By Joanna Wagner
LGBT Perspectives TV & Movie Critic
SAN FRANCISCO — It’s Throwback Thursday and today I’m looking at Transamerica , a film made in 2005 that earned 30 awards including a Golden Globe for actress Felicity Huffman and was nominated for 19 others including a Best Actress Oscar for her performance in the film. Yet this movie received a great deal of criticism and outrage in the transgender community despite its generally positive portrayal of the lead character, Bree.
We are introduced to Bree (Felicity Huffman) getting ready for an appointment with her psychiatrist, Dr. Zickowski (Danny Bernsein). She’s nervous; this is the meeting where she is seeking his consent to allow her GRS to proceed in two weeks. He is dry, disinterested and generally condescending, although he does sign the form.
Bree works two jobs; one as a dishwasher in a Mexican restaurant and a second doing telemarketing from her home. Both of these allow her to earn a living while avoiding appearances in public. Between telemarketing calls, she receives one that will turn her whole world upside down. The caller is the son she never knew she had, the product of a brief affair in college. He’s in jail and hoping her romanticized dad, Stanley (her dead name), will bail him out of jail in New York City. Bree tells him he has the wrong person and quickly gets off the phone.
The following day she meets with her therapist, Margaret (Elizabeth Peña), with whom she is close, for the final GRS signature of approval. Margaret is happy to provide it until Bree mentions the phone call. Her therapist rescinds her approval and tells her she has to deal with this revelation before she has the surgery.
We meet 17-year-old Toby (Kevin Zegers) at the NYC lockup when Bree bails him out of jail. He has been a street hustler and drug user. Per Margaret, Bree must deal with this minor child and thus begins a road trip from hell across the U.S. to Los Angeles.
The controversy among transgender people focused on inaccuracies about the transition and surgery-approval process. Indeed, it would not have happened in the manner presented in the film, but that’s not important; it’s not a documentary and the story needs to be told in 90 minutes. The road to surgery was a setup for the story that was about to unfold; it provided motivation for Bree’s actions. Would she have gone to New York to meet and deal with Toby if she weren’t forced to? Probably not.
The movie wasn’t really about transition or being transgender; it was about family. It was about dealing with a past that had caught up with her, not just with her son but with her estranged family back in Phoenix. Transition doesn’t erase the past, it only changes the context in which she must deal with it.
Another major complaint was that a transgender actress didn’t play the part of Bree, though two transgender women did consult and make cameo appearances, Andrea James and Calpernia Addams. It would have been nice if the lead was a trans woman, but the critical reception of the film testifies to the quality of Huffman’s performance. The transition she made in the film was greater than her gender identity; it changed who she was. She became confident; she took actions to correct mistakes made in her previous existence. She emerged a better person in many ways. It was without doubt a positive portrayal of a transgender woman.
There are some movie business realities that also played a part in the selection of Felicity Huffman. The producer and probably a major funder of the film was William H. Macy, her husband. This was a relatively inexpensive film to make, but it still cost a few million dollars. At the time the film was made, Desperate Housewives, Huffman’s TV series, was riding the crest of a wave of popularity. She had some star power to draw an audience, and they do make movies for profit.
Huffman gave a wonderful performance, as did her costar, Kevin Zegars. A special mention for Fionnula Flanagan as Elizabeth, Bree’s crazed, Christian mother.
I loved this movie in 2006 and I feel the same way about it today. See it for the first time or a repeat performance. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
Streaming on Amazon Instant Video, $2.99 US.