This week we watched Some Like It Hot, a comedy featuring The Marilyn Monroe which, much like Boys Don’t Cry, was ahead of its time in terms of blurring gender norms and exploring what it takes to be a passable cross-dresser in America; except this time instead of the grungy deep-south, Joe and Jerry (desperate Chicagoan musicians) try their hand at Floridian high-society in women-only band. Some Like It Hot takes a more humorous approach to the subject matter but in the end drives home the point that love is blind to social structures such as gender, class and age.
Marilyn Monroe, known to me mainly as a beauty icon, blew me away with her performance. This was my first Marilyn movie and I’m not sure I could have picked a better one. After the movie I was discussing some of her acting choices with friends; how she managed to play drunk so convincingly, and how she seemed to be moving her head and eyes constantly. I thought these were very distinct acting choices highlighting some emotional turmoil, drawn from some indeterminate past relationship in the actor’s life (or something to at effect), only to be enlightened by my friend who proceeded to tell me three very interesting points about Marilyn during the filming of this movie.
Divorce, drinking and miscarriages, oh my.
Marilyn plays the perfect debutant, with her golden locks and sultry voice, but during this movie (I assume between takes) Marilyn was a borderline alcoholic. This was likely due to her recent divorce/miscarriage, maybe the divorce was a consequence of the miscarriage; whatever the case may be, Marilyn was in dire straits.
As for the constant movement of her eyes and head? This was the unfortunate result of the divorce/miscarriage fiasco, combine with the drinking and (I assume) handfuls of pills washed down with Moonshine (or whatever the poison of choice was in the 50’s) and some pretty severe depression… Marilyn Monroe couldn’t learn her lines. As a result, director Billy Wilder had cue cards prepared for her just off camera, so she could cheat when she needed too. This dedication to Marilyn not only shows how famous and desired she was in her time, but also what an asset she was to the film itself.
Marilyn is irreplaceable in this movie. This may be because she is great in all of her roles, I don’t know, I’ve never seen them, but I think it comes from her method. She was likely drunk while filming scenes in this movie, and by using her real life to support the role, she created a character that was both beautiful and embarrassing to watch. Someone you could feel for. And what an amazing escape; to be able to come to a studio and sing, dance and laugh with people who support you and want to see you succeed. It always fascinates me how someone who is going through so much pain is able to use it to make others feel good.
This week we watched Boys Don’t Cry, a heart-wrenching drama that delves into the complicated notions of gender. It comments on the social conditioning of gendered norms and the struggles and implications of being a passible transgendered individual today.
The main character Brandon, was born Teena, who has a vagina but has known her entire life that she was meant to be a boy. She chooses to live her life as a male; without having ever gone through any reconstructive surgery to aid her in externalizing her internal feelings. In Nebraska (in America in general) being transgendered is not widely accepted. We live in a phallocentric society, and it is that obsession with what-is-between-each-other’s-legs that leads to Brandon’s unfortunate end. This tragedy was very intense, and real, and leaves the viewer questioning why? Why did this need to happen? What were the reasons?
Roles like Brandon challenge an actor to think outside of the orthodox and uproot the foundations they grew up on, really giving the actor an opportunity to start fresh. Before this role, Hilary Swank may not have known that gender is a socially constructed notion passed down through generations of oppression and social conditioning. A role like this can literally change a person’s paradigm on life. Hilary’s deconstruction of gender is apparent in every aspect of her performance. There is not a moment in this film that she is not thinking about how her actions are being perceived. This is both integral to the performance and the survival of Brandon in this small Nebraskan township because if Brandon’s actions were to abstract reality too much (philosophers like Judith Butler conclude) people will begin to act violently; they begin to feel like an outsider; are othered by Brandon’s identity. Brandon was a passible man. From the way he walked to the way he moved his head and used his eyebrows, you could tell that Swank put a lot of hours into differentiating male and female gestural and behavioural movements in order to accurately execute Brandon’s every move. This suspended the audience and Brandon’s peers in disbelief (and landed Swank 28 different awards including an Oscar and Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Leading Role… no big deal.) It is that dedication to the art of acting that we do not see anyone.
The men that raped Brandon felt deceived or othered. In that deception they took action; action that established dominance over Brandon and Teena simultaneously. This was their only reason. They did not want to hurt Brandon, or scare Brandon, they just wanted to let Brandon know who the boss was, and it is that phallocentric mindset that keeps people like Brandon hid even 15 years after that movie was made. It is that phallocentric mindset that defines masculinity and cripples societies by keeping them trapped in systems of oppression and gender norms. It is time for change; Boys Don’t Cry and the portrayal of Brandon are monuments and catalysts for it.