The Critical Mass

America isn’t ready for a transgender Tea Party

Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey.

Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey.

Last night I spent $4.99 to see Dallas Buyers Club, the first time I’ve ever purchased a movie on my TV. The cable folks sure make it easy to take your money, don’t they? I’m now a big fan of the movie’s star, Matthew McConaughey, thanks to his work on what appears to be the best show on television, HBO’s  True Detective. I say “appears,” because my field of vision is somewhat limited; these days I watch only spring-training baseball and Roger Corman films. But I get McConaughey. We speak in the same mumbling tone, uttering the same cosmic non-sequiturs seemingly influenced by the writings of Carlos Castaneda and The Fortean Times.

McConaughey’s Dallas Buys Club performance, in which he plays an HIV patient who takes his treatment into his own hands, struck me as worthy of the Best Actor Oscar that he was awarded last week. But what about the movie’s Best Supporting Actor winner, Jared Leto? I’ve been reading some backlash on that one.

No one seems to be disputing Leto’s actual performance as an HIV-positive transgender woman. He portrayed it with the appropriate levels of wispy, assertive and tragic. The criticism is: Why was the character played by a straight male actor, rather than a transgender person?

It’s a legit question, one that goes back a long way in film history. Al Jolson, who by all accounts was the furthest thing from a racist, in blackface. I’ve seen movies with Burt Lancaster as a Mexican man (A Touch of Evil) and Marlon Brando as a Japanese man (The Teahouse of the August Moon). Dozens of white guys have cinematically morphed into Native Americans (most recently Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger). Gary Sinise needed a computer to digitally erase his legs so he could be an amputee (Forrest Gump). The men of Monty Python played women as screeching biddies.

The past does not excuse the present. But how far are we allowed to carry this argument? Meryl Streep is praised for a career built on assuming a dizzying array of accents. But should a Polish woman have been given Streep’s role in Sophie’s Choice? As winner of the Best Actress Oscar that year, she apparently was convincing enough.

Rock Hudson played straight men throughout his entire film career, in a time when gay actors found it professionally necessary to hide the details of their private lives. But today, gay and lesbian actors play straight roles, and straight actors play gay and lesbian roles. And no one thinks twice.

Few arguments are as useless as “…isn’t ready for.” As in, “America isn’t ready for a black president.” “America isn’t ready to end segregation.” “The NFL isn’t ready for a gay player.”  But people asked the right questions, society moved forward, and we got the black president and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and we’re getting the gay NFL player.

I think it’s fine that Leto played a transgender person in a movie. Just as it seems perfectly appropriate that the decision to cast him in that role was questioned. Both points of view play a role in change.

Just last month, Michele Bachmann – once a front-running candidate for the Republican nomination for president – said that America isn’t ready for a woman in the White House. We’ll see if Hilary Clinton can drag her into the 21st century. And when they make that bio-pic about Tea Party darling Bachmann, I hope we have a transgender actor available for the part.