Tag Archives: Transvestite

CAPSULE: SONNY BOY (1989)

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DIRECTED BY: Robert Martin Carroll

FEATURING: Paul L. Smith, Brad Dourif, Michael Boston,

PLOT: A small-town band of desert criminals steals a car with a baby in the backseat; the evil patriarch orders him to be raised as one of them.

Still from Sonny Boy (1989)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It misses by a hair. Make no mistake, Sonny Boy is a unique, and weird, cult classic horror/comedy/genre-defying oddball. It is beautifully shot, marvelously acted, and defiantly marches to the beat of its own drummer. But its story is straightforward and linear, and it stays grounded mostly in reality. As hillbilly exploitation, it lies on a spectrum between Deliverance and Gummo. But at least 50% of its weirdness comes from David-Carradine-In-Drag, and we’ve seen much worse in any film.

COMMENTS: The opening prepares you in no way for what you’re about to see. David Carradine sings a folksy country number (written by him—we later see him perform it on the piano) that sounds like a homage to John Denver. This plays over helicopter shots of placid New Mexico heartland. Soon we’ll be seeing David in the cast, and are we in for a surprise. A minute after the credits, the infant child of two parents shot over a car-jacking gone wrong narrates, with a clown doll leering at us as the thief speeds away in their 1958 Lincoln Continental Mark III, and we find ourselves in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas territory. Welcome to Sonny Boy, enjoy your ride.

The carjacked baby ends up the adoptee of “Slue,” (Paul L. Smith,  who played “Bluto” in ‘s Popeye), the small town crime baron of Harmony, New Mexico, and his wife, David-Carradine-In-Drag (“Pearl”). Carradine dominates every scene he’s in–because that’s the Kill Bill guy in a dress, acting downright maternal. He gets more hilarious as the film wears on, turning gray and grandmotherly as Sonny’s life story unfolds. Slue’s flunkie apologizes—“I didn’t know nuthin’ ’bout no baby”—but Sonny’s fate is sealed when David-Carradine-In-Drag cradles him to his breast (?) and declares “This is MY baby!” Slue is a destructive man who blows up cars with a canon for fun, and his paternal instincts turn out to be equally warped. Slue and his merry band of henchmen live a post-apocalyptic existence, with TV sets stacked like Legos and junk cars dotting the landscape like grazing buffalo, amongst herds of roaming hogs.

We’re given glimpses of Sonny’s childhood in installments, including a birthday party with, yes, the infamous tongue-cutting scene. The festive balloons and animal masks lend the scene the eeriness of a cult ritual, which is about the right mindset for fans of this movie at this point. Sonny is raised as a psychopath-in-training, alternately dragged behind cars and staked out in a ring of fire. Eventually he is Continue reading CAPSULE: SONNY BOY (1989)

I AM DIVINE (2013)

DIRECTED BY: Jeffrey Schwarz

FEATURING: (archival footage), , Frances Milstead

PLOT: This documentary chronicles the life of Glenn Milstead, from a chunky effeminate nerd who got beat up at school to the iconic, outrageous and obscene 300 pound drag queen Divine, the main attraction in John Waters’ transgressive early comedies.

Still from I Am Divine
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: As a straightforward documentary on a strange guy who just happened to star in some pretty weird movies, it’s purely supplemental material.

COMMENTS: One of the biggest questions raised by I Am Divine is, do you refer to Divine as “he” or “she”? John Waters, the foremost living authority on the subject, always refers to Divine as “he,” probably because when he thinks of Divine he thinks of Glenn Milstead. Other interviewees are inconsistent, swerving between gender pronouns. Divine, the foul-mouthed three-hundred pound harridan in clown makeup, is clearly a she, while the performer who portrays the character is clearly a he. There isn’t much conflict in this haigiographic documentary that means to celebrate Divine’s life and legacy, but to the extent that there is, one of the two key tensions is the one between she and he, between Divine and Glen. Divine swallowed Glen, and he was unable to escape her mighty maw and forge the independent career as a male character actor that he desired. (The other important conflict, which occurs more on the surface level, is between Glen and his parents, who initially reject him as a freak, then touchingly reconcile late in life).

