Dude looks like a lady: Felicity Huffman, Catherine Zeta-Jones

Question: Why are actresses playing transsexuals in movies lately? First Felicity Huffman and now possibly Catherine Zeta-Jones. I think it's completely ridiculous/offensive that these roles aren't being cast with actual transsexual actors. Not only would that be a wonderful way to represent more diversity in Hollywood, but it makes sense to cast someone whose own life is the same as the character's. Being a transsexual is not a mere lifestyle choice that an actor can emulate; it's a gender. This new trend is like having a man play a woman, a woman play a man or even having one race play another — a practice I thought had finally left Hollywood.


Answer: First, I need to point out that even by the laziest J-school standards, it takes three instances to make a trend. Right now we've got one confirmed instance — Felicity Huffman as a fictional pre-op transsexual in Transamerica (2005) — and one maybe — Catherine Zeta-Jones has been approached about playing pioneering British transsexual April Ashley, who underwent sexual reassignment surgery in 1960 (and was only the ninth known person to have done so), in a film about Ashley's life. In February 2006, Ashley told U.K. newspaper the Independent that she thought Zeta-Jones was ideal: "I like to think that she epitomises everything I stood for when I was young — which was sheer old-fashioned Hollywood glamour," Ashley said. "And she's very much like me physically, when I was that age." Beyond that, you could reach back into the ever-present recent past of TV's Friends and include Kathleen Turner's performance as Chandler Bing's transgendered father. And you'd have to reach back even farther than that for examples like the androgynously pseudonymous Jean Arless (really actress Joan Marshall) in Homicidal (1961) and Karen Black in Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982). Not exactly a high-heeled stampede.

But there's clearly a larger ideological issue at stake: Should actors be in real life what they are on screen? And I have to say that my overall feeling is no — playing what you aren't is what acting is all about. The obvious exception for me is race: It's insulting and utterly unnecessary for white actors to play black or Asian characters, though when you come to biracial characters, the issue is a little less clear-cut simply because there is no one way that biracial people look. But should you have to be Jewish to play a Jew (or a Buddhist or a Muslim or a Catholic) on screen? Many people would argue passionately that religious faith is as integral and vital a part of cultural and personal identity as gender, but I can't imagine defending the idea that a Mormon actor can't play a Methodist minister. Ditto the issue of sexual identity: Do you have to be homosexual to play gay or heterosexual to play straight? Irish actor Cillian Murphy isn't a female-identified, biologically male transvestite, but does that diminish his performance in Breakfast on Pluto (2004)? Do you have to have children to do justice to the role of a parent? And finally, did April Ashley or Caroline Cossey — who worked as a fashion model and occasional actress in the '70s and '80s under the name Tula — violate the integrity of their own male-to-female transgendered natures by playing bit parts as women in The Road to Hong Kong (1962) and For Your Eyes Only (1981)? Again, ultimately I don't think so.