“Here we go again” remarks Paris Lees in Attitude magazine about how she disagrees with the casting of a man – one Eddie Redmayne – as trans-pioneer Lili Elbe in upcoming drama Danish Girl. Presumably then Paris Lees has no problem with Redmayne playing Einar Mogens Wegener – the identity of Lili before her transition? Or is it just after that point in the character’s timeline we are to re-cast the role so as to utterly confuse the audience as long as a principle will be safeguarded?
Maybe the here we go again mantra could also be applied to the kneejerk copy-filling reactions straight from the invisible box marked “I am offended“. Presumably Lees was also very against the New Yorker Meryl Streep playing the Australian Lindy Chamberlain in A Cry in The Dark, Mark Rylance playing Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall when rumour has it he was not actually born in the 16th Century at all or that Daniel Craig playing a secret agent when he isn’t one?
The first TV gay couple I ever saw was Barry and Colin in mid 80s EastEnders. As a closeted gay eleven year old terrified of being gay and terrified of watching gay characters on TV, I would turn down my bedroom TV set when Dynasty‘s Stephen Carrington was on for fear me watching it would ‘out’ me to the world (note : I did not care or even know that the actor Jack Coleman was not gay). To watch Barry and Colin leading dull, ordinary lives was more important to me, more of a important lifeline than worrying that one of the two actors was not actually gay. Likewise as a gay guy I don’t care that the straight Tom Hanks plays queer in Philadelphia and gets a well deserved Oscar. Suddenly mainstream, early 90s film audiences were reminded of the AIDS epidemic and its cruel reality. That is more important to me than going all Uncle Tom’s Cabin on a film’s ass when – like Lees – I haven’t even seen said movie. I don’t care that [maybe] a quarter of the Looking cast are straight as the writing speaks to me and my partner more than any other gay drama has for years (and is more adept than the likes of EastEnders at introducing trans characters without fanfare). No-one cared that the actress Linda Hunt won Best Supporting Actress in 1984 for playing a man (and not a trans man) in The Year of Living Dangerously. She won it because she was the best performer in an incredible performance I didn’t know was a woman for years. Likewise, I don’t care that gay actors have been playing straight family men onscreen since the Lumiere Brothers sold their first box of popcorn. The history of gay representation (for good or bad) is still gay history. The same will surely be said for trans representation, no?
Having been involved in some casting sessions involving LGBT characters, the upshot question is always “is this actor great for the role?” – not are they gay or are they straight, trans or not trans? The recent Kingsman – The Secret Service cast an able-bodied woman as a blade-footed assassin. It is utterly comic book fare, but suddenly idle copy makers and self anointed spokespeople are up in arms (be they real or prosthetic) that no paraplegic actresses were cast for the role. The producers purported response is that no paraplegic actress was right for that particular role. Now suddenly the cause of disabled actresses the world over has been dealt a substantial blow and we are all 1950s bullyboys who kill kittens and stop black kids getting on the school bus. Never mind that London 2012 made heroes and household names of our disabled athletes because they were fast and good at their sport, NOT because they were disabled. But meanwhile in the real world (where a lot of disabled folk don’t have the time or energy to be constantly offended as their day to day life takes enough effort), some kid born without any workable legs is passing a cinema and seeing a poster of a rather cool paraplegic character in a popcorn flick, being what they are (physically) and looking damn cool to boot. I doubt very much if such a kid races home to instant IMDB disappointment to realise the actress in question was actually able-bodied and the blades were merely CGI. I hate to tell folk but Chiwetel Ejiofor didn’t actually spend twelve years as a slave, Boyhood’s Patricia Arquette is not actually Ellar Coltrane’s mother and Daniel Day Lewis has not only never been president he can walk on his left foot too. So surely we need to be grown up and assume that trans characters should be afforded the same stories regardless of who plays them. And before I get accused of equating being gay with being trans, I am not. Likewise, when someone has no problem with a man playing a trans woman I do not expect to be labelled ‘trans-phobic’ – a red card which gets held up far too often.
No-one is saying that trans actors and stories should be grateful for what ‘crumbs’ they get. The likes of EastEnders, Banana, Hollyoaks, Orange Is The New Black and Trans Parent are finally and rightfully addressing the balance at long last. However I am reminded of Harvey Feinstein defending really bad and camp portrayals of gay men in the Hollywood of the 1930s and 1940s in The Celluloid Closet. It wasn’t an easy conclusion he states, but it was maybe a wise one – it was ultimately better to be represented badly onscreen than not at all.
My first awareness of an onscreen trans character was John Lithgow in the brilliant The World According To Garp (1982). He was a support character, but gave it great Oscar-nominated dignity, humour and femininity. I was instantly aware of a lady figure in the story, a trans character and that trans people are out there and getting on with their lives. I was not hitting a wall of confusion and offence because the actor John Lithgow was actually a straight married man and not a trans woman.
And as for Lees being anti Redmaye in Danish Girl? This business we call show is still a business. Current market realities would probably see an unknown trans actress playing Lili Ilbe and the film crash and burn at the one screening at the Brixton Picturehouse on a Tuesday afternoon. Maybe getting the film out there, with all the subsequent debate and idea-challenging notions of trans life (both then and now) sees the casting of Redmayne as wholly apt and dignified. Even if the debates are about whether it is right for a straight man to play an individual who was always a woman, the debates are being had. Redmayne may well grab a second, successive Oscar for the role and high street audiences become a little more clued up on the trans condition by way of one particular trans pioneer.
Could a trans actress play the same role? Of course she could. And of course she will one day. Will a 2014 trans actress attract the budget and profile for such a story to come to production and exhibition fruition? It’s [currently] questionable. The producers of Danish Girl are reported to have been very careful with their casting decisions. Trans actors have been sought and fill out other roles and Redmayne allegedly got the gig over the likes of Nicole Kidman. Just as Maxine Peake does Hamlet onstage to blistering effect and proves that the best performer got the role maybe – just maybe – Eddie Redmayne got the role because he has nailed the soul, dignity and fight of the part. His pre-Oscar bankability was certainly not hoping to shift units on his name alone.
As Laurence Olivier once calmly remarked on-set to a method-obsessed Dustin Hoffman who couldn’t understand his lack of character preparation… “it’s called acting dear boy“.