“Find the courage to be yourself,” implores the all-caps, serif caption of Tom Hooper’s “The Danish Girl,” the latest iteration in what has been an unparalleled year for mainstream trans-gressive consciousness. From Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover to Amazon’s “Transparent” to Sundance favorite “Tangerine,” 2015 has been a year in which “being yourself” could appear more gloriously complex than ever, with newfound exposure—and political legitimacy—for transgender citizens.
Predicted for months to be the first transgender actress nominated for an Oscar, “Tangerine” co-star Mya Taylor said it best in an interview for Indiewire: “There's a movement that's going on and I'm glad to be a part of it…. People are more comfortable with transgender performers. I think this movie is taking that in the right direction. But there's still a lot of work to do.”
This morning’s 2016 Oscar nominations suggest that the academy might still need to pull up its sleeves. In addition to its Cloroxed lineup of Caucasian acting nominees, “Tangerine” was snubbed (as was “Carol” for best picture, but that’s another story). Less surprisingly, “The Danish Girl” garnered two acting nods: one for Eddie Redmayne’s performance of transgender woman Lili Elbe, one of the first known recipients of gender-reassignment surgery; and one for Alicia Vikander, who plays Gerda Wegener, her self-sacrificing wife. I say less surprisingly because anyone who saw the movie could see its ostensive progressive content gift-wrapped (and ultimately suffocated) in glossy layers of prestige, Redmayne’s rendition included.
And that’s pivotal to its mainstream appeal. Want to make a queer character more accessible? Make sure they’re played by an assuredly hetero actor — Jeffrey Tambor, who plays “Transparent” heroine Maura Pfefferman, it has to be said, is not exempt from this criticism, either — and then swaddle them in money (and an enviable closet of Coco Chanel). While the first half of “The Danish Girl” artfully explores the shifting shades of sexuality between Einar Wegener and his equally talented painter wife—with a delightful scene of Gerda schooling him on the performance of femininity, an irreverent co-conspirator in his gender transformation—by the second half Being a Woman means weakly smiling or softly weeping, often both at the same time. Eddie Redmayne does essentially what Eddie Redmayne does of late: starve his Anglo-slender body into something unrecognizable (à la “The Theory of Everything”) as though spectacle makes for substance.
A recent review of his performance in PinkNews is far more charitable, claiming, “It would be easy for the film to portray Elbe as a straight-up pioneering hero, but Redmayne brings nuance: Elbe is selfish, but because she is single-minded. She has no option but to put herself before others—and brings a mixture of guilt, terror and earnest excitement to every line.” If terror and earnest excitement can be adequately conveyed via fawn-in-headlights reflexes and fluttering hands, then I guess I see the point, but that would certainly seem to limit Lili’s spectrum of demeanors.
When Redmayne trotted his pregnant wife across the red carpet at the Golden Globes, it was the ironic offscreen equivalent of him running the Boston Marathon after playing Stephen Hawking. Actors should never be expected to play themselves, but in a time where there are more than enough trans actors working, one has to wonder why a cis-male was needed to play this role. It hearkens back to Hilary Swank’s Oscar-winning starring role in “Boys Don’t Cry,” but it isn’t 1999 anymore (also: that movie had a lot more balls). Whereas Swank’s Brandon Teena gave the genuine impression of a young trans man of perceivable depth, learning the rules as he goes, “The Danish Girl” presents a heroine with the approximate appeal of a flaky pastry.
As such, Redmayne doesn’t so much dissolve in the role of Lili as emulsify under the heat of predictable clichés. Once Einar, as Lili, suddenly discovers his true feminine sense—at a ball, no less, granting a silly Cinderella vibe to the whole affair—he gives up painting, as though one's dick and one’s art go hand in hand. Vikander’s take on Gerda is initially much more compelling, but the film’s focus eventually settles more on Lili’s flat persona, more dynamic in the portraits painted of her than she presents in three dimensions. By the end of the film, Gerda, like any “good wife,” sublimates her own libido to support her husband dutifully even when he is, anatomically, at least, no longer her husband. Had the film permitted both characters to flourish in their sexual complexities, they could have remained platonic soul mates without kowtowing to heteronormative conventions.
The film is more worthy of its nomination for best costume design, led by Paco Delgado, who also worked on Hooper’s 2012 “Les Miserables.” While the Guardian's Jonathan Romney claimed that “[t]oo many scenes are distractingly dominated by a perfect frock or a ravishing art nouveau window,” I feel the opposite. These immaculate frocks, windowpanes, bedspreads, tutus and velveteen footwear are the single best reason to see the film, perhaps the only reason to see it, if only because the characters are usually less interesting than the objects that surround them.
And while the film may very well be “inspired by the extraordinary true story,” it is worth asking, “Which one?” The story of how revolutionary it was for the medical community to pursue such a taboo field? The story of how risky—borderline suicidal—it would be to swap one’s sex bits in 1930? The story of how being trans is quintessentially a challenge to everything upon which the public sphere is predicated? These are not the stories that unfolded on the screen. Rather, it is the story of a married couple that ultimately behaves just as a traditional married couple ought to. In this way, “The Danish Girl” might be one of the most milquetoasty sort of sexist period films released all year.
In her recent interview with New York magazine, professor Jane Ward makes the case that “queer subculture...is anchored to a long tradition of anti-normative political practices and anti-normative sex practices and appreciation for a much broader array of bodies and kinds of relationships.” “The Danish Girl” initially flirts with such a tradition, but flops in its reductive gravitas by the end. Rather than dive down the Slip n Slide of gender, sex and identity, the film doesn't so much expose what it’s like to challenge or transform norms so much as capitulate to essentialist doctrine—yet another self-important, limp-on-arrival squiggle of Oscar-bait intended to hook those who want to feel open-minded, but only if such open-mindedness follows an oh-so-familiar narrative.