The trail they follow leads them to Billy Most, a disturbed man who “prefers to be in drag” as per the police report, played by underrated character vet Lincoln Kilpatrick. Kilpatrick, known for roles in the likes of SOYLENT GREEN and “Matt Houston,” turns in a beautifully sincere performance, making your see Most as human even as he explains why he did it – because Kool had made him strip and reveal “his shame” – and while Most is certainly a terribly troubled person, he’s an astonishingly compelling one you can’t ignore. Surrounded by equally well-conceived characters in a great portrait of urban life in Galveston, Texas circa 1974, TOGETHER BROTHERS is a rare undiscovered treat.
18. Capt. Dan Tracy/Tracy Daniels, Lt. Mike/Sheila Shadows , Lt. Steve/Debbie Dane
Doris Fish/Ramona Fischer/Lori Naslund
Vegas in Space (1991)
While the Cockettes’ 1971 film TRICIA’S WEDDING may have been the first feature-length film to emerge from San Francisco’s drag scene, Phillip R. Ford’s exercise in sci-fabulousness VEGAS IN SPACE may be the most well-known thanks to a distribution deal from Troma. Troma founder Lloyd Kaufman proudly promotes the film as the first film with an all-drag queen cast, and while that’s not strictly true, it’s still an amazing spectacle of underground glamour, though only three of the characters in the film technically qualify as “gender-bending.”
Completed over the course of several years, VEGAS IN SPACE is the tale of three male space explorers who are turned into women via pills in order to infiltrate the Planet Clitoris (within the Beaver System), a pleasure planet where only ladies are allowed. The resulting efforts include some of the most outrageous fashions and landscapes you could hope to achieve on a minimum budget, and the motto of “glamour first, glamour last, glamour always” spouted by the film is clearly in effect despite financial constraints that make the likes of QUEEN OF OUTER SPACE look like a LucasArts production. The whole cast is clearly having a lot of fun, even if lead actress Fish (aka Philip Mills, who co-wrote the screenplay) find her scenery-chewing outchomped by the wilder outfits of Miss X and Ginger Quest, and anyone who wants a look at the underground drag scene of San Francisco, circa the mid-‘80s shouldn’t miss out.
Eat the Rich (1987)
Double-gendered disco diva and comedy star Al – or Lana, as she’s sometimes credited – Pellay was already something of a cultural icon in Great Britain when “Comic Strip Presents” founder Peter Richardson cast him as the lead in the Thatcher-era satire EAT THE RICH. Pillay had just had a dance club hit with 1986’s “Pistol in My Pocket” and had played cabaret clubs in drag for years, and even appeared on the “The Comic Strip Presents,” where a friendship formed with Richardson.
Pellay plays Alex, a genderless waiter fired from his job at the posh restaurant Bastards, only to return triumphantly with a cadre of revolutionaries in toe, slaughtering the patrons and staff and serving them to the bourgeoisie under the guise of a new, hip place where the servers hate you. The satire of the film is all over the place and often suffers from being so dated it’s incomprehensible, but Pellay owns every second of screen time, presenting Alex as a fierce, spiteful bitch to be reckoned with. You don’t really sympathize with the murderous, spiteful Alex, but damned if you don’t kind of want to be her.
Lina Leandersson/Chloe Grace Moretz
Let the Right One In (2008)/Let Me In (2010)
Is there any more gender-bending a character than the lead vampire character created by John Ajvide Lindqvist for his novel “Let the Right One In?” In the original book, the character is Eli, a male who had been castrated by the man who had turned him into a vampire, where the first film adaptation is more ambiguous as to Eli’s original gender, but has the role played by a trio of female actors, though Leandersson had most of the screen time. The American remake, LET ME IN, alters the character’s name to Abby and switches the gender all the way to the other side, making Abby clearly female and played by Chloë Grace Moretz.
In all the cases, the character is fascinating, and the relationship between him/her and the 12-year-old boy whom he befriends. Tomas Alfredson’s LET THE RIGHT ONE IN is a spellbindingly beautiful vampire tale that’s rightfully developed a solid reputation, and the fact that the character has survived gender alterations both within the narrative and outside of it shows how little gender matters when it comes to telling a great story.
15. Rachel Slurr, Bubbles Cliquot, Emma Grashun, Tipper Sommore and Pinky La’Trimm
Willam Belli, Krystal Summers, Erica Andrews, Jenna Skyy and Kelexis Davenport
Ticked-Off Trannies with Knives
Much of the reason Israel Luna’s TICKED-OFF TRANNIES WITH KNIVES is as well-known as it is is due to GLAAD, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. When the homage to grindhouse revenge flicks debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2010, GLAAD was outraged, claiming that it “misrepresent[s] the lives of transgender women and use[s] grotesque, exploitative depictions of violence against transgender women in ways that make light of the horrific brutality they all too often face.”
That TRANNIES features plenty of exploitative violence is true, but also very much the point of the film. But any accusations that it “exploits” transgender women can easily be countered by the fact that the lead performers are all drag icons themselves, including the late Erica Andrews and “RuPaul’s Drag Race” contestant William Belli, whose acting work also includes a pair of Uwe Boll films and playing Candy Darling in the HBO film CINEMA VERITE. And what would an homage to exploitation film be without a some violent revenge?
