Drag in Cinema: The 1980s

| Apr 13, 2020
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Drag in Cinema from our TGF Archives has covered the use of characters in drag, mostly men crossdressing as women, from the days of silent movies up until the the 1970s. This brand new edition of Drag in Cinema takes a look at the films released in the 1980s.

Julie Andrews as Victor.

Victor Victoria was the first major motion picture of the ’80s with a gender crosser and it was released in 1982. The gender crossing in this film was from female to male but the character, played by Julie Andrews, was a woman disguised as a man disguised as a woman. The film was a remake of the 1933 German film Viktor und Viktoria. In Paris impoverished soprano Victoria Grant comes home from an audition that failed to get her the job only to find out that she has been evicted from her apartment for nonpayment of rent. As she wanders the streets she falls in with Carroll ‘Toddy’ Todd, an aging gay performer played by Robert Preston. Toddy has fallen out with his lover and invites Victoria to stay at his place. Her clothing has been ruined by the rain and the next day she dresses in Toddy’s former lover’s clothes. When he comes to remove his things Victoria is hiding in the closet. When the door is opened by Toddy’s former paramour Victoria punches him and gives him a broken nose. She kicks him out and seeing her act in this asserrive, manly manner inspires Toddy to pass Victoria off as a man and present her to Andre Cassell, the most successful agent in Paris, as a female impersonator named Count Victor Grazinski. Much comedy ensues as the two embark on this deception.

Dustin Hoffman as Dorothy.

Tootsie released in 1982 was about Michael Dorsey, a good actor whose perfectionism made him hard for directors and other actors to work with. Played by Dustin Hoffman, Dorsey is desperate for work and when he hears about an audition for the role of a female hospital administrator on a long running soap opera he decides to pass himself off as a woman and go to the audition. Of course liberties are taken with how Dorsey manages to transform himself into Dorothy Michaels and be allowed into the audition but he lands the part and soon is a national sensation on daytime TV. He plays the character against type. Normally such roles are played as swooning women who defer to the strong male characters but Dorothy makes “her” character a feisty feminist. Dustin Hoffman prepared for the role by watching La Cage aux Folles several times and visiting a crossdresser transformation service for advice and feminizing undergarments.

Glenn Milstead as the decidedly unglamorous Edna Turnblad.

The film Hairspray was released in 1988. It features Rikki Lake as “pleasantly plump” Tracy Turnblad, a high school girl who wants to appear as a regular on a local dance party TV show. Harris Glenn Milstead who created the drag character Divine for director John Waters took the role of Edna Turnblad, Tracy’s kind, plus-sized mother who is ashamed of her obesity. Milstead also plays a male role in the film,. Set in 1962 the film has themes of acceptance of those who are different, and addresses the issue of racism. While Milstead always insisted that he was not a drag queen and Divine was a character he created you will find Divine in the cast listing on IMDB. He took on the Edna Turnblad role as he would any other role and considered himself to be an actor, not a drag performer.

Harvey Fierstein in Torch Song Trilogy

1988 brought us Torch Song Trilogy. The film is based on three one act plays by Harvey Fierstein. Arnold, a famous drag queen, tragically lost his lover Alan in a hate crime. Arnold is now torn between his memories of Alan, his bisexual lover Ed, their new adopted teenage gay son David and Arnold’s never quite satisfied mother. Fierstein starred as Arnold and wasn’t the only drag act in the film. Fierstein created the role of Bertha Venation especially for noted female impersonator Charles Pierce. The film also features Anne Bancroft, and Matthew Broderick. The play the film is based on was four hours long. As with most lengthy and complex works the film version chopped out two hours and a large portion of the subplots. A review in The New York Times said “… the film version emphasizes the lovable at every turn, but the surprise is that it does this entertainingly and well.” While exposing some of the world of gay men and drag performers to a large audience the film grossed $4,870,903 worldwide.

Next month we delve into the use of drag in films from the 1990s.

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Category: Transgender Fun & Entertainment


About the Author ()

Angela Gardner is a founding member of The Renaissance Transgender Assoc., Inc., former editor of its newsletter and magazine, Transgender Community News. She was the Diva of Dish for TGF in the late 1990s and Editor of LadyLike magazine until its untimely demise. She has appeared in film and television shows portraying TG characters, as well as representing Renaissance on numerous talk shows.

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