Sunday, December 02, 2007

Culture & Cinema: The Chicken or the Egg?

I was recently watching a promo for a new movie about Bob Dylan's life. In it, I learned that several actors play the music icon throughout the many years of his life.  Interstingly, one of the actors is black.  But what tops that is another who's female.
Kate Blanchett plays Bob Dylan for a portion of the film.  While I can appreciate the thespian expertise required for a woman to convincingly play a man under the scrutiny of a close-up movie camera (and not the forgiveness of a distant stage), it gave me reason to pause and consider just what is taking place.  Of course, it's not uncommon for actors of one gender to portray those of another.  Barbara Striesand played a woman fronting as a man in Yentl several years ago.  Tootsie comes to my mind as a hallmark movie that paraded cross-dressing in comedic fashion before the cameras.  And, more recently, there's "Mrs. Doubtfire" and the "Big Mama" movies.
But in each of these cases, the cross-dressing (or transgender?) aspect was explained otherwise.  Yentl's motives were for the sake of an education traditionally denied to women in Jewish culture (and she fell in love with a man while pursuing that education).  Tootsie did it to find work in acting.  And Mrs. Doubrfire and Big Mama weren't really treading that heavily upon gender identity grounds.
But, of course, we're not talking about women playing men (or men playing women) as a part of a movie plot.  We're talking about a woman cast as a man in a movie.
Yet even that is hardly unheard of.  In the more timely productions of Shakespeare's works, men often played women on stage - for a lack of female actors.  And the role of Peter Pan in productions of the Lost Boys has had a traditionally female cast.  In the case of Dylan, perhaps the plausible explanation comes from  the example of Peter Pan - that just as a female actor best represented a pre-pubescent boy so also Blanchett was an excellent choice to represent the physical stature of Dylan in the time of his life she portrays, even though he's a fully-grown adult.
But this is a day where cross-dressing and trans-genderism are fast becoming pivotal issues.  Governor Schwarzenegger recently signed into law a bill that requires school faculty (from primary grades through high school) to recognize a student's "gender identity".  That is, if a boy decides he's a girl, then the schools must recognize him as such - to the end that he may have access to girl's bathrooms and locker rooms.  We'll see how this plays out in the courts and the local PTA meetings.
The role of Dylan played by Kate Blanchett is hardly scandalous, but given the current consciousness of trans-gendered behavior, it is interesting to note the level at which the issue is addressed in this movie.  It's not like Brokeback Mountain, where the homosexual lifestyle was openly portrayed and promoted (indeed, homosexuality was the entire premise of the movie).  In Dylan, the issue of trans-genderism (or cross-dressing) is not the issue.  Yet the issue can hardly be ignored when it is communicated on the more subtle level of the casting of a female actor in the role of a mature adult man. 
On a purely artistic / professional level, I don't doubt Ms. Blanchett's performance will prove to be convincing and entertaining (in fact, it's already recieved such recognition).  And, if one so chooses, I imagine nothing further need be assumed by it.  Yet I cannot help but notice that the novelty of this little gender-bender stands as a reminder of the popular idea that one's gender is purely a matter of their own choosing. 
As I recall, it used to be that the culture influenced the cinema - that which took place in real life was reflected in the movies.  Yet I suspect that we are now witnessing the cinema influencing the culture.  If a woman can be convincingly cast as a man for a role in which there were, no doubt many male actors who could have convincingly played the part, does this not constitute (in at least some small way), the further normalizing of transgenderism in America on a level that Tootsie, Mrs. Doubtfire, and Big Mama do not?
It appears to me to be a classic case of the chicken and the egg: the media which was intended to reflect the reality about us is also interpreting it to us...
Just my thoughts.

1 comment:

Rob Z. said...

My take on it is that Blanchett is intended to represent Dylan as a pure artist, apart from his being a man. In other words, portraying Dylan's artistic talent as transcendant beyond physical realities. Tough to pull off, I'll grant you. David Lynch did something somewhat similar in "Lost Highway" without the gender change. He swapped actors at various scenes, presumably in an attempt to show qualities of the characters that transcended physical appearance and voice.