Oscar-nominated film Transamerica,
screenwriter-director Duncan Tucker is the latest exemplar
of a little-known show-business truism: If you want to
rise out of obscurity really fast, write a screenplay
with a great part for an actress.
There are never
enough strong roles for women, so even a little movie
that seemingly arrives out of nowhere can suddenly contend
for major prizes. In recent years, the microbudgeted
indie films Monster's Ball and Monster each
offered killer parts, for Halle Berry and Charlize
Theron, respectively. Both actresses showed Hollywood
that they weren't just glamour girls and won Best Actress
Oscars. Hilary Swank burst onto the scene when she won
her first gold statue as a cross-dressing girl in
Boys Don't Cry, which also established
director Kimberly Peirce. And TV writer Paul Haggis
scored a movie career when he wrote the role that won Swank
a second Oscar as a the tragic girl boxer in
Million Dollar Baby.
By landing Best
Actress kudos, those little movies grabbed far more
attention (and box office) than they otherwise ever would
have-- which is the position in which Tucker's
Transamerica now finds itself. New
York-based Tucker had always wanted to direct
movies. After years of odd jobs as a starving
photographer-painter and a stint in business with his
financial whiz of a brother, he wrote Transamerica, a
story about Bree, a pre-op transsexual woman who finds
out right before her scheduled surgery that she once
sired a son. She rescues the troubled teenager from a
lockup, and together they drive cross-country, where
he eventually learns her secret and meets her family.
Transamerica is more of a healing family comedy
than a threatening exploration of transgender issues.
"I know what it feels like to be an outsider," the
openly gay Tucker says. "I have felt misunderstood.
Bree feels so unloved and born into the wrong body."
At first the
project met with nothing but slamming doors, but Tucker
finally raised a little less than $1 million from family,
friends, and his credit cards. "Once I took the risk
of being in debt for the next 15 years, the gates
opened in a nice way," he says. When it came time to
begin casting, the filmmaker might have tried to find a man,
possibly even a transgender man, to play his
lead--Cillian Murphy tackles similar territory
in the recent Breakfast on Pluto. But Tucker
insisted on hiring an actress. "When you see a transsexual
man who doesn't pass," Tucker says, "you think that's what
all trans women look like. And I couldn't find a
transgender actress who had the chops for this part.
Also, trans women who pass don't want to be out of the
closet. By casting a woman, that's where Bree was going,
instead of having it be a man in a dress. That's what
she left behind."
Tucker made a
modest offer to Felicity Huffman, probably then best known
for TV's Sports Night. ICM agent Chris Andrews
liked it and passed it to Huffman, who called Tucker. "I
want to play the role," she told him--over the
objections of her husband, William H. Macy. "Felicity
is in charge of her career," Macy says. "We read each
other's scripts. It's a great leap of faith to look at
something on the page and think, This works. It
helps to have a trusted adviser. I said, 'It's too small,
and you're too busy. Who will raise our children?' "
recalling, "I found Bree irresistible. Complex,
confusing, and I had no idea how to do it, but it was the
part of a lifetime." After Huffman committed, Tucker
rushed the film into production when Huffman told him
she had an impending TV pilot to shoot, which might
become a go series. (That stroke of luck turned out to be
Desperate Housewives.) Huffman struggled to
figure out how to play the tricky role. She tried out her
walk and deepening voice on Macy. "She had some
choices to make," Macy says. "It was so bold of her to
make Bree a biddy, like your Aunt Ethel."
When Huffman and
Macy first watched the film on tape at their Los Angeles
home, they were happily pleased. "What can I do to help?"
Macy asked Tucker, who promptly asked him to come
aboard as executive producer. Huffman was "crushed"
when Transamerica didn't get into the Sundance Film
Festival. But it was well-reviewed at last year's Berlin
International Film Festival. Suddenly, distributors
were demanding to see it, but Macy held them off until
April's Tribeca Film Festival in order to build strong
want-to-see. Macy invited several key executives, including
Harvey Weinstein, who was making his own transition
from Miramax Films to the Weinstein Co. Weinstein
requested a private screening, but when Macy asked him
to come to the public screening, he came.
immediately saw the potential for Transamerica and
acquired North American release rights, pulling in
financial partner IFC Films. "Bill Macy called me and
said, 'You have to go watch this film--you'll love it,
and you're the only one who will know exactly what to
do with it,' " Weinstein recalls. "I saw it and knew
instantly that this movie would be an Oscar contender
because Felicity's performance is so spectacular."
The movie built
more buzz at September's Toronto International Film
Festival, where it was seen by most of the Hollywood Foreign
Press Association. That same month, Huffman, by then a
rising star thanks to Housewives, won the Emmy for
Lead Actress in a Comedy, building momentum as a
winner. As she continued winning best-actress awards
from film critics' groups, Weinstein submitted
Transamerica in the Golden Globes competition as
a drama, which resulted in another Best Actress win for
Huffman, who benefited from the fact that her prime
competition, Walk the Line's Reese Witherspoon,
scored her win in the musical or comedy category.
Thus, it was no
surprise on January 31 when Huffman landed her Oscar
nomination. She and Macy plan to walk the red carpet, along
with Tucker and his date, Dolly Parton, who wrote a
song for the movie, "Travelin' Thru," which was
nominated for best original song. What has surprised
many observers is the Weinstein Co.'s relatively
restrained release strategy. "Harvey thinks it's just a
stunt performance by Felicity of interest only to
homosexuals and urbanites," says one observer. "He's
not selling the movie."
The Weinstein Co.
opened the film December 2 in one theater in Los
Angeles and one in New York. It expanded to six theaters
December 23; in the wake of the Golden Globes on
January 16, it moved to 38 screens in the top 20
markets. "When we first saw the film, we knew that
Felicity's performance would drive the box office on the
film," Weinstein Co. marketing president Gary Faber
says. "We wanted to build a word-of-mouth
to 157 screens, Transamerica is at its widest
release, Faber says. "It's in every major market with
a top art house. It's a tricky balance--you
don't want to dilute too much or lose theaters. It's a
crowd-pleaser reaching a slightly older audience, equally
split between male and female."
It's tough to
imagine the old, free-spending competitive Miramax under
the Weinsteins' management holding back like this. And
Weinstein Co.'s limited-release campaign has led some
to question the company's commitment to the movie,
which should gross about $5 million. (Boys Don't Cry
earned a total of $11.5 million after Swank's Oscar
win.) Is it a sign of the Wall Street-financed
company's fiscal conservatism? "We're being fiscally smart,"
responds one Weinstein Co. exec. Or is it about spending as
little as possible on its theatrical marketing launch
in expectations that it eventually will prove itself
as a DVD release? "We're going slow to let it build,"
But Huffman isn't
complaining. "The Weinsteins have done a brilliant
job," she says. "Yeah, people do wish it was in more
theaters. Their strategy is to leave people asking for
more. But my God, I'm going to the Academy Awards!"
(Anne Thompson, Reuters)