Saturday, January 16, 2016

1999: Hilary Swank for Boys Don't Cry

In this profoundly disturbing film, Hilary Swank plays Brandon, a transgender man struggling to find love and happiness in a society that may never accept him.

Very rarely does Hollywood delve into the issue of gender identity in such a real and powerful way, and even more rarely do such films win Oscars. Usually cross-dressing characters in movies do so temporarily, in order to disguise their true selves, and when they are unmasked it is to return to their true identity - a very handy example being in the previous year's Best Actress winner, Shakespeare in Love. But Brandon's true identity is as a male, and when he is "unmasked" it only reveals that he was born in the wrong body. I think this message would have been even more powerful if Brandon had been played by an actual transgender actor, but I'm pretty sure Swank was the next best thing.

Seriously, she embodies this character so completely that it feels wrong for me to refer to her as "she" right now. It helps that she's made up to look more masculine, but it's her mannerisms and behavior that make her most convincing as a transgender man. She looks comfortable in male clothing, hanging out with other men, and hitting on women, yet there's always an underlying element of awkwardness around other people. In everything Swank does you can see, sometimes more clearly than others, the ever-present fear of how people will react when they find out the truth; a fear which almost always turns out to be 100% justified. In her face and body language you can see how desperately Brandon wants to relax and be comfortable, despite years of persecution that have made him almost give up hope of ever really fitting in anywhere. But struggling with his gender isn't the only thing that defines Brandon. That part is crucial to the story, but Swank also makes him a real, relatable human being to everyone, regardless of gender expression. I wish I knew how to explain just how believable she is in this role, but it pretty much defies description. All I know is that I have to keep reminding myself that Hilary Swank isn't actually transgender. To prepare for this role, she did live as a man for a while, but that was only for about a month. She gives the impression that she's been living with this for most of her life, which means she is an incredible actress who absolutely deserved this award.

On the one hand, I'm proud of the Academy for recognizing this performance, since there isn't a whole lot of diversity in the sexual identity of Oscar-winning roles. On the other hand, I feel like this movie was worthy of more awards, or at least more nominations. The only other Oscar nomination it received was Best Supporting Actress for Chloƫ Sevigny's very worthy performance as Brandon's girlfriend, which somehow didn't win. Personally I think a Best Picture nomination wouldn't have been uncalled for - it's certainly better than the movie that won that year - and writer/director Kimberly Peirce also should have gotten some recognition. But of course, she's a woman, and we all know how rarely women get nominated for working behind the camera. So although this was a step forward for the Academy, it was still a relatively small one.

Hilary Swank has been nominated for two Oscars and won both of them. Her second was for the Best Picture Winner of 2004, so I'll be talking more about her soon. But first, Julia Roberts leads us into the 2000s.

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