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« "Junebug" is more than just Amy Adams | Main | Beauty Break: John Huston & The Huston Dynasty »
Wednesday
Aug052015

HBO’s LGBT History: Normal (2003)

Manuel is working his way through all the LGBT-themed HBO productions...

Last week we looked at Moisés Kaufman’s adaptation of his own play, The Laramie Project, based on the aftermath of the Matthew Shepard murder in the small town of Laramie, Wyoming. I raved about Laura Linney’s bit scene, continuing an unexpected but welcome line of actressy write-ups that this project has allowed. You see back when I envisioned this project, I worried we’d be stuck talking solely about gay men-driven stories and male actors for months, but looking back, it turns out we’ve talked about Stockard Channing, Lily Tomlin, Glenn Close, Angelina Jolie, Vanessa Redgrave and Michelle Williams! Not too shabby considering gay men have been at the center of more than half the titles we’ve looked at. This week, we continue to add another acting goddess to our list as we reach our first main trans storyline in an HBO production in Jane Anderson’s Normal.

More after the jump...

If the 90s were rife with a variety of different (if still narrow) narratives about gay men and lesbians (look no further than HBO’s 1998 TV roster), the early 2000s were beginning to offer some such variety when it came to trans characters. After the 1999 twinned Oscar wins for Hilary Swank (Boys Don’t Cry) and for Pedro Almodovar (All About My Mother), as well as the indie success of films like Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the new century began to present more complicated storylines about trans people in shows like Nip/Tuck, Ally McBeal, and Ugly Betty, and through films like Transamerica (2005) and Breakfast in Pluto (2005), all of which clearly paved the way for the Sophia Bursets, Rayons, Maura Pfeffermans and Coach Beasties of contemporary television. Indeed, Anderson’s film premiered at Sundance a day after another trans-focused film, Soldier’s Girl. Directed by Frank Pierson (who we discussed back when we looked at Citizen Cohn), the Lee Pace-starring film would later air on Showtime, just as Normal would find its home on HBO.

Normal (2003) (Buy DVD on Amazon)
Written & directed by: Jane Anderson
Starring: Jessica Lange, Tom Wilkinson, Hayden Panettiere, Clancy Brown & Joe Sikora.

Anderson’s original play is titled Looking for Normal, and that is precisely what is at the heart of Roy/Ruth’s journey. More than a decade before Jill Solloway’s Amazon series Transparent, here was a story about the very mundane if seismic day-to-day choices that constitute Roy’s transition into becoming, into being, Ruth. From wearing a woman’s perfume and earrings to work much to the disdain of his co-workers, to the slow realization of the extra-sensitivity of his own newly grown breasts, Anderson’s film is wholly focused on the process of transition and its repercussions in the Applewood family. Yes, there are sit-downs with a surprisingly tolerant pastor and violent altercations at work, but ultimately, the film shines when it zeroes in on the family dynamics, and on Lange’s fussy, fidgety, always-nervous Irma, whose confusion, anger, and desperation slowly melt away to reveal the love, affection, and support she’ll come to feel for Ruth.

Roy, I have given you my youth, I have given you your children, I have given you my full and undivided attention for 25 years, and now I am giving up everything that I believe in so you can feel complete. So, tell me what more could you possibly want from me? It is not awful Roy. It is what it is. And if I look at it hard enough, you have done the same for me.”

Wilkinson and Lange are both extraordinary, especially during an early scene when, during a marriage counseling meeting with their pastor, Roy finally reveals what’s been troubling him for so many years. His quiet desperation, which threatens to overtake him, is countered by her disconcerting looks. I wanted to share this particular moment because you can see Lange’s face telegraphing exactly what Irma is going through while Roy says he wants to proceed with the sex-reassignment surgery. She both cannot believe her husband and yet cannot deny his conviction:

It was pure coincidence (or perhaps kismet?) that had me watch Normal, a film about a midwestern factory worker (Wilkinson) who, after twenty-five years of marriage to his wife (Lange), decides to transition into living as a woman, the same day I finally caught up with the premiere episode of I Am Cait, the reality TV show chronicling Caitlin (née Bruce) Jenner’s life following her public transition into living life as a transgender woman. They made for a fascinating double feature, unwittingly underscoring how nuanced Jane Anderson’s character study is, which feels like a contemporary of Jenner’s show, not its decade-plus old predecessor. But perhaps that says more about the slow shifts in culture-wide acceptance of trans people than about either text, though both tellingly end with the same message of love and acceptance. In the film’s last words (spoken by Lange), “Sweet Roy. Sweet soul. What we do for love.”

Fun Awards Fact: Two-time Academy Award winner Lange was nominated for both an Emmy, which she had yet to win, and a Golden Globe, of which she had four already, for her portrayal of Irma. She lost both, to fellow two-timers: Maggie Smith (winning her first ever Emmy for My House in Umbria) and then two-timer Meryl Streep (winning her fifth!! Golden Globe for Angels in America). Lest you weep for her, Lange has since added three Emmys and one Golden Globe to her mantle.

Next Week: While we’ve looked at two back-to-back films which premiered at Sundance before their HBO launch, next week we’ll focus on an HBO produced film which got a full theatrical release, and which garnered HBO films an added accolade which dwarfs even the network’s greatest Emmy haul: the Palme d’Or. I’m talking, of course, of Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (2003) (Buy DVD on Amazon).

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Reader Comments (12)

Lange the patron saint of hand acting.

August 5, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMARK

Wilkinson is great as usual. I particularly enjoyed Jessica's work. Let's hope she can go back to this sort of performance post-Ryan Murphy.

August 5, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

I'm vould go for Faye Dunaway taking over for Jessica Lange in the Horror Story franchise. :-)

August 5, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterDave

well she certainly has the face for it.

August 5, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMARK

MARK

Lange the patron saint of hand acting.

This. I once fell asleep watching her Maggie the Cat in TV's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (not the play's fault i was bone tired) but I stayed awake much longer than anticipated because her clawing hand motions kept widening my eyes

August 5, 2015 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Damn Lange IS beautiful.

Um, @Nathaniel, isn't Maggie the Cat is from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof?

August 5, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterFadhil

I'm really enjoying this series Manuel. Nice work!

August 5, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJoel V

Mark & Nathaniel,
So so true! Her hands are hypnotic! That's what I love so much about that small moment. Now I feel like we should make a list of all the patron saints of every body part (eyebrow, hair, lips...)

Peggy Sue,
You and every other Lange fan!

Joel V.
Thank you! Means a lot :)

August 6, 2015 | Registered CommenterManuel Betancourt

Fadhil -- oops. brain freeze.

August 6, 2015 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

They are both mesmerizing in this lovely script. Jessica in particular is very moving. The true patron saint of many body parts, not just hands.

August 6, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Never heard of this one! Color me intrigued.

I am looking forward to ELEPHANT next week. That'll be... interesting.

August 6, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

One of the many movies that made me fall in love with Lange and made her my favorite actress ever.

November 4, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterClément@Paris

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