Felicity Huffman wins acclaim for Transamerica
December 09 2005 1:00 AM ET
It is not easy
being a woman portraying a man who is really a woman. Ask
Felicity Huffman, star of the hit television show
, who breaks out of her acting mold to play a
transgender character in the low-budget movie
Transamerica, debuting this month. Huffman, a
woman, and a rather smart and pretty woman at that, had to
train, toil, and suffer for her craft just to
portray—a woman. Huffman plays Bree, a woman
who until recently lived as a man named Stanley. One week
before surgery to become Bree, she discovers that she
had fathered a son who now desperately needs him.
transformation of Huffman into Bree has critics raving,
Oscar tongues wagging, and filmmakers hoping
Transamerica can reach beyond limited gay and
art-house audiences into the family-minded United
States, on which the movie seeks to comment. Huffman
told Reuters, "We made this movie for $2, and on a low
budget you're always behind schedule. But when it
wasn't right, physically, emotionally, externally,
[openly gay writer-director] Duncan [Tucker] would
say, 'I'm sorry, we've got to do that again."'
turns 43 on December 10, shakes her blond hair and lets out
a scream. Tucker, sitting next to Huffman in a Beverly Hills
hotel, sheepishly adds, "I do remember we played with
your walk in a few scenes, and we played with a few
Men dressed as
women, and women as men, is nothing new. Jack Lemmon and
Tony Curtis impersonated women with aplomb in 1959's Some
Like it Hot. Hilary Swank won an Oscar playing
a man in a woman's body in Boys Don't Cry. But
Huffman's mind-set, voice, walk, and manner had to make
audiences believe she is a woman who happens to be a pre-op
transsexual. That is something new. And while
some—including Huffman—told Tucker he
was crazy hiring a woman to play a man playing a woman, he
never saw it that way and wanted no other actress.
"When I met trans women, they are women—they
considered themselves women all over the country and the
world," he said.
Transamerica as a road trip across the United
States, and while the word transgender conjures
thoughts of heavy drama, the movie is calculated to
make audiences laugh. "You forget about gender, and
what it ends up being is a wacky movie that happens to be
heartwarming," said Huffman.
For years, Bree
has lived a highly organized life as a woman in Los
Angeles, saving money for a sex change. But her life hits a
major bump in the road when her son—the product
of a long-ago love affair—calls her from a New
York City jail. Toby, played by Kevin Zegers, has been
arrested for hustling and needs someone to bail him out.
Toby's mom is dead. He has never met his dad and
doesn't know his father is Bree. When she
arrives, Bree explains she was sent by the church to help
get him back on his feet. What ensues on the road to
Los Angeles is an exploration of the ties that bind
people together. "It's about family. It's about
connections. It's about the ways we are all alike.
It's about somebody growing up," said Tucker.
Huffman is now a
big star who this past September won U.S. television's
highest honor, the Emmy, for Best Actress in a Comedy as the
upwardly mobile Lynette Scavo in Desperate
Housewives. It wasn't always that way, and while
her decision to play Bree came before Desperate
Housewives became a number 1 series, Huffman
nevertheless risks alienating her mainstream fans.
She doesn't see
it that way. "I had the opportunity to play a great,
juicy, fantastic role, and I jumped at it," she said.
Huffman said ABC has supported her efforts to promote
the film and added that her fellow cast members
all turned up at a prerelease screening to cheer for
her, which is really saying something for the often
vindictive women of Wisteria Lane. Huffman is a member
of New York City's Atlantic Theater Company, which was
cofounded by playwright David Mamet and Huffman's
husband, actor William H. Macy. She was well-known as a
stage actress, costarred on TV shows, and had roles in
movies such as director Paul Thomas Anderson's
critically acclaimed Magnolia
. In other words, she was a working actor known
for mastering her craft; that was how Tucker knew her.
Desperate Housewives brought Huffman celebrity,
and Transamerica could vault her onto Oscar's
stage. Entertainment Weekly film critic Lisa
Schwarzbaum calls her portrayal of Bree "a captivating
flight of technique, built from equal parts empathy and
skilled control." But for now, Huffman said awards and
the Oscar race are so far out of her control that she
is not thinking of them. "It's really dangerous to set
it up to think, Oh, I'm a failure if I don't get an award
," she said. "I feel like this movie has
succeeded because people are interested, and people
are going to go see it." (Bob Tourtellotte, via
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