Happiness and drag kings

Recent blogging bursts from Ashley and myself have put me into a blogtastic kind of mood. And what better way to demonstrate that than by posting something here? However, I don’t have anything that specific in mind to talk about. Instead, I have two very, very general topics: one is a basic aspect of human life; the other is a beautiful, comparatively young art form. That’s right, sexuality and film. The interactions between the two form a huge area of study, so I want to try to zero in some especially interesting points, or maybe just ramble freely.

First, last night I watched a movie mostly about sex, Todd Solondz’s Happiness. I watched his earlier Welcome to the Dollhouse last year, and I definitely think it’s good preparation for the pitch-black comedy and fetid suburban lives that populate Happiness. If Dollhouse‘s Dawn Wiener was tortured by her peers and family, what about Happiness‘s ironically named Joy, who faces tribulations from scene 1 (Jon Lovitz tells her she’s shit) through an obscene phone call that raises her hopes, a fling with a manipulative Russian cabbie, and an ending that sees her lonely and desperate all over again?

Solondz’s characters really do go through hell, suggesting that the only thing worse than Sartre’s “other people” might just be “no other people.” Because it’s a movie about the bad, often pathetic behaviors we engage in for companionship – unless, like Ben Gazzara’s hollow patriarch, aloneness is what we really crave in the first place. One man (Philip Seymour Hoffman) finds solace in his violently pornographic fantasies about his neighbor, but is unable to unload his emotional baggage because his therapist (Dylan Baker) is too self-absorbed, and too busy struggling with his own obsessive pedophilia.

All these interlocking tales of misery and self-defeating spirals add up to a general impression that no one is normal: everyone, whether sexually or emotionally, nurses little fractures and deviations, right down to the apparently “happy” housewife Trish, whose husband is the pedophile. It may be an unremittingly bleak film that holds out little hope for human relationships, but it’s nonetheless enjoyable both in its abrasively comic moments and its willingness to carry out its grim premise. So I recommend this complex, depressing, very NC-17 film if only for the lesson that everyone is at least a little fucked up.

Dan Clowes illustrating Solondz's wretched ensemble: an artistic match made in heaven.

And so, in this little discussion of sex in film, I’d love to briefly single out one particularly resonant character: Kristina (Camryn Manheim), one of the neighbors of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s lonely sex maniac. Contrasted with the beautiful, successful Helen across the hall, Kristina is overweight, sex-phobic, and slightly unhinged (shades of Repulsion?). Often this kind of depressed, spinsterish character could devolve into stereotype, but the character’s behaviors and Manheim’s performance avert this powerfully, for as she grows closer to Hoffman, her revelations get weirder and weirder while both drawing in viewer sympathy and failing to turn Hoffman away. The most effective part might be that despite her numerous sexual hang-ups, she’s by far not the most disturbed character in the movie. So she comes across not as one extreme case but instead as one abnormal person in a world filled with them.

While considering sexuality in film (a topic for which Happiness is indeed well-suited), let me jump somewhat to another area that endlessly fascinates me: the transvestite in film. I commented briefly and superficially on this last summer (mostly with regard to Cary Grant), but now after reading a chunk of Marjorie Garber’s Vested Interests, I’d like to re-examine it. As part of a class on Pre-Code film, I’m about to start a research project on Rouben Mamoulian’s Queen Christina (1933) – a film in which cross-dressing plays a prominent role.

[Mamoulian is a director who doesn’t get enough credit, considering the series of unique, beautiful films he made including Applause, a musical burlesque melodrama with dazzlingly fluid urban photography; Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, probably the best filmed version of the Stevenson story, complete with an outrageously slutty Miriam Hopkins; and Love Me Tonight, a Chevalier musical in which class, gender, and logic go topsy-turvy.]

In general, female-to-male cross-dressing doesn’t get the kind of attention (or cause the same titillation) as male-to-female, and this intrigues me. Maybe it’s because when a woman assumes male dress, she’s elevating herself in terms of power and status, while a man in a dress is seen as lowering himself, rendering himself impotent and ridiculous? Look at the presentation of Roscoe in Freaks: a stuttering, effeminate parody of a patriarch, first shown dressed as a “Roman lady” alongisde the virile, all-man Hercules. According to society, dresses on men are undignified, evoking giggles and catcalls, while a woman in a suit and tie is a solemn event. Who laughs when Marlene goes in drag and kisses a woman in Morocco? Erotic, of course (it’s Josef von Sternberg, for chrissake!), but funny? Not really.

I haven’t thought too much about this particular line of reasoning, but maybe comedy is only created when the cross-dresser has to struggle to maintain the illusion. And while Garbo and Dietrich are both comfortable and confident occupying this hermaphroditic middle ground – Garbo, of course, is a defiant queen, and Dietrich is performing in a self-conscious nightclub act – maybe another great example, Katherine Hepburn in Cukor’s Sylvia Scarlett, is both not as talented or assured in her double performance, and also has more to lose should her masquerade be uncovered.

The Swedish Sphinx: a riddle of personality and gender identityMarlene, the consummate performer of alternate identities

While Garbo and Dietrich are both fully in control of their respective male impersonations, Hepburn’s Sylvia/Sylvester is young, inexperienced (both at playing male, and sex in general), and has her father’s life at risk. Garbo’s Christina may guide her disguised rendezvous with John Gilbert’s Spanish envoy, but Sylvia is prey to the desires encircling her, whether from her stepmother (taking her for a boy) or a roguish Cary Grant (confused by his attraction to her unseen femininity). Through her guise’s insecurity, these encounters result in nail-biting comedy –  will she be discovered, or will she reveal herself on her own terms?

And this is where we start to get some answers to the questions, Why study sexuality in film history? What could it possibly teach us? Examining these three texts of female-to-male transvestism from the ’30s, we see patterns regarding who can cross-dress, who can’t, and why. We wonder whether the clothes make the man, or whether a woman, in dress, suit, or neither, is still first and foremost a woman. These are questions I’m exploring right now in my WGST classes, and hopefully will be able to carry over to my work on Queen Christina. I’ve studied the Production Code and the PCA a fair amount, but I don’t know exactly what their stance on Garbo’s playful sexual antics would be, and I’m excited to find out.

So, it’s about 3 am, and I have more movies to watch (and explore gender in). But these alleys of inquiry really are endless, and I think each of them can lead to personal breakthroughs in our perception of sex, gender, and media. With so many movies out there talking about the same issues from such radically different viewpoints, there’s really no limit to the analysis you can do.

Katherine Hepburn plays the boy in Sylvia Scarlett

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Filed under Cinema, Media, Sexuality

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