In fact, the characters in TRANNIES are a distinguishable and well-rounded lot, and giving their stories central focus in a typical tale of vengeance is exactly the sort of modernized fantasy that grindhouse filmmaking should be about. Watching them get attacked and captured isn’t fun, but it’s necessary so that watching them take switchblades to the asses of the “straight” boys who’ve wronged them is a release, and delivering the vitriol with the casual bitchery of a great drag performer rather than the silent spite of, say, Zoe Tamerlis in MS. 45 is a sight to behold. The only real complaint GLAAD should have had is that Luna tends to go slightly overboard in the “grindhouse”-style editing, as the “missing reel” trick should only be performed sparingly, or else it just looks like you couldn’t afford to shoot the scene.
Edward D. Wood, Jr.
Glen or Glenda (1953)
GLEN OR GLENDA is a wonderful mess of a movie. Produced as an attempt to cash in on the story of the gender reassignment surgery of Christine Jorgensen, writer/director/star Wood instead creating an ode to transvestitism that defies any convention as to how narrative structure in film is supposed to play out. A detective investigates the death of a transvestite. A doctor talks about how women’s clothes are just better than men’s. Bela Lugosi appears as a scientist and talks about the changing nature of humanity. A dream sequence involves S&M and strippers.
And through it all is Glen, an average, everyday man whom the doctor talks about in detail. Glen, the doctor intones, is not a homosexual, he just loves a good angora sweater. We see Glen deal with his secret life, and the issues that come up when he tries to broach the subject with his fiancée Barbara. Will Barbara accept him for who he truly is, dubious fashion sense and all? GLEN OR GLENDA set the standard for transploitation that wouldn’t be matched for decades, and Wood’s casual portrayal of Glen in the midst of the hurricane that is GLEN OR GLENDA is a huge part of the film’s enigmatic charms.
13. Edward D. Wood, Jr.
Ed Wood (1994)
The backstory behind GLEN OR GLENDA is depicted beautifully by Tim Burton in his excellent biopic, even if the actual specific events themselves are up for debate. Many have argued that Burton’s biopic is a distortion of the truth, and while that’s no doubt true (no fictionalized film is going to be 100% accurate in its depiction of actual events) it’s still a wonderful love letter to the life of one of film history’s most fascinating visionaries, one who rose to cult fame thanks to Michael and Harry Medved’s attribution to him of “The Worst Director of All Time.”
Depp’s portrayal of Wood paints him as an exuberant dreamer whose reach often exceeded his grasp, and while his penchant for women’s clothing is certainly part of the character, it’s depicted mostly as a justification for Wood creating his own weird little movie in the form of GLEN OR GLENDA. The film’s focus is on Wood the dreamer rather than Wood the deluded weirdo, and the results are not only Burton’s best work, but the best cinematic portrayal of a low-budget filmmaker in film history. Take that, Medveds!
12. The Lady Chablis
The Lady Chablis
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1996)
Transwoman The Lady Chablis was a staple of the Savannah entertainment and drag pageantry scene for years when she became a character in John Berendt’s book based on a true crime story following the murder of a male prostitute. She got the rare chance to portray herself in the film version, and the gambit was worth it as Chablis is a highlight of the film, lending a charismatic and humorous touch to the otherwise dark tale.
“I have a man’s toolbox, but everything else about me is pure lady,” she states to the jury in her scene-stealing testimony. “I love to dress in women’s clothes, I love to go shopping, I love to have my nails done, and I love men.” With nonchalantly-delivered dialogue like that, it’s no wonder the film led Chablis to be propelled into a momentary pop culture icon, appearing on talk shows and even allowing her to release her autobiography, “Hiding My Candy.” Chablis continued to perform in Savannah today at Club One until her death in 2016.
11. Leon Shermer
Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
Chris Sarandon’s portrayal of the husband of bank robber Sonny (Al Pacino) netted him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination, and it’s easy to see why. Despite the fact that he doesn’t have a lot of screen time and virtually the only exchange he has with Sonny is over the phone, Sarandon’s Leon is a fully-formed character that manages to be sympathetic rather than pitiable. His distress beautifully evokes the feeling of not only the “woman trapped in a man’s body” feeling (no simple task, as unlike virtually every other entry on this list, he doesn’t appear in any kind of drag) but the feeling of helplessness watching his husband rob a bank out of the desire for Leon to get the operation he needs.
The true story sets the “crime does not pay” idea on its head. Leon’s true-life inspiration was Elizabeth Eden, born Ernest, whose need for sex reassignment surgery provided the impetus for her non-legal husband John Wojtowicz to hold up a bank. The plot was foiled, but the film rights to Wojtowicz’s story were sold for enough for Eden to afford the operation. Eden died in 2006, but her story remains a legend, a strangely inspirational tale of wrongheaded love to which Sarandon gave impressive life.
For Part 5, click here!