This is it! The last batch of our fascinating gender-benders, with the cream of the crop of transgender performances. If you need to catch up, go to part 1, part 2, part 3 and part 4 to experience the full fabulousness of it all! As before, there are spoilers here for some last-minute trans-formative climaxes, so be wary! We hope you’ve enjoyed this series — please feel free to leave comments below.
There are a number of performances that I would have loved to have included, but didn’t for varying reasons. Beyond the ones I mentioned in part 1, some I didn’t feel were very cultish as the films themselves were straightforward dramas (like Karen Black and Mark Patton in COME BACK TO THE FIVE AND DIME, JIMMY DEAN, JIMMY DEAN, Candy Darling in SOME OF MY BEST FRIENDS ARE or Richard Benner in OUTRAGEOUS!), some I couldn’t rightfully classify as “gender-bending” because while they were flamboyant, they weren’t specifically playing with gender roles in terms of identity (like Chris Tucker in THE FIFTH ELEMENT or Antonio Fargas in CAR WASH) and a couple I just plain missed (THE SILENT PARTNER). But this list is meant to be a starting point, bringing attention to some of the most compelling gender-bending characters in films that often deserve to be better-known than they are.
Thanks so much to those who helped with advice on this piece — Zan Christensen, John Reents, Casey Scott, and Michael Varrati.
Sonny Boy (1989)
David Martin Carroll’s SONNY BOY, written by Graeme Whifler, is a triumph of tone, sporting a premise that threatens to become camp at any moment and instead treating the procedings with the utmost of sincerity. Nowhere is that more evident than with the treatment of Pearl, the feminine half of a couple who run a junkyard and own a good percentage of the nearby town. When the pair are presented with a baby after their shifty henchman (Brad Dourif) fails to notice him in the back seat of a car he’s stolen (and whose owners he’s killed), Pearl quickly protects the infant from her surly profiteering mate Slue (Paul L. Smith) who just wants to get rid of him.
Played by David Carradine (who also sings the theme song), Pearl is the soul of SONNY BOY, serving as surrogate mother to the boy, who grows up to unbelievable abuse, culminating in his 8th birthday present from Slue, the “gift of silence,” in which his tongue is cut out. The child grows into a man who then performs crimes for Slue like a well-trained dog, but through it all is Pearl, who, thanks to an understated performance by Carradine, serves as the well-meaning (though seriously disturbed) heart of a movie that would be unwatchable without one.
SONNY BOY plays like an incredibly twisted version of RAISING ARIZONA, but Carroll is careful to never make the horrible events it depicts into a joke. With the exception of her introduction, wherein she is viewed from the back and then given a garish close-up from the baby’s point of view in a cheap “Oh-it-looks-like-a-pretty-lady-but-OH-IT’S-DAVID-CARRADINE!” sequence, Pearl is treated with respect by the film and the characters around her, and Carradine grants the role equal regard, turning in one of his finest performances this side of BOUND FOR GLORY.
9. Mole McHenry
Desperate Living (1977)
It seems odd that Divine doesn’t appear anywhere on this list, but as I mentioned in the introduction, it’s because all of the female characters she played were, in the context of the film, cis-gender women. Even odder is that Divine would certainly have ranked highly had she not been contractually obligated to be in the stage production of “Women Behind Bars” when John Waters’ DESPERATE LIVING was shot, forcing him to recast the part he’d written with her in mind.
Instead, the part of repugnant lesbian wrestler Mole McHenry went to the beautiful Susan Lowe, who was uglified by Van Smith to extremes only Waters could offer. “When Sue’s own children saw Mommy’s new look, they ran from her in fear,” Waters wrote in “Shock Value,” and it’s not surprising. Mole is the sort of fascinatingly disgusting archetype that Waters and any fans of his love, a gleefully repulsive character who wears a giant vagina in her wrestling matches and occasionally abuses her glamorous live-in girlfriend Muffy, played by Liz Renay.
Mole’s own story arc is, like DESPERATE LIVING as a whole, pure, unadulterated waters that isn’t trying to be anything but gleefully shocking. She longs for a sex-change operation to please her girlfriend, who chides him for not having “the same big deal.” When she finally gets one, she comes home to surprise Muffy with her new hideous appendage, only to find that it grosses her out, so she cuts it off with a pair of garden shears. Then a dog eats it. Muffy, however, swears to love the operation. It’s a happy ending that could only exist in a world of Waters’ creation, and as completely disgusting that everything in DESPERATE LIVING is, it shows Waters’ penchant for embracing vulgarity without ever lapsing into outright cynicism.
