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about the writer

Jean-Pierre Coursodon was born in Paris in 1935 and has lived in the United States since 1965. He is the author or co-author of a dozen books on American film, including Buster Keaton, American Directors, and 50 ans de cinéma américain (co-written with Bertrand Tavernier), and a contributor to The Little Black Book of Movies. He has translated into French several biographies of American film directors (including Ford, Hawks and Hitchcock), as well as Michael Powell's two-volume autobiography. He has been a collaborator and U.S. correspondent of POSITIF since 1988.

Switch and Drag:
Gender Ambivalence and Ambiguity in Some of Blake Edwards' Films
By Jean-Pierre Coursodon

Victor Victoria
space.
Robert Preston and Julie Andrews in Victor/Victoria

The Man Who Loved Women, the title of Blake Edwards' 1983 remake of Truffaut's great investigation of the joys and sorrows of womanizing, could also describe Edwards himself, although on the whole he seems to have loved women (in his films and perhaps in his life too) in a way that eschewed the Don Juanism of the film's protagonist in favor of a genuine interest in what makes them so attractively different from men — an interest that naturally resulted in an empathetic and occasionally complicit approach of his female characters. It also resulted in an apparent fascination for transvestism, female impersonation, and, ultimately, a challenging of conventional sexual gender configurations. Which makes perfect sense: there is a short step from admiring (and envying) women and a yearning to emulate them, to actually becoming the envied Other.

Transvestism (meaning, mostly, a man in woman's clothes; the reverse, much less common, at least in movies, never seems either transgressive or funny anyway) has always been fodder for predominantly lowbrow comedy, so it isn't particularly surprising to find it in a number of Edwards' own comedies (although he also inserted a transvestite into his TV-derived whodunit drama Gunn [1967] — and didn't seem to know quite what to do with him). Edwards worked within a time-honored tradition; his most famous film on the theme of transvestism, Victor/Victoria [1982], is a remake of a 1933 German comedy and of a 1935 British musical adaptation of it (First a Girl). For Switch (1991) he borrowed the theme of Minnelli's Goodbye, Charlie (based on a George Axelrod play).

Still he was never going to film the upteenth remake of Charley's Aunt. The tradition had no interest in dealing seriously with gender ambiguity and its anxiety-producing fallouts. In classics of the genre from Charley's Aunt to Some Like It Hot the dressed-up male, far from "becoming" female (if only in appearance), keeps reminding us of the maleness underneath the disguise (which always seems comically inadequate) and of the insuperable gap between the two genders (as Daphne realizes, tottering on his/her first outing on high heels in Some Like It Hot, "It's an entirely different sex!") Edwards, on the other hand, approaches transvestism as an attempt to reconcile masculinity and femininity — a most serious endeavor which, however, also had to take into account the demands of the genre for good, predictable laughs (inevitably, Edwards' acceptance of those demands sometimes incurred the criticism that "he hadn't gone far enough").

In comedy movies, the man in drag is very rarely an actual transvestite, even less transexual; traditionally, he has to pass himself as a woman out of dire necessity (Edwards in a pre-Victor/Victoria interview: "It's when a character dresses up as a woman because his life is threatened that it becomes funny"). Far from desiring to become female, those characters are aggressively heterosexual, thus reassuring the audience and providing the expected amount of laughter at their gender predicament. In Victor/Victoria Edwards plays the game — to a degree: the character is destitute and hungry and stumbles upon female impersonation as a way to make a living.

Impersonation is, by definition, deception; the plot, going a step further, makes it plain cheating: the man who so convincingly impersonates a woman is actually a woman. This added turn of the screw brings a whole new complexion to the game: gender becomes hopelessly confused, sexual attraction disturbingly rerouted. In its early phase the film suggests interesting questions: how can such superficial artifacts as clothing, makeup, or hair style suffice to convincingly transform a person's gender? What becomes of the sacrosanct sexual identity if a thoroughly heterosexual man is attracted to, even falls in love with, a man in female disguise? A most troubling question, which, however, is fairly promptly swept under the rug when the perturbed male finds out that his object of forbidden desire is actually a woman. Why blame Edwards, though, when his sidestepping of the issue is already part of the film's very premises?

