Are you tired off all the mainstream Hollywood films featuring traditional movie stars? If that’s the case, you should give transsexual cinema a try. These offbeat and frequently touching motion pictures offer a unique perspective on life, as they feature characters who were born one gender but strongly identity with the other. For the purposes of this list, this definition could extend to pre-op transsexuals, post-op transsexuals, drag queens, or transvestites. Some people can get very specific about the definitions of each, but you get the general idea. After all, this is a site dedicated to films outside of the mainstream, not a medical journal. One thing that’s certain, though, it that the term “shemale” is considered offensive by almost all in the transgender community.
The following movie list contains 18 examples of transsexual cinema. While many empathize with the struggle over gender identity, there are a few where transgender individuals are cast as monsters or villains. Most are foreign and lesser-known films, but a few have managed to win Academy Awards or even become a cultural phenomenon. Homophobes need not apply, but everyone else should have a great time discovering this unique cinematic sub-genre for the first time.
- Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971) – In this odd British film, Dr. Henry Jekyll (Ralph Bates) takes female hormones during his experiments and ends up transforming into the sexy-yet-evil Edwina Hyde (Martine Beswick). Notorious English body-snatchers Burke and Hare make an appearance, and the whole thing gets tied into the Jack the Ripper murders.
- Beautiful Boxer (2004) – The true story of Nong Toom, a champion Muay Thai boxer (as well as a model and actress) who also happens to be a male-to-female transsexual. Already a star in her native Thailand, the film made Toom an international celebrity and sex symbol.
- Glen or Glenda (1953) – Notorious schlock filmmaker Ed Wood, himself a transvestite, wrote, directed, and starred in this film about a man who feels more comfortable in women’s clothing. Then things get really weird, as Bela Lugosi keeps showing up as a scientist (one time infamously yelling “Pull the string!” as images of stampeding buffalo appear on the screen). There’s also a soldier fighting in WWII while wearing women’s underwear.
- The Adventure of Iron Pussy (2003) – This action/comedy/musical from Thailand is a throwback to their cinema of the 1970s, and it stars Michael Shaowanasai (who also co-directed) as Iron Pussy, a sexy transvestite secret agent whose alter-ego is a mild-mannered clerk at a Bangkok 7-Eleven. The film is intentionally dubbed to enhance the retro look, with a female actress providing the voice and singing for Iron Pussy.
- Transamerica (2005) – Felicity Huffman received an Oscar nomination for her role as a transsexual woman who bails the son she never knew she had (Kevin Zegers) out of jail and then embarks on a road trip with him. Dolly Parton contributes a song to the soundtrack, and co-stars include Graham Greene, Burt Young, and Elizabeth Pena.
- Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001) – John Cameron Mitchell directs and also stars as Hansel Schmidt, an East German boy who falls in love with an American soldier and has a sex change operation in order to be married. But the procedure is botched, leaving Hansel (now known as Hedwig) with a one-inch mound of flesh between her legs. After her true love leaves her for a man, Hedwig forms a band consisting of Korean-born Army wives, and they bring rock and roll to a variety of strip malls and seafood restaurants. Based on the stage musical of the same name.
- Ma vie en rose (1997) – A Belgian film about a young boy named Ludovic (Georges du Fresne) who insists he should have been born a girl. As he explores his gender identity, it leads to problems for his parents and numerous conflicts within the family. While the film contains very little in the way of sex or violence, it still earned an R rating from the prudes over at the MPAA.
- The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) – A cultural phenomenon in its home country of Australia, this vibrant comedy-drama follows two gay drag queens (Guy Pearce, Hugo Weaving) and a transsexual woman (Terence Stamp) as they head across the expansive outback on the way to a show in a remote town.
- En Soap (2006) – A Danish comedy about the romance between a melancholy pre-op transsexual (Trine Dyrholm) and the owner of a beauty clinic (David Dencik). Winner of numerous awards at international film festivals.
- Breakfast on Pluto (2005) – Neil Jordan (The Crying Game) directs another film involving a transgender person, this time with Cillian Murphy in the role of an Irish orphan who heads to London to find her mother. Dubbing herself “Kitten,” she rubs elbows with punk rockers, the IRA, and British soldiers, thus reflecting the turbulent times of 1970’s London. Co-starring Liam Neeson, Stephen Rea, and Brendan Gleeson.
- Orlando (1992) – Based on the novel of the same name, Orlando stars Tilda Swinton as an immortal nobleman who later magically changes gender. From the Elizabethan Age to the 1990s, Orlando lives her life and engages in a number of romances and adventures. Billy Zane co-stars.
- Yellow Hair 2 (2001) – With South Korean transsexual Harisu cast in the lead role as a biker who moonlights as a nightclub singer, the film tells the story of four individuals in a disjointed narrative style before bringing them together for a tragic ending.
- The Iron Ladies (2000) – An international hit from Thailand based on a true story, the film tells the tale of a men’s volleyball team made up of gay and transgender males. While unpopular with officials and fellow players, they prove a huge hit with the crowd.
- The Crying Game (1992) – The most famous example of a transgender person in cinema, the film stars Stephen Rea as Fergus, a member of the IRA who falls for the girlfriend (Jaye Davidson) of a dead British soldier (Forest Whitaker). But when the girlfriend turns out to have a secret, Fergus must grapple with issues of love and masculinity.
- Boys Don’t Cry (1999) – Based on a true story, this film won a Best Actress Oscar for Hilary Swank and propelled her onto the Hollywood A-list. She stars as Brandon Teena, born female but living the life of a man. After moving to Nebraska, he falls in love with a girl (Chloe Sevigny) but soon faces the wrath of his homophobic friends (Peter Sarsgaard and Brendan Sexton III).
- Holiday Heart (2000) – While it may be a TV movie, it still makes the list thanks to the massive Ving Rhames starring as a gay drag queen named Holiday Heart. Alfre Woodard co-stars as the drug-addicted single mother befriended by Holiday.
- Dressed to Kill (1980) – Angie Dickinson plays an oversexed housewife who gets her throat slashed in the early goings of the film, and then we shift to a high-priced hooker played by Nancy Allen. She’s stalked by the same killer, who ends up being a transgender person named Bobbi. I won’t reveal Bobbi’s alter-ego, as that would be spoiling the ending. Co-starring Michael Caine and Keith Gordon. Director Brian De Palma caught a lot of flak from the transgender community for this film, and even genetic women accused him of being a misogynist.
- Zerophilia (2006) – A bizarre film about a fictional medical condition where the individual changes gender when sexually aroused. A romantic comedy, it stars Taylor Handley as the zerophiliac, and Kelly LeBrock co-stars as one of his conquests.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this look at transsexual cinema. For more weird movies to watch, be sure to click on the following links: