So the query is, are aliens all one gender, or beyond gender, or have cross-dressers and fabulous gay culture icons conscripted the alien look to help us contextualize their gender flexibility within our known parameters? Insecure men don't beat up aliens to prove their Earth heredity, and we don't fire aliens from school jobs. We wouldn't believe they were aliens even if they told us (just like you could be totally fey in the 70s and no one would guess you were actually 'one of them' - just expresssive, artistic, which was encouraged back when I was a kid, thank god). Oh well, we gained some things in some places, lost some in other. Ask not what color the elephant is in the room, for he's electric pink. And if you can't handle it, honey, go back to Janice!
1. Tim Curry as Dr. Frank N. Furter
ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (1975)
It took me a long time to see this movie after being turned off by just how lockstep all the 'call and response' stuff was at the show they had outside my dorm in college. Where if you didn't know exactly what you were doing you were glowered at mercilessly. Yeah, said I, that's real "free" of y'all. But lately I saw it at home free of liens and was so blown away by Tim Curry's wry swagger and fey gonzo cool that I clean forgot about all that. A true demonstration of the force and strutting seductive sensual freedom that's to be had when tapping into the source voltage of both genders at once, he's a walking ad for flaming bisexual transvestism, and his inevitable return to his home planet (or death) feels like our loss even more than his. We've not seen his like since, try as John Cameron Mitchell might--god knows we don't see it here on campus, where androgyny and transvestitism carries a rather noble and saintly joyless stamp, as if the PC lockstep of the post-grad young faculty and tolerance committees will turn against you just as quick as they turn on anyone who uses the wrong gender pronoun to describe you in a letter (as happened to me when I didn't address a student in their preferred plural). No matter, I don't hold it against the student 'themselves' or the lockstep Horror crowd throwing rice terrified to throw a beat too late or soon, or even the lockstep professor --I'm just an old reprobate iconoclast realizing that when the old Fox New white guy old guard has collapsed and the freaks have won, I shall instantly realize those old Fox guys were at least part right and wish to god I was with 'em, like fuckin' Robert Ryan in THE WILD BUNCH or--to slide gently back down into topic-- Dr. Frank N. Furter, who we gleefully punks out Janice and Brad in the first half but once they're on his side and 'loosened' up, regards them with jealous suspicion in the second.
Notes Jean Kim -
Notes Jean Kim -
"The moment of reckoning is the entrance of Tim Curry’s seminal character: the camera languorously showing his glamorous heels, bustier and Cheshire grin. Even as a straight female, I have to admit my breath was taken away at Dr. Frank N. Furter’s grand arrival. He oozes sensuality from every pore: raw, unadulterated, glitter-honey charisma. The teasing, rolling rhymes, the “an—ticipation” dragging you to the cliff’s edge. It’s one of those star-making movie moments where you know, as the viewer, that cinema won’t ever be quite the same...
"Curry’s confidence riffs off similar gender-bending antics from that other fairly young, rebellious artistic arena, rock n’ roll, particularly the glam rock scene. David Bowie, Lou Reed & Velvet Underground, Mick Jagger: the rigidity of gender identities matter less than the braggadocio, the impertinence, the sass, the sexual chocolate. It is the power of the human artistic spirit: the inner fire is king and queen at once. There is power in both genders and their aesthetic wonderment to draw on, to create, to mix, to inspire."
2. David Bowie as Thomas Jerome Newton
The Man who Fell to Earth (1976)
Dir Nicolas Roeg
Dir Nicolas Roeg
Coulda done Ziggy for this list but that's more a concert film, and a short-lived concept, though that is my favorite album of old DB's, listened to constantly my freshman year of college (til I learned all my punk friends were gay and hadn't told me). For this purpose though, the alien aspect fits more perfectly, especially in his home planet flashbacks, though there his wife and kids are clearly gender-specified, rather than some cloned gender neutral tribe. I like Bowie in the film, and Candy Clark, and love Roeg in general (because of Performance and Masque of the Red Death) but to me the movie never really comes together, though I do relate with becoming a TV-addicted alcoholic hermit.
Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust period in the early 1970s had a staggering influence on me. I had been writing about androgyny in literature and art in my term papers in college and grad school, so Bowie’s daring experiments seemed like the living embodiment of everything I had been thinking about. It’s hard to believe now, but when I submitted the prospectus for Sexual Personae in 1971, it was the only dissertation about sex in the entire Yale Graduate School. I completed it in 1974, while I was teaching at my first job at Bennington College in Vermont. One of the supreme moments of my life as a student of culture occurred in October 1973, as I was watching NBC’s “Midnight Special” in my apartment in Bennington. It was a taping from London of “The 1980 Floor Show,” Bowie’s last appearance as Ziggy Stardust—a program oddly never broadcast in the U.K. Bowie looked absolutely ravishing! A bold, knowing, charismatic creature neither male nor female wearing a bewitching costume straight out of the Surrealist art shows of the Parisian 1930s: a seductive black fish-net body suit with attached glittery plaster mannequin’s hands (with black nail polish) lewdly functioning as a brassiere. I instantly realized that Bowie had absorbed the gender games of Andy Warhol’s early short films, above all “Harlot,” with its glamorous, sultry drag queen (Mario Montez). Hence I viewed Bowie, who became one of the foundational creators of performance art, as having taken the next major step past Warhol in art history. I never dreamed that someday I would see that brilliant fish-net costume inches away in a display case at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, where I was lucky enough to catch the V&A’s Bowie costume show two years ago. It was a sacred epiphany, like seeing a splinter from the True Cross. - Camille Paglia, SalonProbably the key figure in helping gay teens to--if not come out--at least get flashier, more expressive, amidst my generation in particular, Bowie showed a way to stay chameleonic, undefinable. More than sexual bent, Bowie that made it OK to be an alien, beyond all dualities set by society, beyond sex but so sexy. Bowie, this confident, gorgeous, stylish, intelligent alien accepted us, he/she/it didn't worry about us accepting him/it/her. And through the example of that generosity the merely gay or bi or trans amongst us became easier to accept.
3. Jaye Davidson as Ra
Dir Roland Emmerich
Dir Roland Emmerich
Though he speaks in a deep otherworldly long-dead language, The mighty Ra is quite the fey little aesthete, keeping his weaponry, ships, and entourage decked out in a unified and very chic combination of HR Giger-style anthropomorphism and the ancient Egypt we all know; and its fun to imagine the entirety of ancient Egyptian iconography as one crazy fashionista alien's own unique haute couture style --Hugo Boss meets Erich von Daniken. Davidson's Ra is a beyond-duality Apollonian super androgyne to make Camille Paglia proud. If Paglia ever does write goddamned volume two of Sexual Personae, I imagine she'll find time to mention Davidson here, who alas wasn't in too many films aside from this and Crying Game, his big 'breakout.' Supposedly he found filmmaking and stardom particularly stressful - and so would you, in all likelihood.
4. Slavitza Jovan as Gozer (the Gozarian)
Dir Ivan Reitman
Dir Ivan Reitman
An 80s film to its giant marshmallow craw, naturally the main villain from an exterior dimension, Gozer, is going to look like a butch hyper-glam Sheena Easton and appear in front of a giant all-seeing eye pyramid projection screen, flanked by two mighty slors. Confusing even downtown New York performance artists as to his/her gender, Gozer the Gozarian's face and demeanor are the epitome of the then-in-full effect MTV fabulous of the moment --and as such are a bold and brilliant 'distinctly 80s Manhattan club scene' choice. S/he doesn't get too many lines but when s/he does speaks in an old lady Pazuzu-homage voice. "Then dieeeee!" - that's fierce, Gozer! Lavender lightning is always the fashion!
5. John Rhys Davies -
VELVET GOLDMINE (1997)
Dir Todd HaynesHaynes' film unfolds in some half-awake reverie set to some great T. Rex, Stooges, Eno covers and glamsy originals, and offers one of the rare, stunning performances by the usually uneven Ewan McGregor as an Iggy Pop-type, but it's the gorgeous eyes and face of Davies that lingers in even the straightest dude's locket memory. In fabulous outfits like the one above, Davies plays a kind of a Bowie/Jobriath-style glam alien meteor who fakes his own assassination, but why? That's the whole question but you know as well as I why: to dodge the notoriously stringent British taxman and because fans were making life wearisome. Showing up once in awhile at the druggier glam shows, under Bowie MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH-style wide-brim slouch hats (to pout that there's still a music scene without him?), only a terribly miscast Christian Bale (clip-on costume earring and oily pancake make-up presumably lifted from mum's drawer) as a bisexual rock journalist seems to notice him here and there. Oh Bale, you're such a square rock journalist you might as well be written by Cameron Crowe! Not only that but when McGregor acts circles around you, like a shark coming to life at the smell of your blood, that's a sad crazy night.
My problem with Todd Haynes has always been his devotion to a kind of sickly housewife 50s color scheme, which I personally abhor (maybe it's from being very bored as a kid at the homes of various grandparents?), and his weakness for Eisenstein fetish editing collapses any kind of narrative cohesiveness or drive (if it wasn't for the songs to anchor them, Haynes' films would leave time behind altogether). While that kind of associative reverie stuff is fun to edit, it's often frustrating to watch, especially if you're not enthralled by a certain era of suburban decor and Haynes' unique 'one step out of the closet looking in' dourness. His gay odysseys are like a less flashy or raunchy or druggy version of Greg Araki's, which means nothing to anyone unless they've endured an Araki movie all the way to the end, a fate which I have so far been lucky enough to escape.
See also HEDWIG and THE ANGRY INCH - god knows I did, at the Jane Theater and on the screen. Alas... I still cry to "The Origin of Love." I'm oily human - it was the 90s man. Damn right that was me at Wigstock 98. You wanna choose up sides?
6. Richard Lynch (as God?)
GOD TOLD ME TO (1976)
Dir Larry CohenHe's an artificially transplanted alien-human hybrid who can turn people homicidal with a glance, and he has a woman's sex organs built into this burn victim chest, sort of, and he's, well I can't spoil it, let's just say two words: Richard Lynch.
I'm fascinated by the life imitates art trajectory of self-inflicted burn victim Richard Lynch... who (intentionally) doused himself with gasoline and set himself ablaze during a strong acid trip--and yet works steadily though hideously scarred, and nearly always playing roles (that I've seen) that have him dying in fire, or having something to do with fire. I mean I would never be able to get within a mile of match if I were him! Man, that's gutsy. I don't buy him as a cult leader either here or in BAD DREAMS, but I'm in awe of him anyway. A living example that some of those old LSD wives tales could very well be true (the babysitter putting the turkey in the crib and the baby in the oven, for example--my favorite). Not to get off topic but let me go on record and say that LSD should be strictly monitored by the government with agent 'guides' being consigned to sell it and provide a kind of communal garden / arts and crafts room which to monitor dosage and provide a chill out tent -kindergarten teacher- therapist - shaman - counsellor safe space. Lord knows I'm qualified from years of experience in the late 80s and would love that as a job. Instead you got people like Dennis Hopper and Bruce Dern in THE TRIP.... or worse, doctors who keep you in a hospital gown in a busy ward with overhead neon lighting and intercom announcements and industrial solvents... on the other hand a kid in the throes of a depression or dared by his friends could take 100x too much practically as easy as taking the right amount - especially if it's liquid. God knows the strength of the dosage the CIA used in their unethical experiments, or Lynch was on when he set himself ablaze.
Another fine example of Larry Cohen's unique ability to steal shots on busy city streets, full of unusual casting (Andy Kaufman, probably the only guy brave enough to march with the cops in the St. Patrick's Day parade in full dress uniform while Cohen and company filmed him guerrilla style as he prepared to pull out a gun and start shooting blanks at random people) and good tough acting with characters who all look like people instead of actors, tough NY people and types - and mixing his high concept weirdness and social messages alongside it - straddling a zone between Cronenberg body horror and Scorsese urban grit poetry-- with streaks of humanism and wit all his own.
There's also a 1985 sci fi film I haven't seen called ENEMY MINE with a similar child bearing but male-ish alien played by Louis Gossett Jr. It bombed because no one wanted to imagine themselves being marooned with Dennis Quaid, least of all stuck in one of those 'a soldier from each camp during a war are marooned together and must find their common blah blah to survive' plots. I wouldn't even have known the alien wasn't a regularly defined 'male' if the film wasn't added to an El Rey Mother's Day marathon.
7.a. John "Bunny" Breckinridge - The Ruler -
PLAN NINE FROM OUTER SPACE (1959)
7.b. Bill Murray as Bunny
ED WOOD (1994)As Imdb notes: "A serious auto accident prevented Breckinridge from getting a longed-for sex-change operation in Mexico." Is his last name, "Breckinridge" linked to Myra? It is, apparently... and makes sense - they certainly ran in the same decadent glitterati circles. And then we can follow these threads outward into the universe..