8. Angela Baker
Felissa Rose/Pamela Springsteen
Sleepaway Camp (1983), Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers (1988), Sleepaway Camp III: Teenage Wasteland (1989), Sleepaway Camp IV: The Survivor (1990s), Return to Sleepaway Camp (2003)
Sure, there’s a long, sordid history of transgender murderers in slasher films, but how many have inspired a whole franchise? The ending to the slasher classic SLEEPAWAY CAMP is legendary, when quiet camper Angela is revealed via appearance of her male genitalia to be her brother, Peter, who was thought to have perished in a boating accident at the film’s beginning thanks to some clever editing and the fact that all kids look pretty genderless when drenched in water. Raised as his sister, Peter now lives his life as Angela, and has been busily hacking apart those who have wronged her.
Rose’s portrayal of Angela is a subtle one, and one that actually works well even with the shocking twist ending. The fact that she’s essentially mute helps, but most of the credit should go to Rose, who makes both the relationship between Angela and fellow camper Paul and the ultimate revelation both believable and oddly touching. It’s an impressively stable touchpoint in a ridiculously schizoid film that wavers between camp and sincerity as much as it delves into homoeroticism (campers go on an all-male skinny dipping adventure and one prank involves having a young man shove his face into another kid’s ass) while suggesting that it’s Angela’s father’s closeted homosexuality that made her become a murderer in the first place.
That subtlety vanishes in the first two sequels, where Pamela Springsteen plays a post-sex change version of Angela, who is now a counselor at the same camp. Set in a world without background checks, the pair of films are more goofy, gory fun than anything else, and Springsteen is clearly having a blast even if the movies themselves are about as sincere as a SCARY MOVIE sequel. Rose returned to the role in the long-delayed RETURN TO SLEEPAWAY CAMP in a diminished capacity, which ignored the first two sequels, and while the film itself is just as schizoid as the original, but replacing Angela as the lead suspect with an irritatingly archetypical fat kid was a poor choice indeed.
7. Norman/Norma Bates
Anthony Perkins/Henry Thomas/Vince Vaughn/Freddie Highmore
Psycho (1960)/Psycho II (1983)/Psycho III (1986)/Psycho IV (1990)/Psycho (1998)/Bates Motel (2013-2018)
Norman Bates isn’t a transvestite. It’s spelled out in excruciating detail in the finale of PSYCHO, when Dr. Richmond says explains that a transvestite is “a man who dresses in women’s clothing in order to achieve a sexual change or satisfaction.” Norman, who certainly had some weird sexual issues that were explored more explicitly in his later exploits, was just “doing everything possible to keep alive the illusion of his mother being alive.”
At the end of PSYCHO, however, Norman IS Norma, and the female Norma personality is most definitely in a male body, which, being her son, is a concept filled with all sorts of icky ideas. Norman is back in control of his body by the time PSYCHO II rolled around a couple decades later, but there were still many years spent with the “female” personality in charge, and Norma returns to wreak havoc in the follow-ups.
Thoughout the series, we really don’t get to see much of Norma, and when we do, “she”‘s always cloaked in shadows or wild-eyed and murderous, because she only seems to come out when Norman is endangered or sexually aroused, spurring a stabby rage. The non-confrontational personality of Norman-as-Norma is something we rarely get a glimpse at, and one that makes the time between PSYCHO and PSYCHO II a potentially interesting tale. It’s a subject that the television series “Bates Motel” could have approached, as it seemed to be taking great strides in portraying the strange and mildly sexual relationship between mother and son.
6. Iron Pussy
The Adventure of Iron Pussy (2003)
There’s no question that the Thai flick THE ADVENTURE OF IRON PUSSY is a goofy film. The tale of a go-go boy-turned-transvestite secret agent that infiltrates the household of a wealthy “Madam” as a household servant in order to figure out exactly why her fiancée is wanted by everyone from the FBI to Scotland Yard is about as light a secret agent flick that you’ve seen since the heyday of the 007 rip-offs without going into outright AUSTIN POWERS-level parody. It’s basically a campy soap opera, with familial revelations, secret hypnotism formulas and, oh, right, musical numbers.
