Knight at the Movies - ARCHIVES
Transamerica and Breakfast on Pluto
12-21-05 Knight at the Movies/Windy City Times column
by Richard Knight, Jr.
Two independent movies opening this week in Chicago put the focus on two degrees of cross gender identification:
Breakfast on Pluto, the charmed tale of a cross dressing glam rocker in Ireland and Transamerica, in which the
title character is a pre-op male to female transsexual. Both are worth checking out.
Transamerica is the name of a financial/insurance corporation that once owned United Artists and is now the
awkward title for a movie about a female transsexual bonding with the gay teenage hustler son she’s just found
out she’s fathered. If that’s not confusing or delightful enough a premise, imagine web surfers looking for one and
finding the other. Talk about eye openers. For Stanley ‘Bree’ Osbourne, the leading character in the movie is
nothing if not an eye opener. Out gay writer-director of the movie Duncan Tucker (making his feature debut), has
handed Felicity Huffman one of those dream parts that comes along rarely in an actor’s career. Huffman’s
performance, which has been winning awards at film festivals around the country, is being touted as Oscar
worthy. It is. It’s also the best thing in this uneven picture that scores points for mining fresh insight within its
classic road movie structure.
At the outset, the whip smart but emotionally stunted Bree is living in L.A., working as a dishwasher and phone
solicitor and eager to finalize her transition from male to female. But just before the surgical procedure Bree gets
a phone call from Toby (Kevin Zegers), a young man who claims to be her teenage son from a long ago sexual
encounter with his mother. Further, he’s in detention for gay hustling on the streets of New York. Bree reveals the
phone call to her sympathetic but tough therapist Margaret (Elizabeth Peña) who insists that she must come to
terms with her son before she can sign the papers authorizing the operation. Reluctantly, Bree heads to New York
to tentatively attempt a reconciliation with the son she has never known.
It sounds like the plot for a Lifetime Television for Women movie and honestly, without Huffman’s stellar work,
that’s pretty much what Transamerica is. But as the film morphs into a 70s style road picture like Harry and Tonto
or Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore during which the two travel back across the country toward L.A., it also delves
into layers of sexual ambiguity that are fascinating. Toby thinks that Bree is a nice church lady who’s come to take
him home to meet his dad. Bree just seems to be making it up as they go, desperate to keep her true identity
secret and of course, wanting acceptance at the same time. For a street hustler Toby seems awfully naïve (the
fact that he doesn’t instantly pick up that Bree is a transsexual is a tad unbelievable) but the device allows him
(and us) time to get a fix on Bree’s uptight character and a chance for her to slowly peel away the emotional
layers (and eventually some of the ultra feminine clothes she wears like armor). Along the way there are
charming road montages, chance encounters with characters both pleasant and eccentric and finally a penultimate
segment with Bree’s overbearing family (dominated by her mother – played with relish by Fionnula Flanagan).
Huffman’s complex characterization is greatly aided by the makeup and costume design. She has been
photographed to emphasize her masculine features, broad shoulders and large hands and is purposely over made
up (she’s like a younger version of Baby Jane Hudson). To that Huffman has added a carefully considered baritone
almost devoid of emotion. This is a character who closely watches her words. It’s a voice far from that of Lynette
Scavo, the familiar voice we know from “Desperate Housewives.” As Bree moves toward emotional emancipation
the voice subtly, naturally changes (as do the makeup and clothes) and by the end I believed that Bree was finally
comfortable in her (literally) new skin.
Would Transamerica have been as powerful with a transgendered actress in the role of Bree? Yes but in a
different way. Part of the amazement of Huffman’s performance is our awareness of the difference between the
“real life” actress and her onscreen transformation. It’s the kind of thing actors love to do and audiences love to
applaud (Dustin Hoffman in Rain Main and Charlize Theron in Monster both got Oscars this way). Put a real
transsexual in the part and suddenly the gimmicky aspects are removed. A professional transsexual actress with
the kind of talent that the no holds barred Huffman shows could have worked (though without a modicum of name
recognition no one would have financed it). Without a professional, a huge mistake – not unlike the one Clint
Eastwood made when he cast the real drag queen Lady Chablis and not an actress in Midnight in the Garden of
Good and Evil. It was Tucker’s good fortune to have gotten an actress so willing to immerse herself so completely
in the part. It’s a mighty impressive parlor trick.
Another mighty impressive performance is given by Cillian Murphy, the Irish actor with the piercing blue eyes in
Neil Jordan’s Breakfast on Pluto. Heretofore known mainly as the lead in the indie zombie picture 28 Days
Later and the pale villain in Batman Begins, Murphy’s work here is extraordinary. Murphy plays Brian “Kitten”
Braden, the Irish orphan from the tiny village who comes of age in the swinging London of the late 60s and early
70s. Kitten leads a spectacular fantasy life and falls into one adventure after another (separated into Dickens like
vignettes with title cards) as he seeks to find the pretty lady with the blonde hair – the mother who gave him up
Based on the Pat McCabe novel, Kitten’s delusions (they serve as instinctive survival tactics for the character) are
so intense that nothing else seems to filter through – not her grim circumstances, not the grittiness around her, and
certainly not the constant “interruptions” by those pesky IRA terrorists with their machine guns and bombs. No
one has a more fabulous fantasy life than lonely misfit gay boys, it seems and Jordan holds true to Kitten’s steel
under velvet determination to let nothing knock off her rose colored glasses. Murphy is helped by a richly talented
supporting cast that includes Liam Neeson, Brendan Gleeson (as always) and especially Gavin Friday as a love
struck Elvis wannabe.
Breakfast at Pluto examines a turbulent time in Irish history filtered through Kitten’s refusal to live in reality which
at times makes the movie more palatable and perhaps more insignificant but never boring. I quite liked it.
Two new films with astonishing performances shine a light on transsexuals