"Charisma is the radiance produced by the interaction of male and female elements in a gifted personality. The charismatic woman has a masculine force and severity. The charismatic man has an entrancing female beauty. Both are hot and cold, glowing with presexual self-love." - Paglia, 521
8. Grey Aliens
CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1979)
Just why do we associate greys with dudes, when they're quite clearly beyond such things as gender? Reagan famously told Spielberg he didn't know "how close to the truth this really is," after a White House screening, one thing I'm reasonably sure didn't happen at the first US-alien conference (in 1954) was the musical communication, because fuck that hack John Williams to think UFOs communicate with bassoons and known musical scales. I know a filmmaker needs visualization and audio for such things, but everyone knows communication with greys is always telepathic. You've probably picked up their signal in your sleep a dozen times, or via the galactic cell phones that drifted into our damper climates millennia ago, the psilocybe cubensis mushroom, or via Salvia Divinorum, DMT, or dying, or a bad flu, or any psychic ability not hopelessly intertwined with schizophrenia--your brain has to be clear enough you can recognize the external-internal voice in your head--and the way you feel a connection with them is very yin/yang - like their female energy courses through you as if speaking through your unconscious ego. They are facets of our constitution, like Voldemort's soul within Harry Potter (Deathly Hallows 2 is on behind me). The most important facility we have, that ESP, is denigrated by mainstream science for the same reason the church used to. That what it cannot control or measure or monetize, mustn't interfere with that which can until that position become untenable. It's not the 'see no evil / hear no evil' concept, but the refusal to consider any other form of input, that makes us blind and deaf to the alien's screaming for our attention.
9. Patricia Laffan as Nyah
DEVIL GIRL FROM MARS (1954)
Dir David MacDonald
Leave it to the Brits (pre-Hammer) to drain the sexy potential out of the old "Martian women need Earth men to mate with" set-up (originated the year before, 1953, in the classic Cat Women of the Moon). Tall, imperious, with a voice like Bette Davis as Queen Elizabeth I, (and a dashing black cowl hood combo), Laffan's Martian Nyah is, in her unsexy way, damned sexy, but it’s all too clear that the makers of this film are missing the point: alien women here to get 'specimens' shouldn't look like disciplinarian schoolmarm androgynes if they want to get recruits. If her planet's desperate enough to want to mate with men from the paltry cross-section of tavern guests, she's got my sympathy (I'd go in a heartbeat!)
10. Tilda Swinton -
Dir Sally PotterNot every gender-morpher made this list: mere cross dressing, androgyny, or sexual re-assignment can't do it--not alien enough, as they're generally one or the other in final point, men wanting to be women or vice versa, and those in between either neutered altogether or a piecemeal composite still lacking that 'alien' aspect, i.e. the less not adding to something more than both, but Tilda Swinton has it and rocks it, the female non-musical version of the David Bowie alien archetype in the film that put director Sally Potter and star Tilda Swinton on the map as 'the' androgyne to beat; here she believably alters from a young nobleman blessed with immortality by Queen Elizabeth, to changing in dress, gender, class and demeanor while navigating a wild heavily costumed and surreal ever-evolving England, speaking directly to camera often to forget a solid link that transcends any notion of objectification or subject-as-spectacle, she transcends farther than normal Freudian sexual theory allows, to see how going from male to female is not a castration but a remembrance and encompassing, like wood rejoining fire and air rather than disintegration.
11. Brigitte Lin - Dawn (of the Sun-Moon Sect)
SWORDMAN 2 (1992)
Dir Tsui HarkLin really shines in the chance to play a role where she starts out as a guy but in her supernatural fighting ability leads to a softening of the skin and feminization of self, a side effect of mastering a rare martial arts manual that demands auto-castration, which I've heard mention in a few other films --as eunuchs were once a ruling class of immortal warriors. Without knowing both the yin and yang, male and female power centers, one can't enter the top spheres of martial arts. Once changed s/he keeps her maid lover but falls in love with Jet Li (and has them sleep together later while she's off killing his brothers). Why, Jet? Because he makes her laugh with his philosophical simplicity and deep love of alcohol (naturally I relate), preferring wine to the follies of man and his continual struggle for power and rule; Lin's sacrificed his/her balls to have ultimate power while Li's sacrificed all interest in the world (or is trying to) in favor of a continual buzz and settlement on Ox Mountain (if he ever gets there). It's really beautifully played between them, as Jet Li has such an innocent semi-bewildered look in his eyes, like he's imagining a cheery childhood moment at all times. Together they're a flutter of robes like two butterflies right before she kills them with his/her choice weapon: sewing needles.
