Correction appended, 4/22/14.
Back in 1940, when Hattie McDaniel took home the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Mammy in “Gone With The Wind,” Hollywood was incessantly proud of itself. The Academy indulged in feel-good self-congratulations that night because McDaniel was the first black person to win any of its acting honors.
“It opens the doors of this room, moves back the walls, and enables us to embrace the whole of America, an America that we love, an America that almost alone in the world today recognizes and pays tribute to those who give her their best, regardless of creed, race, or color,” explained the actress Fay Bainter before calling McDaniel up from her segregated table in the back of the Ambassador Hotel ballroom where she sat far from her white co-stars.
In the light of more than seven decades, that moment and performance are tainted by our collective understanding of how hypocritical and patronizing it was. McDaniel’s portrayal of a house slave is now, alongside the old Aunt Jemima syrup logos, viewed as an archetypical, racist touchstone. It is difficult to watch McDaniel’s infantilized Mammy without cringing.
Now the Academy is on the brink of doing it again for another badly misunderstood minority. Unless virtually every odds maker and show-biz pundit is wrong, the straight actor Jared Leto will on Sunday win the Best Supporting Actor statuette for a portrayal of a transgender woman with AIDS in “Dallas Buyers Club.”
Not long from now — it surely won’t take decades, given the brisk pace of progress on matters of identity and sexuality these days — Leto’s award-winning performance as the sassy, tragic-yet-silly Rayon will belong in the dishonorable pantheon along with McDaniel’s Mammy. That is, it’ll be another moment when liberals in Hollywood, both in the industry and in the media, showed how little they understood or empathized with the lives of a minority they imagine they and Leto are honoring.
Part of the problem stems from the film’s script itself. The audience is only taken in if they think they’re watching a true story, and “Dallas Buyers Club” is largely shilled as such. But the Ron Woodruff who defied his AIDS death sentence for years and who set up an alternative means of selling unapproved HIV medication to people with HIV around Texas was, by all contemporary accounts, at least bisexual and not the least bit homophobic.
So the story being shopped as true is, at its heart, a fiction. The movie Woodruff is a hyper heterosexual and bigot, and his heroism stems both from creating the Dallas Buyers Club and being taught tolerance by Leto’s Rayon. And Rayon is an entirely fabricated person.
What did the writers of “Dallas Buyers Club” and Leto as her portrayer decide to make Rayon? Why, she’s a sad-sack, clothes-obsessed, constantly flirting transgender drug addict prostitute, of course. There are no stereotypes about transgender women that Leto’s concoction does not tap. She’s an exaggerated, trivialized version of how men who pretend to be women — as opposed to those who feel at their core they are women — behave. And in a very bleak film, she’s the only figure played consistently for comic relief, like the part when fake-Woodruff points a gun at Rayon’s crotch and suggests he give her the sex change she’s been wanting. Hilarious.
Hollywood has long found humor in aspects of transgenderism — be it simple cross-dressing or actual transexuality — and shows no signs of letting up. From “Some Like It Hot” to “Tootsie,” a guy in a dress is always deemed clever and funny. And the trend, if anything, shows signs of escalating from benign and misinformed to threatening. As Jos Truitt notes at feministing.com, the “22 Jump Street” trailer doesn’t even cloak its transphobic “humor” in allusions, with characters cracking wise about the prison rape of trans women. These are the coming attractions, the parts the filmmakers or their marketing consultants think are the most enticing. “Most of the increased visibility trans women are getting in Hollywood right now is not a good thing — it’s cruel and it’s dangerous,” Truitt wrote.
In “Dallas Buyers Club," Rayon is tormented not by having HIV but by being transgender. You see it in the scenes in which she sits shirtless before a vanity dusting her face with a makeup brush or visits her estranged father in men’s clothes to plead for money. She’s the victimized dingbat whose incompetence and unreliability exists to show how far Woodruff has come both as a businessman and a human being. And, remember, the entire relationship is fiction. Not fact-based fiction. Pure, 100 percent fiction.
Leto claims his research included sit-downs with transgender people, but none have come forward to acknowledge they advised him and the full credits don’t specify any particular transgender consultants. The transgender world is pretty small, especially in Los Angeles, as I learned when I wrote my L.A. Weekly cover story about the suicide of transgender L.A. Times sportswriter Christine Daniels. Nobody who knows anything about this life is sticking up for this performance.
Some of the criticism of Leto is, indeed, unfair. He was heckled at a Santa Barbara film festival by transgender activists frustrated that the role didn’t go to a transgender actress. That’s a real problem — of course transgender performers are underrepresented or nearly nonexistent in Hollywood with the almost singular exception of Laverne Cox of “Orange Is The New Black” — but it isn’t Leto’s fault. Had he, as Jeffrey Tambor has in the brilliant Amazon Prime pilot “Transparent,” tried to understand the trans experience as one of the soul and not physical artifice, he probably wouldn’t be attacked like that.
No, that’s not the problem here. The problem is what Leto did with the role and the fact that reviewers cannot stop fawning over it. Back in McDaniel’s day, reviewers and interviewers did the same, with McDaniel insisting her portrayal was authentic and the rest of the non-black world largely buying it.
It won her the Oscar, to be sure. And Rayon probably will win Leto one as well. And that’s grand for them. But that may not be the whole legacy here. Once transgender people receive the broad respect they deserve, Leto’s creation, like McDaniel’s, will be seen as a crude throwback of a less aware era.
Correction: This article originally stated incorrectly that Mammy shrieks about "birthin' babies" in Gone with the Wind.
Correction: The original version of this story misquoted an article on feministing.com. The quotation has been removed.
Friess is an Ann Arbor, Mich.–based freelance writer and former senior writer covering technology for Politico, who teaches journalism at Michigan State University. The views expressed are solely his own. You can follow him on Twitter @stevefriess.