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With his 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?' "
Huffman differed, 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.
Weinstein 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 groundswell."
Broadening Friday 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," says Faber.
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)