A Starz Inside production, Ladies or Gentlemen is a concise history of cross-dressing in cinema, tracing the roots of men dressed as women and visa versa in Greek and Shakespearean theatre to present day films such as White Chicks (a film that makes the point of our acceptance of deriving humour in seeing men dressed as women, even though the ‘drag’ stylistics of the lead actors involves grotesque makeup, mannequin contact lenses, and blank, zombie expressions – hardly feminine or uber-feminine caricatures).
Based on the book by Jean-Louis Ginibre, director Kevin Burns (Cleopatra: The Film That Changed Hollywood) divides the narrative into a handful of informative chapters, backed up with film clips and interviews with actors such as Tim Curry (The Rocky Horror Picture Show), Tony Curtis (Some Like It Hot), Henry Gibson; directors John Waters (Pink Flamingos) and John Landis (who also executive produced); and writers Camille Paglia, Rebecca Bell-Metereau (Hollywood Androgyny), and Michael Musto; and clinical psychologist Steven Sultanoff, Ph.D. and Pamela C. Regan, Ph.D.
The main chapters deal with male/female cross-dressing (Tootsie, Mrs. Doubtfire, Shakespeare in Love), as well as transvestites (Rocky Horror), gay characters (The Birdcage), and the issue of gender-bending and blurring sexual identities within the comedy genre – probably the safest vehicle for average moviegoers who might be more wary of sexual identity as a root element in strong dramas like Boys Don’t Cry.
Transvestite Divine (Pink Flamingos) is given a nice bio/tribute by Waters, and Landis also chimes in with his own meeting with Ed Wood Jr. (Glen or Glenda), whom Tim Burton and Johnny Depp immortalized (quite affectionately, if not heroically) in Ed Wood.
The doc concludes with a brief segment on cross-dressing and gender confusion (or aspirations) as being elemental to crime films about deviant characters, such as the serial killers in Psycho and The Silence of the Lambs.
RuPaul’s narration is buoyant and genial, and the interviews ensure Burns’ doc is more than mere fluff. Lengthy semiotic texts have been written about gender in film, so Burns balances quality comments with familiar images in this breezy documentary.
© 2009 Mark R. Hasan
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