All About My Mother (directed by Pedro Almodóvar, 1999)
Decades before Laverne and Caitlyn, there was Agrado and Lola. These are the two transgender women at the heart of Almodóvar’s 1999 classic All About My Mother. The film broke ground with these stellar representations of transgender lives filled with heart, humor, and, sadly, HIV. Both Agrado and Lola are HIV-positive, but in the ever-affectionate hands of Almodóvar their status does not define them or minimize their humanity. In an unforgettable scene, Agrado (which means “agreeable”) monologues to a bitter audience and wins them over telling by telling her “life story,” which includes a detailed itemization of her transitional plastic surgeries, concluding, “It costs a lot to be authentic, ma’am, and one can’t be stingy with these things because the more authentic you are, the more you resemble what you’ve dreamed of being.” Two of the other women at the center of the story are lesbians. The actress Huma describes her connection to her costar and lover by saying, “She’s hooked on heroin and I’m hooked on her.” It’s challenging to imagine a female-driven film full of lesbians, trans folks, AIDS, and prostitution winning an Oscar in 2016. That is exactly what puts All About My Mother so far ahead of its time.
I remember red. Especially the red lips on the red billboard Manuela is dwarfed by moments before her son dies and the red blood on Agrado’s face after she’s beaten. As a budding filmmaker, I found the bold use of color and stylized storytelling irrevocably imprinted my cinematic psyche. As a burgeoning adult, it was the first time that I saw a transgender person on film. It introduced me to I a visual vernacular and queer extended family when I needed it. I saw All About My Mother on my study-abroad semester in London when I was thinking all about my mother, who had compared my burgeoning lesbian identity to “criminal behavior.” Seeing a film centered around the complex and fascinating lives of women including lesbians and trans women gave me permission that I could do the same in my films and in my life. Gracias, Almodóvar. —Allison Tate