I Am Divine does a fine job of shrinking this giant career down to a ninety minute snapshot. It’s thorough (even fitting in Divine’s brief stint as a disco diva) while remaining fast-paced and succinct. The John Waters years are covered in detail, and some may appreciate the clips of rarely seen pre-Pink Flamingos films like 1968’s Eat Your Makeup (with Divine as Jackie in an incredibly tasteless recreation of the Kennedy assassination). Although little is revealed here that will shock Divine’s hardcore followers, there are a few surprise tidbits for casual fans: salacious stories suggesting that Milstead’s appetites for sex and pot may have rivaled his love of doughnuts, and scenes from his live show that demonstrate his talent for Don Rickles-styled improvisational insult comicry. Milstead was large enough to have his own gravitational pull (his image even dwarfed a character like John Waters) and some of the movie’s most revealing insights involve Divine’s satellites. Belated credit is given to Van Smith for creating the arch makeup that defined Divine, and the curious will learn the sad answer to the question, “whatever happened to Dreamlander stalwart David Lochary?”

Divine is inspirational to gays for obvious reasons, but the character’s appeal crosses the sexual orientation line. Divine is appealing because she represents the triumph of the misfit, the ugly, the loser. As Waters points out, Divine takes everything that people laughed at Glen Milstead for—his effeminacy, his weight—and “exaggerated it and turned it into a style.” Divine proves that “undesirable” traits can be turned into assets when they’re embraced rather than hidden away, which is a powerful solace to anyone who feels like an outsider forced to pretend to be normal.

I Am Divine was a Kickstarter success story, raising over $50,000 (of a requested $40K) for post-production and licensing costs. Hundreds of names of fans who paid $10 or more for the privilege appear in the seemingly endless credits. Given that the film was made explicitly “BY and FOR” Divine fans, nothing appears here that is too penetrating or negative. The reverential interviews and clips meet, but don’t exceed, your expectations for a documentary about Divine. Still, true priests and priestesses in Divine’s peculiar cult of trash camp will eat this movie up like Divine eats… well, you know.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…shows how the future John Waters muse transformed from an isolated, weird kid into an over-the-top, proudly freakish star… a striking tribute to the pioneering spirit, radical queerness and sheer divinity of Divine.”–Ethan LaCroix, Time Out New York (contemporaneous)

170. GLEN OR GLENDA (1953)

“Some argue that this kind of thing puts Ed Wood into the company of Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí.

Should we buy this argument? Pull the string!”–IMDB Glen or Glenda FAQ

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Ed Wood, Jr. (as Daniel Davis), Dolores Fuller, Timothy Farrell,

PLOT: A transvestite is found dead, a suicide. Seeking to understand more about this phenomenon, a police inspector visits a psychiatrist who explains transvestism to him using the example of Glen, a heterosexual man who is tormented by the question of whether he should reveal his passion for cross-dressing to his fiancée. Meanwhile, a sinister, omniscient “scientist” (played by Bela Lugosi) occasionally appears to cryptically comment on the action (“pull the string!”)

Still from Glen or Glenda? (1953)
BACKGROUND:

