Brian Henry Martin at the movies

When 'He' Is Really A 'She'

Published Thursday, 26 April 2012
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Just when you think you have seen it all, along comes Oscar nominated actresses Glenn Close and Janet McTeer as women pretending to be men in the 19th century Irish drama Albert Nobbs.

This made me consider, who are cinema's greatest cross-dressers?

Men in the movies have enjoyed dressing up as women for years. Everyone from Cary Grant to Michael Caine, Johnny Depp to Bugs Bunny have dragged up for the big screen.

This has mainly been for camp comic performances, like sassy jazz musicians Josephine and Daphne (Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon) in Some Like It Hot or the no-nonsense soap star Dorothy Michaels (Dustin Hoffman) in Tootsie.

Undoubtedly, the most memorable exposé of male/ female identity was twenty years ago in The Crying Game, when Stephen Rea and the audience got the shock of their lives when glamorous nightclub singer Jaye Davidson revealed 'she' was really a 'he'.

Now a new film released this week turns the tables and the trousers on the men dressing up as women. "You are the strangest man I have ever met", says hotel maid Helen to waiter Albert Nobbs.

You're telling us Helen, Albert Nobbs is on the weird side of totally bizarre. And no wonder, this curious middle-aged Dublin butler is in fact a woman, expertly played by Glenn Close.

It is a unique part for Close. One that she has cherished for over thirty years; first playing Albert Nobbs, a short story creation of Irish author George Moore, on stage in New York. It is a million miles away from the frizzy haired bunny-boiling vixen of Fatal Attraction but every bit as disturbing.

Nobbs is a tragic character, hiding not only the secret of her sex but also her unfulfilled dreams to be married and live a normal life. She does find comfort in the real life of another woman living as a married man, the butch and brash house painter Hubert Page, played by Janet McTeer.

Albert Nobbs features an all-star Irish cast including The Guard's Brendan Gleeson, The Commitments' Bronagh Gallagher and Angeline Ball and The Tudors' Maria Kennedy Doyle and Jonathan Rhys Meyers.

Great as they all undoubtedly are, they are a constant distraction from the action or lack of it.

Jonathan Rhys Meyers is especially distracting playing little more than a bit part as the foppish Viscount Yarrell. His puzzling appearance is so fleeting that I spent the next twenty minutes considering why he was cast in the film at all?

Close and McTeer are wonderful in the central performances and worthy of great praise.

Unfortunately, director Rodigo Garcia never raises the story beyond the confines of television melodrama, so it is more Dour-town Abbey than The Remains Of The Dress.

What is for certain is that women playing men in movies demands a greater performance and delivers a more potent message. This is not just for laughs but a sharp insight into the gender divide across the decades. Think of Katherine Hepburn in the 1930's in Sylvia Scarlett or Hilary Swank in the 1990's in Boys Don't Cry.

My award for bending the gender on the big screen would have to go to Julie Andrews in Victor/Victoria who brilliantly plays a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman.


Albert Nobbs (Cert 15) is in selected cinemas from the 27th April.

© UTV News
B. H. Martin
B. H. Martin

Brian Henry Martin is an accomplished documentary filmmaker and UTV's resident film critic, appearing regularly on UTV Live Tonight.

No matter what the film, there's a good chance Brian has seen it.


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