Glenn Close and Janet McTeer are both generating Oscar buzz for their gender-bending performances in “Albert Nobbs,” currently screening at the Toronto International Film Festival. Based on George Moore‘s 19th Century short story “The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs,” the Rodrigo Garcia-directed film follows a soft-spoken woman who lives her life as a man in Victorian-era Dublin. As the title character, Close is receiving positive notices that suggest if distributor Roadside Attractions plays its cards right, Close could be nominated for Best Actress. To date she has earned five Oscar nominations without a win.
McTeer – a 2000 Best Actress nominee for “Tumbleweeds” – is also getting raves as the confident, married Hubert Page, who discovers Nobbs’ secret before revealing she too is a cross-dressing woman. Several reviewers insist McTeer is a serious contender for Best Supporting Actress. And there’s plenty of precedent for Close and McTeer to earn nominations for their unique performances.
The Academy has responded to gender-bending roles for decades, starting with Marlene Dietrich in “Morocco” (1930). Dietrich made an iconic impression as singer Amy Jolly, who meets and beguiles Tom Brown (Gary Cooper) while dressed in drag. In a top hat and coattails, she plants a kiss on a beautiful woman in the audience while warbling “Quand L’Amour Meurt.”
Jack Lemmon spent most of “Some Like It Hot” (1959) wearing a dress and heels and earned a Best Actor nomination in the process. Lemmon and his snubbed co-star Tony Curtis played musicians who hide from the mob by joining a girl band under the names Daphne and Josephine. Though Billy Wilder directed several actors to Oscar wins in his career, the Academy in this case favored Charlton Heston‘s machismo in “Ben-Hur.”
In one of his best remembered roles, Dustin Hoffman donned a dress and glasses as Dorothy Michaels in “Tootsie” (1982), for which he was nominated for Best Actor. Dorothy is actually Michael Dorsey, an out-of-work actor who takes desperate measures to land a job on a soap opera. His deceit outrages co-star Julie Nichols (Jessica Lange, who won Best Supporting Actress), but he wins her back in the end when he says, “I was a better man with you as a woman than I ever was with a woman as a man.” Oscar voters, however, picked Ben Kingsley (“Gandhi”).
That same year, Blake Edwards directed his wife Julie Andrews to a Best Actress nomination for “Victor/Victoria.” Like Hoffman in “Tootsie,” Andrews also portrays a starving artist who blurs gender lines to find work. Singer Victoria Grant becomes Count Victor Grazinski, a male drag performer who sings with a suspiciously beautiful soprano. Grant herself doubts that the scheme will work when it’s proposed by her friend Carroll Toddy (Robert Preston). Andrews plays the comic scenario for all its worth, hilariously exclaiming, “A woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman? It’s preposterous!” The premise may have proved too outlandish for the Academy, which chose Meryl Streep for “Sophie’s Choice,” but Andrews already had a win for “Mary Poppins” (1964) under her belt. Preston earned his only career nomination for his supporting turn. He ends the film with a hilarious, intentionally unconvincing drag performance.
The drag act also worked for Gwyneth Paltrow, who took home Best Actress in 1998 for “Shakespeare in Love.” In Elizabethan England, where women were banned from performing on stage, Viola de Lesseps (Paltrow) masquerades as Thomas Kent to win a role in “Romeo and Juliet.” When she joins the cast, she wins the heart of William Shakespeare and inspires him to complete his famous romantic tragedy. “Romeo and Juliet” may not have had a happy ending, but “Shakespeare in Love” rode off into the sunset with seven Oscars, including Best Picture.
The following year, Hilary Swank won Best Actress as Brandon Teena, a real-life transgender man, in “Boys Don’t Cry” (1999). Teena was a Nebraskan female-to-male non-operative transgender who was raped and murdered in 1993. Kimberly Peirce‘s film traces the events that led to Teena’s death, including his romance with Lana Tisdel (Oscar-nominated Chloe Sevigny). “Boys Don’t Cry” was released a year following the death of Matthew Shepard, adding to its relevance and starting a serious movement for hate crime legislation in the United States.
Chris Sarandon was the first to be nominated for playing a pre-operative transsexual, in “Dog Day Afternoon” (1975). Sarandon plays Leon Schermer, who describes himself as the wife of bank robber Sonny Wortzik (Al Pacino); one reason Wortzik holds up a bank is to pay for Leon’s sex reassignment surgery. Sarandon competed for Best Supporting Actor, but lost to George Burns for “The Sunshine Boys.”
Jaye Davidson was next for his jaw-dropping turn in “The Crying Game” (1992). Davidson shocked audiences, and earned a Best Supporting Actor nomination, as the lovely Dil, who begins dating Fergus (Stephen Rea), a member of the Irish Republican Army who – unbeknownst to Dil – was responsible for the death of her boyfriend. When Fergus and Dil are about to consummate their relationship, he’s shocked to discover Dil is actually a man. Considered one of the most shocking twists in cinema history, it helped writer-director Neil Jordan win an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.
The most recent performance of a transsexual role to wow the Academy was by Felicity Huffman, nominated for her work in “Transamerica” (2005). Huffman played Bree Osbourne, originally a man, who discovers that she fathered a now-teenaged child before she began her gender transition. Although the film earned good reviews and a Golden Globe for Huffman, the Oscar went to Reese Witherspoon for “Walk the Line.”
Cate Blanchett also won a Golden Globe and picked up an Oscar nomination for her gender-bending turn in “I’m Not There” (2007). Blanchett simply plays a man, and not a character in gender-transition; she was Jude Quinn, an incarnation of Bob Dylan circa 1966, one of six Dylan-inspired characters in Todd Haynes‘s experimental biopic. Best Supporting Actress that year went to Tilda Swinton (“Michael Clayton”), who herself received acclaimed for playing a man who wakes up one day as a woman in the Oscar-nominated “Orlando” (1993).
Linda Hunt is the only performer to win an Oscar for cross-gender acting. Hunt’s won Best Supporting Actress for “The Year of Living Dangerously” (1983), in which she played Chinese-Australian photographer Billy Kwan. The American actress is also known for her roles in “The Bostonians” (1984) and “She-Devil” (1989) and was seen most recently in “Stranger Than Fiction” (2006). She currently stars on the CBS drama “NCIS: Los Angeles.”
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