However, as the title character, co-director and star Shaowanasai sells it. Never does the film feel as though it’s poking fun at Iron Pussy’s gender bending, and the results are basically a low-rent Thai MODESTY BLAISE in which Modesty happens to also be a little bald guy. It’s energetic and fun, and Shaowanasai plays the role with just the right amount of self-awareness as to how silly the whole thing is while integrating perfectly with the tone of the film. Sure, the film runs out of steam before the credits roll, but it’s still a genuinely unique ride with a transgender action star that, while clearly meant for comedy, isn’t the butt of the joke.
5. Myra/Myron Breckinridge
Raquel Welch/Red Reed
Myra Breckinridge (1970)
Myra Breckinridge should be a more fascinating movie character than she actually is. When film scholar Myron (played by professional bitch Reed) is turned by surgeon John Carradine to the sexy Myra (Welch), she goes to Hollywood to implement “the destruction of the American man in all its particulars,” starting with Myron’s uncle Buck Loner (John Huston), from whom she claims inheritance from her alleged marriage to the late Myron. The sleazy Loner gives her a job teaching at his acting academy, and she sets forth a plan of exposing the students to non-traditional sexual morality and teaching them the ways of classic film.
Or something like that. Gore Vidal’s novel may have been a scathing satire, but Michael Sarne’s film is a mind-boggling mess, splicing ion footage of classic films in order to punctuate ideas and scattering its satirical ideas and comments on changing sexual morality all over the place with little rhyme or reason. Released the same year and by the same studio as BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS, BRECKINRIDGE often feels like a too-self-aware version of Meyer’s classic, one that is so determined to make everything so over-the-top that it fails to actually be engaging.
It’s especially a shame as Welch gives her all to the performance, and often feels like the only member of the cast that seems to be in the correct movie, treating her dialogue with just the amount of absurdity it deserves. She’s also probably the most fashionably dressed transsexual on this list, thanks to costumes by Edith Head. Sadly, the amount of gusto Welch gives to the performance is countered by the blandness of Reed as Myron, who shows up as Myra’s “male” side, to the point where it’s almost inconceivable that they’re the same character.
Let Me Die A Woman (1978)
“Last year, I was a man,” the beautiful Leslie explains to the audience at the introduction to Doris Wishman’s LET ME DIE A WOMAN, the film for which the term “transploitation” was essentially made. A bizarre blend of medical footage, sex scenes involving transwomen serving as “recreations of actual events,” narration from “doctor, surgeon, psychologist and minister” Dr.Leo Wollman and interviews with Leslie, an actual transwoman, LET ME DIE A WOMAN comes from the same cinematic crock pot of insanity that begat GLEN OR GLENDA two decades earlier, “updated” to the times by making proving much more graphic displays of information intended to “educate.”
The film itself is a spectacle that could have only come from the bleary-eyed vision of Wishman, created over the course of several years and distributed under multiple cuts, with a history that Michael J. Bowen attempts to reconcile in his detailed liner notes on Synapse’s DVD release. There are plenty of transpersons, mostly female, on display in LET ME DIE A WOMAN, most of them involved in either exploitative sex scenes or exploitative medical presentations, but the common thread of the film is Puerto Rican Leslie, who talks candidly about her growing up feeling as though she was the wrong gender, and the trials she’s had with her reassignment surgery.
That in itself would warrant making the list, but more compelling is Leslie’s commentary track on the DVD, in which she offers great (and often entertainingly bitchy) insight into the makers of the film and expresses regret for having had the surgery due to her born-again belief that Jesus may not recognize her as a woman during the second coming. It’s all part of a very unique journey, and one that makes LET ME DIE A WOMAN such a fascinating monstrosity of a film, a work of accidental gender studies history in the guise of a work made purely for the exploitation value.
3. Jame Gumb
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
There isn’t a more iconic would-be transsexual murderer than Jame Gumb. When released in 1991, the portrayal of a gender-dysphoric serial killer rankled the panties of several gay activist groups, who protested the film (along with BASIC INSTINCT for its bisexual murderer) at the New York Film Critics Circle Awards in 1992. There were reasons behind the outrage – there were so few portrayals of gender dysphoria in mainstream film that they were bothered that one of the few films that addressed the subject portrayed them as a killer. They may have missed the point where it’s revealed that Gumb had tried to get a sex change but was deemed unstable, clearly pointing out that it was Gumb himself that was the problem rather than his gender identity issues. Now that it can be viewed as part of the vast history of transgender characters on film, however, it’s easier to look past any inferred transphobia and view Levine’s performance, and the character, without the politicized context.