  • Producer George Weiss wanted to make a film to exploit the then-current case of Christine Jorgensen (born George William Jorgensen), one of the first men to have successful sex-reassignment surgery. According to legend, Ed Wood convinced Weiss that he was the right man to direct the picture because he was a transvestite in his private life and understood gender confusion. The resulting film, shot in just four days, ended up being more about transvestism than sex-change surgery.
  • Against Wood’s wishes, Weiss inserted bondage-themed imagery into the dream sequence to give the film a dash more sex.
  • Wood himself plays the transvestite Glen (and Glenda) under the pseudonym Daniel Davis.
  • In his own life, Wood did not take the advice he gave his character in Glen or Glenda to honestly discuss his desire to wear women’s clothes with his betrothed. Wood’s first wife had their marriage annulled in 1955, after Ed surprised her by wearing ladies’ undergarments to their honeymoon.
  • This is the first of three collaborations between Wood and then down-on-his-luck and opiate-addicted Bela Lugosi. Three of Lugosi’s final four credits were Wood films.
  • Some reviews of Glen or Glenda refer to Lugosi’s character as “the Spirit” rather than “the Scientist”; were there two separate sets of credits, each with a different name for the character?
  • Wood’s 1963 novel “Killer in Drag” features a transvestite character named Glen whose alter-ego is named Glenda.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Such a wealth of possibilities! What about the hairy Satan who inexplicably shows up at Glen and Barbara’s dream wedding? And who can forget Bela Lugosi, yelling nonsense at the viewer while his angry face is superimposed over a herd of stampeding buffalo? The iconic image, however, is Wood’s intended emotional climax: in a ridiculously touching gesture of unconditional acceptance, Glen’s girlfriend Barbara strips off her angora sweater and hands it to the wide-eyed transvestite.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A narratively-knotted 1950s pro-transvestite pseudo-documentary, told in naively earnest rhetoric via a wandering structure that includes flashbacks inside of flashbacks, would have made for a worthwhile oddity in itself. But throw in Bela Lugosi as a one-man Greek chorus reciting fractured fairy tales, and include a fourteen-minute dream sequence mixing Freudian symbolism, bargain-basement Expressionism, bondage, and a guest appearance by the Devil and you achieve incomparable weirdness, the way only Ed Wood could serve it up—on a bed of angora.


Clip from Glen or Glenda

COMMENTS: Ed Wood had a secret, and it’s not just that he liked the feel of silk panties under his rough trousers. Transvestism, in a way, was the Continue reading 170. GLEN OR GLENDA (1953)

CASPULE: TRASH [ANDY WARHOL’S TRASH] (1970)

DIRECTED BY: Paul Morrisey

FEATURING: , Holly Woodlawn

PLOT:  All the women (and the men dressed as women) want hunky Joe Dallesandro, but

Still from Andy Warhol's Trash (1970)

he’s impotent from shooting too much junk; he lives with a woman who furnishes their hovel with castoff items she finds left on Manhattan curbs for trash pickup, and the two dream of getting on welfare someday.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Though Trash is about weird people and has its “off” moments, it’s not quite weird enough for the ListTrash was cutting-edge in style, concept and subject matter when it came out in 1970.  But in the forty years since its debut, the sad lives of lowlife junkies and social outcasts have been tapped many times, and Trash‘s casual, near-documentary approach (accurately) makes a drug addict’s life seem painfully banal most of the time.  Paul Morrissey and Andy Warhol have collaborated on weirder projects.

COMMENTS:  Told in a pseudo-documentary style with partially improvised dialogue, on one level Trash is a gritty and realistic slice-of-life drama about deadbeat druggies on Manhattan’s lower east side.  It glides from meaningless episode to meaningless episode; Joe Dallesandro searches for his next fix and can’t get an erection no matter how many ladies try to seduce him; Holly Woodlawn keeps searching through the neighbors’ trash for stuff she can use, but she never finds any hidden treasure.  Their dreams are pathetically small but still far beyond their grasp, and by the end the conjoined losers end up exactly where they started.  Fortunately for us, plenty of weirdos drift into their lives in the meantime—a go-go dancer, a rich girl looking for an acid connection, an out-of-his-depth high school student, Holly’s pregnant sister, a welfare bureaucrat.  A few of these encounters are completely naturalistic, but most have an absurd edge to them.  Trying to turn Joe on, the go-go dancer breaks into a song and dance number, backed by swinging strands of Christmas lights on the stripper’s stage she has in her living room. The welfare functionary can’t approve a junkie for the public dole, but he’s willing to strike a fairly Continue reading CASPULE: TRASH [ANDY WARHOL’S TRASH] (1970)