Transvestism—and other forms of gender impersonation—has been a staple of almost all cultures from the “aboriginal” to the alleged height of European western civilization. American culture has dabbled with an enthusiasm for it in the past in such startling instances as the incredible popularity of female impersonator (or impressionist, as he was sometimes called) Julian Eltinge who was so famous in the early part of the 20th century that he had a Broadway theater named after him. But cross- dressing and gender-bending has been too associated with gay culture for most audiences to be completely comfortable with it. This changed, to a large degree, in the late 1970s and early 1980s when films like La Cage aux Folles (1978) and Tootsie (1982) became popular and actors like Divine attracted mass media attention as Edna Turnblad, the harassed yet understanding housewife and mother in Hairspray (1988). Even John Tra- volta has been lauded for his scrupulous, even charming, drag performance in the musical film of Hairspray (2007) in which he does Divine one better by playing Edna Turnblad as an aging Gina Lola- brigida. Part of this revolution has been caused by the enormous influence that gay male culture has had on popular culture as well as how feminism has radicalized our ideas of gender roles.
The connection of transvestism and gender shifting to gay male culture is evident in two recent cultural events. The first, Todd Haynes’s extraordinary I’m Not There, a faux documentary of Bob Dylan, feels very far from gay male culture even though it would have been impossible without it. The second, Rufus Wainwright’s new CD Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall—a meticulous recreation of Garland’s noted 1961 Carnegie Hall concert—is a fabulous reclamation, and reaffirmation, of gay male culture and history.
There has always been something slightly queer about Bob Dylan—not at all gay, but queer. His Jewish/political folk-singing roots and his idiom of Americanized lyric poetry—more William Blake and Dylan Thomas (from whom he took his last name, when he dropped Zimmerman) than Walt Whitman or Hart Crane—positioned him in the early 1960s as an alternative to both traditional and emerging hard rock musicians. Dylan’s visceral social protests, his bruised and hurt emotional self in “Positively Fourth Street” or his empathetic, even early second-wave feminist sentiments in “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” and “Just Like a Woman” constructed a very unique, and un-masculine, public persona.
Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There takes a post-modern approach to Dylan and fractures the singer into a kaleidoscope of characters, including a 14-year-old African American blues singer named Woody Guthrie (Marcus Carl Franklin), a reformed western outlaw named Billy the Kid (Richard Gere), a 1960s coffee-house singer named Jack Rollins (Christian Bale), Arthur Rimbaud (Ben Whishaw), an actor named Robbie Clark (Heath Ledger), and a late 1960s folk rock star named Jude Quinn (Cate Blanchett). Haynes’s film is a cavalcade of impressions, inside jokes, cultural ruminations, parodies, insightful asides, and audacity. Haynes turned Karen and Richard Carpenter into Barbie dolls in his 1987 Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, explored David Bowie’s ambiguous glam rock sexuality in The Velvet Goldmine, and in his 2002 Far From Heaven explicated the homoerotic subtext of Rock Hudson’s performance in Douglas Sirk’s 1955 All that Heaven Allows. Similarly, I’m Not There also takes us places we’ve never imagined. As written by Haynes and Oren Moverman, I’m Not There takes its title literally, displacing most aspects of Dylan’s persona and career so that the artist is deconstructed and reassembled before our eyes.
Of all the amazing aspects of I’m Not There, it’s Cate Blanchett’s cross-dressed performance as Jude Quinn that is the most remarkable. Portraying a mid-to-late 1960s Dylan—all diffident and semi-angry with black jackets and close-cropped unruly hair, still reeling from the affair with Edie Sedgewick—Blanchett really gets at the heart of Dylan’s androgynous persona. Always a mercurial actor, Blanchett finds an emotional center here that is startling. It’s not that she feminizes Dylan in any specific way (that would have been disastrous), but rather she locates him in the specificity of the radical gender changes of the 1960s.
The genius of her performance is that she maps out, with enormous deliberation and cunning, the extraordinary psychic cultural territory that Dylan explored. One of the reasons that Dylan attracted the attention he did, as well as acquired the broad fan base he had, was that he managed to project a threatening/non-threatening, aggressive/passive, angry/healing set of dichotomized messages that were profoundly located in his gender presentation. Susan Sontag, in her noted 1964 essay “Notes on Camp,” states that the “camp” promotes the epicine star (she is writing here about Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich) who is attractive to both sexes as a ploy to contradict gender. That is, in part, the case here, but Blanchett’s performance is as far from camp as you can get, but one of the most startling investigations into androgynous creativity that you’ll ever see.
Rufus Wainwright released his debut album Rufus Wainwright in 1998, a compelling mixture of songs that, while tinged with traditional folk touches were a mixture of early Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen and a kinder, gentler middle-period Bob Dylan. Wainwright, openly gay, became extraordinarily popular with both mixed and gay male audiences and has been building a deeply devoted audience over the past decade. He has not been afraid to experiment with musical forms. Release the Stars is an arresting mixture of Wainwright’s usual material mixed with riffs on classical and Broadway musical themes. He manages to be shockingly original even when the material doesn’t quite work.
But nothing prepared us for the sheer audacity of Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall. Here Rufus doesn’t just recreate Garland’s 1961 performance—the highwater mark of her career, a landmark of American popular music, and a milestone of 20th century gay male popular culture— but elevates it to icon status as both emblematic of American and gay culture. Vocally Wainwright shines. While he does not have Garland’s purity of tone or technical abilities, he certainly has her emotional depth and psychic commitment to the material. There are even times—in “Puttin’ on the Ritz” and “You Go to My Head”—where Wainwright actually seems to have a better grasp of the lyrics and timing than Garland.
But the cultural importance of Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall is that Wainwright has reclaimed an important aspect of mid-20th century gay male culture and has reinvented it for contemporary audiences. During one of the numbers a gay audience member shouts out “this is our heritage”—and he is right. What he is doing in Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall is exposing the complicated interconnections between American popular culture and gay male culture and celebrating them from a queer perspective.
Most astute culture watchers know of the gay male attachment to Garland, but Wainwright turns Garland into a gay man. When he sings “The Man Who Got Away” or “San Francisco” it isn’t so much “queering” the songs as uncovering the gay context. His “transvestism” here—much like Blanchett in I’m Not There—is less a disguise or masquerade as an exposure of the obvious. Now that’s queer.
Michael Bronski is an activist, teacher, and author. His latest book is Pulp Friction: Uncovering the Golden Age of Gay Male Pulps.