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After a five-year break, Martin Lawrence is back for another round as the perpetually cross-dressing cop Malcolm "Big Momma" Turner, and this time he's got company: in Friday's Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son, Brandon T. Jackson joins Martin as his equally frock-friendly stepson, Trent "Charmaine Daisy" Pierce. All these fellas running around in wigs and dresses got us thinking about some of the many other films that required their male stars to put on a little makeup, flash a little leg, and bat a few eyelashes. From comedies to dramas, Oscar winners to cult classics, this week's Total Recall is a total drag!
A road trip movie with a decidedly flamboyant twist, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert follows the trail of three drag queens (played by Guy Pearce, Hugo Weaving, and Terence Stamp) on their journey across the Australian Outback in an unreliable tour bus. Containing drama, comedy, and a fair amount of social commentary, Priscilla was an arthouse favorite during its theatrical run, spun off a pair of musical stage adaptations, won an Oscar (for Best Costume Design, natch), and earned raves from critics like Kevin Carr of 7M Pictures, who asked, "Where else are you going to see General Zod, Agent Smith and the guy from Memento as drag queens stranded in the Australian Outback?"
His work is heavily indebted to Hitchcock, so it was only fitting that, with 1980's Dressed to Kill, Brian De Palma should add his own splashy twist to the cross-dressing slasher genre. Offering copious amounts of nudity, kinky sex, and bloody violence, Dressed to Kill became a late-night cable favorite among softcore aficionados and incensed some gay and transgender groups who didn't appreciate being included in the film's lurid parade of perversion, but most critics saw it as something more than cheap thrills -- like Eric Henderson of Slant Magazine, who applauded the way it "Inflates paperback pulp psychology into something like a plot, all the better to demonstrate that filmmaking is an inherently visual storytelling."
Discrimination and/or violence against transvestites is a common thread in many of the films on this list, and its real-life effects are reflected in Tim Burton's Ed Wood. Wood's films were often unintentionally humorous, but he took them very seriously -- arguably none more so than Glen or Glenda, the semi-autobiographical docudrama about the personal struggles faced by cross-dressers (such as Wood himself) and people uncomfortable in their birth gender. Wood's earnest message may have been buried in Glenda's sensationalistic promotion, but Burton took a more sensitive approach to his subject; even the sight of Johnny Depp in a dress couldn't keep Film.com's John Hartl from seeing something more meaningful as he wrote, "In his finest, funniest, most poignant film to date, Tim Burton plays cinematic alchemist, turning drive-in schlock into movie gold."
Hollywood usually plays men in drag for laughs, either by throwing men into situations where they're forced to dress as women or by using cross-dressing characters for sassy comic relief. For 1999's Flawless, writer/director Joel Schumacher went another direction, casting Philip Seymour Hoffman as a drag queen who helps his gruff, socially conservative neighbor (Robert De Niro) fight through the effects of a stroke. There's a fine drama in that setup; unfortunately, Schumacher couldn't resist raising the stakes with what many critics felt was a needlessly violent and splashy subplot -- not to mention a succession of unbelievable supporting characters. Still, even if it didn't really live up to its title, it entertained Jo Berry of Empire Magazine, who called it "A film that should be seen for the acting talent on board rather than its originality (or lack thereof)."
When John Waters filmed the original Hairspray in 1988, he reserved the role of Tracy Turnblad's mother, Edna, for his frequent muse, the cross-dressing showbiz phenomenon known as Divine. Sadly, Divine passed away shortly after Hairspray's release, but the film lived on -- first as a home video cult classic, then a Tony-winning Broadway musical, and then through the 2007 film remake. By the time Adam Shankman directed the 2007 Hairspray, it had become a tradition for a man in drag to play Edna (including Harvey Fierstein, who knows a thing or two about wearing women's clothing), and Shankman continued the tradition brilliantly by casting a heavily padded John Travolta in the role. They're decidedly different films, but critics loved them both -- including Brian Webster of the Apollo Guide, who wrote of the remake, "You may want to ponder whether or not John Waters' 'transgressive' art is entirely lost in the homogenization of his original, or you can just sit back and enjoy the fun."
Starring John Cameron Mitchell, who also directed and co-wrote the screenplay, Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a dramatic musical tour de force about a man who undergoes a botched sex change (producing the "angry inch" of the title) in order to marry his lover and leave Communist Germany -- only to watch the Berlin Wall crumble, along with the marriage. And that's just the opening act: Hedwig's adventures are full of bad timing, bad faith, and all-around bad luck, none of which are enough to quell her unshakable determination. There are a million movies about never giving up on your dreams, but few of them lay it on the line with this much bravado; it is, as Claudia Puig wrote for USA Today, "Wildly witty, but also inventive, audacious and poignant."
A movie so entertaining it broke box office records for foreign films in the U.S. and spun off a pair of sequels, a hit stage musical, and a successful remake (1996's The Birdcage, starring Robin Williams and Nathan Lane), 1978's La Cage aux Folles follows the comic culture clash that erupts when a young man brings his conservative future in-laws home to meet his gay dads -- who respectively own and perform in a drag nightclub. It's broad and silly and looks more than a little dated today, but La Cage became a pop culture phenomenon for a reason; as Roger Ebert wrote, "This is basically the first sitcom in drag, and the comic turns in the plot are achieved with such clockwork timing that sometimes we're laughing at what's funny and sometimes we're just laughing at the movie's sheer comic invention. This is a great time at the movies."
Critics don't think much of his movies -- 2009's I Can Do Bad All by Myself is the freshest of the bunch, at a bare 60 percent on the Tomatometer -- but if it's cross-dressing comedy you seek, Tyler Perry is a one-man industry, with roughly a billion movies, plays, TV shows, and books featuring his profane, shotgun-toting, wisdom-spouting character, Madea. It's a character Perry's fans clearly respond to, and he has plenty of them: his eight films have grossed more than $450 million, with the ninth, Madea's Big Happy Family, due to add to that total in April. As Melissa Anderson put it for the Village Voice in her review of Madea Goes to Jail, "As ridiculous as his films frequently are, Perry, a shrewd yet benevolent showman, knows and loves his audience."
The tender family comedy that gave a lonely pre-Bond Pierce Brosnan something to do and introduced the phrase "drive-by fruiting" into the lexicon, Mrs. Doubtfire cemented Robin Williams' status as one of the biggest box office draws of the early 1990s -- and proved he made a fairly convincing elderly woman -- while extending director Chris Columbus' hot streak. Part unapologetic showcase for Williams' madcap talents, part sentimental family drama about a struggling actor who disguises himself as a housekeeper to be close to his kids, Doubtfire struck many critics as an uneven blend (Robert Faires of the Austin Chronicle called it "raw, uncoated stupidity that sticks in your throat"), but audiences loved it -- and it even wore down Newsweek's David Ansen, who admitted, "I've rarely laughed so much at a movie I generally disliked."