Whereas the showy Hannibal Lecter gleefully embraces his monstrous side, Levine’s Gumb is clearly a reticent monster, someone who kills because it’s the only way he knows to get what he wants – the body of a woman. Like Billy Most in TOGETHER BROTHERS over a decade and a half earlier, Gumb is a bizarrely compelling transsexual killer, one whose monstrousness comes from the fact that they’re aware, however frustratingly, of how terrible they actually are.
And Levine’s performance is a thing of uninhibited perfection, one so good it no doubt cost Levine parts because it was just so difficult to see him in any other role. He has easily as many memorable moments as Lechter, and there isn’t a single line of dialogue that he has that can’t be repeated in Levine’s low-key gravelly voice that won’t be remembered by anyone who’s seen the film. It’s a performance so good that it destroyed Q Lazzarus’s melancholy “Goodbye Horses” for any other film, and moved the name “Precious” as a dog name from “cute” to “ironically twisted.” In lesser hands, Gumb would have been a fairly unremarkable villain, but with Levine behind the nearly dead eyes and flowing robes, Gumb is an amazing sight, no matter what activists though.
Would you fuck him? I’d fuck him. (I would not fuck him. He is a multiple murderer.)
2. Dr. Frank N. Furter
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
What can be said about Dr. Frank N. Furter? No genre film transvestite is more iconic than Tim Curry’s film portrayal of the character he originated on the stage. Even before he makes his on-screen appearance, he’s a presence — shots of his tapping rhinestoned heel as the elevator slowly lowers to greet Brad Majors and Janet Weiss as the strains of “Sweet Transvestite” begin signal that what’s about to happen is going to be FABULOUS. And it is.
Curry distanced himself from the role for years, avoiding conventions and screenings and rarely mentioning the performance in interviews, though he has warmed to the reputation he has in the past decade, appearing at a 30th anniversary gathering for the film in 2005. You wouldn’t detect any notes of reticence from the film, however, as the alien mad scientist with a penchant for black garters, corsets, dynamic tension and polyamorous frivolity is a character who remains just as captivating today as it was when audiences began flocking to midnight screenings decades ago.
Dr. Frank N. Furter is proudly both masculine and feminine, the scathing bitch of a man who cuttingly dismisses those in his way with a sneer with a nonchalance to which so many drag performers aspire. He doesn’t give a crap about what others think about him, and he disposes quickly of people as soon as he gets tired of them, chewing up and spitting out anyone who gets in his way with absolute pleasure, at least until the tables are turned. And like the best queens, he knows that when the mascara is running and the stockings are out of shape, it’s time to go home.
1. Ronnie “Z-Man” Barzell
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1971)
“You sound like Z-Man,” Petronella Danforth tells her beau Harris after he makes a passing quote from Macbeth. “And Z-Man sounds like Will Shakespeare,” he corrects her, but the attribution is an easy mistake to make. As written by Roger Ebert and given life by John LaZar, Z-Man is the twisted center of everything that happens in Russ Meyer’s BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS, and there isn’t a single word he utters that isn’t a memorable quote.
Z-Man’s transsexualism, revealed in the film’s climax by having him open his “Superwoman” shirt to reveal two of the most hilariously misshapen breasts in film history, is rumored to have not been the script until a good percentage of the movie had already been shot, meaning any inkling of gender dysmorphia in much of the film was strictly coincidental, but LaZar himself has disputed that. With this in mind, the character emerges as a decadently flamboyant personification of polygendered and polyamorous hedonism, spouting the most amazing dialogue in a film composed almost entirely of great lines.
Like Tim Curry, LaZar himself distanced himself from the gender-bending role for years afterwards, convinced that his most memorable film was typecasting him as someone who could only deliver over-the-top performances. “That was a problem early on and it kind of dried up for me because they didn’t know what to do with me for a while,” he mentioned to Pop Culture Addict in 2010. But he was eventually able to embrace the role, and has since appeared at screenings and talks about the character willingly. And there’s no reason why not to – Z-Man is one of the most memorable characters in exploitation film history, in part because of his transsexualism, but mostly because he’s such a screen presence that he manages to steal scenes even during a music montage, when he gives Harris the seductive eye while the Carrie Nations croon “In the Long Run.”
“I kind of got an idea playing it like a really whacked out Richard III,” LaZar stated in an interview with retroCRUSH, and it shows. Any viewer, no matter how jaded, will be glad to drink the black sperm of his vengeance with glee. It’s his happening, and it freaks us all out.