One of my terribly handsome gentleman friends generously invited me to accompany him to a screening of the new movie Anything, featuring a post-film talkback. Well, I love my terribly handsome gentleman friend, I love free movies and I love talkbacks, so count me in! I had a vague memory of a controversy surrounding Anything, so I figured seeing the film in a screening situation would be best. When I looked at the cast list and the film's taglines, I suddenly remembered the controversy...
According to the invite email, "Anything is an unconventional romance about Early, a heartbroken widower who relocates to Los Angeles to be with family after his wife’s sudden death. Asserting his independence, Early moves to Hollywood where he meets next door neighbor, Freda, a transgender sex worker. Forming a relationship that is at once unexpected and inevitable, they give each other much-needed trust, respect, and more. Starring John Carroll Lynch, Matt Bomer, and Maura Tierney."
That's a pretty good summary of the film, actually. It has some lovely sections (the scene where Lynch's character is reading letters from his late wife is superb), its championing of building a family in unexpected places and of acceptance is lovely and John Carroll Lynch is spectacular. There's not a lot of dialogue at the beginning of the film, but Lynch beautifully shows us the grief and despair this man is going through. He has quite an arc and portrayed this gent honestly and with great feeling. I did find the opening of the film to be rather meandering, though, and although intellectually I could imagine that because this man's life had become unmoored, the film wanted to use unformed scenes and dialogue to relay that, I also became impatient for something concrete. When Maura Tireney arrived, there was the anchor I was looking for. She is also spectacular as a prickly, complicated, loving, exasperated woman, trying to balance her fears with her compassion. Lynch and Tierney had a wonderful rapport as brother and sister - you could see the years of struggle and adoration between them. I loved their relationship.
I also loved the relationship between Tierney's character, her husband and her son. I thought the son was one of the most original and interesting characters in the movie. Maybe because I miss my nephew so much, I'm always looking for authentic representations of teenaged boys. This kid wasn't a wisecracking mini-adult, nor was he a whiny entitled jerk, but just a nice, honest, and multi-faceted kid. I liked the writing and the portrayal of this character very much. I also liked that the actor playing Tierney's husband was in a wheelchair. There was no backstory, no mention, that's just who he was. We need more of that in the movies - disabled people are a part of our world and goshdarnit, let's see them! So we got (I feel) authenticity with the kid and with a disabled actor playing a character whose disability was not a main plot point. What was missing?
Oh. Right. The elephant in the room, of course, is Matt Bomer and his portrayal of Freda, a transgender sex worker (using the studio's description from above). Sigh. OK first, 'Freda, a transgender sex worker'? She couldn't have been 'Freda, temp worker in a casting office'? Or 'Freda, frequent movie extra'? Or just 'Freda'? Sigh. Also, Matt Bomer is a very nice actor and a very attractive man and he seems like a good person and a real ally. BUT. I just couldn't wrap my brain around his portrayal of Freda. I resisted it throughout the movie. I feel he did a respectable job and seemed to honestly care about his portrayal, but he was still a cis man playing a transgender woman. How much more powerful and authentic could this film have been if it had been brave enough to cast a transgender actress in the role? Wait, it shouldn't be brave to do the right thing.
I have several friends who are transgender and I couldn't help thinking about them as I watched the film. One friend said on Facebook (after seeing Anything's trailer) and then clarified more for me later: "The issue here is that casting cis men as trans women perpetuates violence against trans women who are literally, statistically, the population most vulnerable to violence in this country, and much of that violence is based on the stereotype that trans women, at the end of the day, are just men in dresses. So then, when mainstream media portrays us as such, it reinforces the world view that perpetuates violence against our community. And the fact that there will be people out there who think that this is a legitimate representation of a trans woman is really really damaging and upsetting." Another quote I saw on Twitter was also on point: “Every time a cis man gets applauded for bravely portraying a transgender woman on screen, every time he picks up an award for it while sporting a tuxedo, we’re reinforcing the belief that at the end of the day, a trans woman is still really a man." I understand all of the financial reasons for casting a popular, bankable actor with a following, I do, and I understand that it's called 'acting' for a reason, BUT. When you're doing a film that purports to be a tribute to the LGBTQ community and was written by someone wanting to shed light on an oppressed community, shouldn't you listen to said oppressed community when you're making the film? The powers-that-be disappoint me. We still have so much work to do.
They did address this issue at the talkback. One of the executive producers is transgender and she spoke with great respect and affection for the filmmakers and for Bomer. But that didn't completely resolve the issue for me. I guess that could just be me. Maybe for some audience members, seeing some representation is better than seeing no representation at all. The power of authenticity, though. It makes such a difference. Again, maybe that's just me. But what my friends said to me after I asked them questions haunts me.
Oh, and ok, more about that talkback. I guess it put me in a bad mood from the start - the moderator worked my last nerve and I almost stood up twice and shouted "You did NOT just say that!" He said something that seemed derogatory to me about plays turned into movies and then he said something about "how refreshing it was to see a middle-aged white guy portrayed on screen in a...delicate way." I mean, COME ON. Did he REALLY say that out loud?!?! ARGHHHHHH! Poor middle-aged white guys, when are they going to get a break in the movies?!?!?! Ugh. Thankfully, my terribly handsome gentleman friend went out for drinks with me afterwards so I could vent. And so we could then laugh about so many other things (and so we could chat with the adorable Irish bartenders while enjoying our cocktails). I'm grateful he invited me to the movie and that I got to spend time with him (I love him a lot), and I did enjoy some of the aspects of Anything, but I really do feel it's such a missed opportunity and can be sending a wrong message.