Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Eddie Izzard Awards: Films That Transcend Taboo

Originally published at SpoutBlog:

The Eddie Izzard Awards: Films That Transcend Taboo

For those who’ve been holding their hot and bothered breath, awaiting a response to the controversy surrounding my taboo-breaking afternoon tryst referenced by Steven Boone in his last column, come swing by Beyond The Green Door. For those ready to move on, please read on –

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again loud and proud: Eddie Izzard is my heroine! I get all happy-go-lucky girly inside just thinking about him. And not only because I spent a good hour and a half doubled over in a folding chair gasping for air like an oxygen-tank-deprived emphysema patient when I saw the John Cleese anointed “lost Python” at a small west side venue years ago, but because of who Izzard is offstage as well: an unashamed cross-dresser with fabulous taste in makeup and heels.

I’ll admit I thought “sellout” when he started doing the gender conforming thing, publicly appearing in pants and facial hair, taking on the role of grifter/father Doug Rich on “The Riches,” but then I read a glorious “NY Times” interview he gave to Caryn James and two mind-blowing quotes chastened me.

He doesn’t always mention being a transvestite in his shows, he said. But he did in the two I saw, and it worked as a disarming strategy: acknowledge it for fans who are wondering what happened, then move on. “I am a transvestite; I’m just off-duty at the moment,” he told the audience, and immediately went on, “I never was a transvestite; it was a tax thing.”

As he explained later: “Some people would heckle me and say ‘Where’s the dress?’ and I’d say ‘Don’t oppress me, you Nazi’ – tends to shut them up. Because I have fought for the right to be able to wear a dress, not that I have to wear a dress. I didn’t jump out of a not-wearing-dress box into a have-to-wear-dress box.”

Yes, this is why I look up to Eddie Izzard even as I’m doubled over staring at the floor: his ability to break a taboo and then break away. In fact, Izzard is growing up, not selling out, just going through what every one of us whose gender and/or sexuality don’t match society’s “norm” eventually face. How do you come out without having that part of yourself define you completely? It’s really no different from what any minority throughout history has had to deal with. How does Spike Lee go from being a “black filmmaker” to being just a filmmaker who happens to be black? In the same way Izzard is attempting to become a comic and actor who “happens to be” a transvestite. You begin by acknowledging the thing that defines you – and then move past it, others’ reactions be damned. It’s the only way for one to grow both as an artist and as a human being. “She’s Gotta Have It” Spike Lee is no less black for having directed the conventional crime thriller “Inside Man.” Likewise, Eddie Izzard will always be a cross-dresser whether he’s wearing sequins or suits (or both). In fact, heterosexual Izzard in pants is more a true transvestite than gay Divine ever was – he only did drag onstage as part of his shtick, and indeed was gearing up to play a male role on “Married With Children” when he died. “Lost Python,” dramatic actor and trailblazing pioneer. That’s Eddie Izzard defined.

So in honor of my leading lady I present a Golden Stiletto to three films that acknowledge, demystify then ultimately transcend taboo.

“Sick: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist”

It’s extremely rare for me to get all choked up just writing about a film, but Kirby Dick’s phenomenal 1997 documentary, which follows the life of performance artist and cystic fibrosis sufferer Bob Flanagan and his Mistress Sheree Rose, bravely waging battle against CF with S&M, still takes my breath away (and it’s got nothing to do with the sensationalistic “nail through the penis” scene). For the most shocking thing about “Sick” is Dick’s poignant profiling of a relationship so deep, so compassionate, most couples would be lucky to experience one percent of what Flanagan and Rose shared. The sadomasochistic aspect takes a backseat to the miraculous love and art birthed from hellish pain that kept Flanagan alive a good twenty years past his supposed expiration date. And the ending in which Dick was allowed access to Flanagan’s last moments, with Rose desperately trying to “order” death away, is without a doubt one of the most heartrendingly painful scenes in any film. Don’t Netflix without Kleenex. Ditto for –

“Southern Comfort”

Kate Davis’ 2001 doc about transgender couple Robert Eads (a FTM who passes well enough to fool his good ole boy neighbors) and his girlfriend Lola Cola (a MTF who passes about as well as her name – and bravely couldn’t care less!) is another film in which the director smartly downplays prurience, in this case the by now humdrum sex change angle, in favor of a much more thrilling love story, in which the vow of “in sickness and in health, till death do us part” is truly tested and survives. Davis manages to capture the everyday domesticity of life in rural Georgia, of an average couple that happen to reside in bodies they weren’t born into – and valiantly refuse to make that fact the focus of their lives. And when faced with adversity they do it together. Indeed, the most wondrous aspect of “Southern Comfort” is that Robert and Lola would make the perfect poster couple for the family value’s crowd.


Put away the Kleenex. Duncan Tucker’s 2005 indie flick painstakingly dismantles every stereotype about transsexuals, hustlers, and “normal” heterosexuals to build a world of truth cannily within the confines of a comedic road movie. Felicity Huffman’s transitioning Bree – and why shouldn’t the MTF transgender lead, a real woman on the inside, be played by a real woman on the inside (and outside)? – with her long flowing skirts and acute self-awareness is the most conservative character in the film (as anyone desperately wanting to “pass” would be). Bree’s long lost son Toby, played by a wise-beyond-his-years Kevin Zegers, is the pitch perfect profile of a gay-for-pay hustler – young, handsome, charming, a recreational drug user with business savvy. And lost. As the two embark on a cross-country journey of self-discovery Tucker never veers off into heavy-handed melodrama, but gives his characters ample space to both grow and breathe. Bree and Toby prove that whoever we are, it’s always less important than where it is we’re going.

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