In a late scene of the film, Victoria tells her lover that as a man she has enjoyed a freedom that she could never have as a woman, but the film shows few, if any, proofs of such freedom. Far from being free, Victoria-as-Victor seems to be a prisoner of her subterfuge, condemmed to remain a living lie as long as she continues to perform her act. Her switching back to her true gender is therefore not only an appropriate happy ending for a comedy, but a wise decision that makes perfect sense.

Steve, the mostly invisible hero of Switch, Edwards' fascinating although somewhat minor post-scriptum to Victor/Victoria, is also a prisoner, but one who cannot possibly escape. Gender and sexuality are given yet another turn of the screw as the protagonist, this time around, is not just an impersonator, but the combination of a male mind in a female body. He is, in fact, the opposite of a female impersonator, as he insists on behaving like a man — a stereotypical macho man at that — while inhabiting a beautiful girl's body. So Amanda, the woman whose body he inhabits, gets into fights in bars and knocks down any number of other macho men.

The plot of Switch belongs to the realm of pure fantasy: the powers of the hereafter, including the Devil himself, make arrangements to send the deceased Steve (a womanizer who treated his conquests so badly that a trio of them got together to murder him) back to life, but "in the skin of a blonde," to quote the movie's French release title. Such an argument makes any suspension of disbelief unnecessary since there is no belief possible to begin with. The opportunities offered by the premise seem richly promising, but for comedy's sake the concept remains rooted in a dualism of the most simplistic kind, eschewing the inextricable connections between body and mind. The body is viewed as a mere shell, a puppet to be manipulated by the mind. One can't help wondering at times what Amanda's mind was before Steve's moved in, and what became of it. Has no trace of it remained in her brains?

Switch
space.

Aside from Amanda's unladylike participation in barroom brawls, Steve's behavior in her body doesn't look or sound particularly masculine — just inappropriate and comically outlandish. His physical clumsiness as a woman is arbitrarily selective: Amanda can't master high heels, but her makeup is always perfect. Steve claims he hates women's clothes but always wears the most uncomfortably tight, sexy dresses — all for the sake of some fairly crude slapstick gags. Basically, however, the mind-body, male-female conflict remains similar to what it was in Victor/Victoria. In that film, King was afraid of being attracted to a man in woman's attire. Steve is afraid of being attracted to a woman who is a lesbian. But while King was able to go beyond his fear (at one point he even tells Victoria: "I don't care if you're a man"!), Steve's predicament is that, being in a woman's body, he can only attract a lesbian — or a man, both unacceptable choices from his point of view.

Just as a return to normalcy followed gender confusion in Victor/Victoria, the plot of Switch switches to reassuring convention in the last act, which becomes shamelessly yet quite movingly sentimental as the pregnant Amanda discovers the "miracle" of child-bearing. Remember, though: it's still Steve speaking through Amanda's voice. Peter Lehman and William Luhr have interpreted this unexpected "switch" as suggesting that "men literally want to experience childbirth." Whether or not Edwards actually intended to imply the existence of such a far-fetched male envy, he has occasionally placed his male characters in what could be called motherly situations. Ultimately, it is the child who tends to make the male-female reconciliation possible. After giving birth to a girl Amanda dies, and Walter, the father (who was Steve's best friend), takes over the mother's place.

Still, ambivalence prevails. Steve/Amanda, in Heaven (or whatever hereafter he/she has ended in) wonders whether he should return to life as a man or a woman (after a while in Amanda's body he had come to realize that "being a woman is not so bad"). Given the choice, who wouldn't feel the same in his place — especially with eternity to mull it over?

Jean-Pierre Coursodon
© FIPRESCI 2011

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issue #7 (1.2011)


Contents

bullet. Blake Edwards
bullet. Pierre Léon
bullet. Film School
bullet. Takamine Hideko
bullet. Serbis
bullet. The Time That Remains
bullet. Viennale 2010
bullet. Punk Slash! Musicals