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Felicity Huffman
wins acclaim for Transamerica

Felicity Huffman
wins acclaim for Transamerica

It is not easy being a woman portraying a man who is really a woman. Ask Felicity Huffman, star of the hit television show Desperate Housewives, 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.

The 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."'

Huffman, who 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 pratfalls."

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.

Tucker bills 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 Reuters)

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