Anne Carlisle - as Margaret / Jimmy + Alien POV
(1982) Dir. Slava Tsukerman
(1982) Dir. Slava Tsukerman
O, those androgynous women and mildly manly men who spend their 70s-early 80s nights milling around tiny black box combo art gallery / fashion studio storefronts downtown, engaging in never ending private fashion shows in vain attempts to stand out from a stable of similarly face-painted and ennui-and-opiate-withdrawal-driven clotheshorses! This is what the East Village NYC in the late 70s-early 80s was all about, before Giuliani and the internet fucked it all up. Meanwhile a German scientist named Johann (Otto Von Wernher) has followed a George Foreman grill-sized spacecraft to the roof above the East Village penthouse flat Margaret shares with her knife wielding Valerie Solanis-style performance artist heroin dealer lesbian girlfriend Adrian (Paula E. Shepherd). The alien is represented by a giant solarized color style eye POV, observing all the action through a color-twisted prism and killing those who dare reach anything so jejune as an orgasm. It maybe hides behind the white mask in the center of the weird neon hula hooped painting in the center of the apartment. When Margaret's lovers 'climax,' a cigarette burn in the celluloid behind their head sucks them right out of the film, leaving her free to resume her high fashion Fassbinder-ish moping. Her own inability to have an orgasm (due to either drugs, ennui or some combination) saves her neck, and even allows her to notice her little alien guardian with mild affection rather than distaste. Though she never sees it (them?), they form a bond as touching as that between the disembodied Virginia Leith and her similarly unseen closet monster in The Brain that Wouldn't Die!
If this was a guy playing both roles it might just be the usual camp drag theatricality but Carlisle brings a depth of wry deadpan wit and existential sad resolve that's Weimar Cabaret-level decadent without ever descending to camp, belying her tender age of 26 with a sophistication worthy of Dietrich and an androgynous punk edge worthy of Tim Curry. When she announces she's from Connecticut ("Pilgrim stock!") in one of the film's key and classic scenes, we realize Connecticut is America's Valhalla-gone-Gomorrah and Carlisle is the persona we all hoped Edie Sedgwick would be in Ciao! Manhattan. She takes both her male and female roles over the edge, even going down on herself while fashionistas (before there was such a phrase) jeer jadedly. (more)
12. Voice of Billy Boyd as Glen/Glenda
SEED OF CHUCKY (2004)
Dir. Don Mancini
I'll never forget my ex-almost lover's wife driving me to the train after a weekend at Woodstock and her kid in the back, maybe ten or nine, announcing "I'm going to practice my box stitch," with a kind of randomness that was quite moving. When I was his age neither I nor any living boy I would dare make such a statement with such casual disregard for gender norms, especially in front of a male stranger. I knew then that we might be going to hell in a handbasket as a globe, but at least things were getting better on some levels, and kids today were growing up free and clear of those old straitjackets, at least in tony Woodstock. Practice your box stitch, kid, I thought, and sew our nation whole again.
So more and more there are 'out' kids of all ages, unable or unwilling to commit to old gender confines as they mature. It's all good, of course, as those kids grow free and beautiful while the repressed children wither on the vine.Then there's Glen/Glenda in CHILD'S PLAY. The toymaker forgot to give him/her genitals and his short hair could just be Mia Farrow-esque. Maybe the future will show him/her to be a trailblazer, too. I reviewed the film back in the day but can't remember much about it, except of course that Don Mancini's love of the genre shows in every frame and that Jennifer Tilly (as herself!) has a field day. I've never been a fan of Chucky's whole blue collar balding ginger whiny voiced giggling sadism, but I respect it, and dig that Glen/Glenda has more of a sophisto twang.
Honorable Mention: Denver Pyle as "Uncle" Bene
ESCAPE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN (1975)
Dir. John Hough
Speaking of weird kids, this Disney classic was one of the few of their live action films I liked when mom took me back when I was eight. The brother and sister alien's long-awaited alien adult guardian, Uncle Bene's final act arrival is one of weird 'what the fuck?' almost Yoda-esque hilarity of the type only Disney can provide. We have no idea what he'll look like--the "alien" guardian they're struggling through the whole movie to find. As the kids stand by the camper and look up yonder hill. Suddenly there he is, coming over the green rolling mountain like some giant pale denim hoppity-hop with a shock of blinding white hair, his male breasts and belly jiggling merrily within his tucked-in pale farmer blue workshirt. There's no intention, perhaps, consciously, on Disney's part, to make him seem androgynous, but so he is, made so by age and weight contributing to apparent surplus of estrogen, like a good alien would have. It works because it doesn't. We expected a silver lame jumpsuit and black eyes, not this friendly fresh-shaved Saint Nick ready to lead the kids by the hand off to their alien secret cult self-sustaining agrarian compound. They might as well be Amish as alien.
In fact, after the Dickensian strife and struggling with shady millionaire Ray Milland, evil henchmen and scientists, grouchy old men (though they become nicer) and so forth, seeing such a nonthreatening adult character is cause for some great mirth and jolly relief. How this character can keep them free of meddlers like Ray Milland one doesn't need to know, with his big belly laugh joyousness he's a Buddha in the sky with white hair and a smile that says "See you at Magic Mountain! You must be at least this tall to ride!"