"Frankie Go Boom" Embraces the Cross-dressing Tradition in Film

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Frank Bartlett has been tortured, embarrassed, and humiliated by his brother Bruce -- usually on film -- his entire life. Now that Bruce is finally off drugs and has turned his life around, things should be different. They are not.
Photo Credit: Variance Films
October 23rd, 2012

"Frankie Go Boom" Embraces the Cross-dressing Tradition in Film

-- The character Aunt Phyllis in "Frankie Go Boom" is a man in women's clothing. The man is Ron Perlman, best known for his roles in "Sons of Anarchy" and "Hellboy." This is the first time that Perlman plays a woman in a film, but not the first time for a major actor to take such a role. In fact, "Frankie Go Boom" is one in a long list of great films that feature men dressing as women. The cross-dressing theme is not taboo. In fact, many of the movies embrace the women. However, few do it like "Frankie Go Boom."

In the movie, Perlman plays a character based on writer/director Jordan Roberts' own brother. Perlman admits not knowing this fact until the filming had finished. According to Roberts, many of the aspects of Aunt Phyllis are reflections of his brother. In the film, Aunt Phyllis used to be a hacker named Phil. Brothers Frank and Bruce come to Aunt Phyllis after an unfulfilled sex video that Bruce shot of Frank is taken. The boys need to get the film back. The girl in the video is the daughter of a very dangerous but vain man, played by Chris Noth. Aunt Phyllis comes in to help.

Other characters similar to Aunt Phyllis have consisted of Oscar winners, action stars and others who take on the cross-dressing roles with gusto.

"Tootsie" (1982)
One of the most groundbreaking films, "Tootsie" was a tale of a man who could not make it in what was then a male dominated world. He soon found that there was work to be had, but only for women. That was how a man played by actor Dustin Hoffman became Tootsie, an actress who was perfect for a part in a soap opera. The movie takes a turn when Tootsie becomes famous for a role that seems to gather popularity quickly. Hoffman's character finds himself in female clothes as Tootsie more often than in male clothes as himself. The film focuses on the deceit with the cross-dressing, being a vehicle for the lies that the character must tell in order to pursue his dream.

"To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar" (1995)
Two action stars and a comedian team up to play three drag queens on their way from New York to Los Angeles for a beauty competition. Wesley Snipes, Patrick Swayze and John Leguizamo played Noxeema Jackson, Vida Boheme and Chi Chi Rodriguez, respectively. The trio's car breaks down somewhere in rural America, in a town where you could blink and miss your car on a drive through. They face racism and homophobia and meet a woman being badly abused by her husband. Through it all, the three drag queens help their new friends find a way to love themselves, like a good drag queen does. One of the most uplifting scenes is when the trio teaches the women of town to dress for their menfolk. The cross-dressing in "To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar" is merely a way of self-expression. The strong women leave you feeling sorry for all the straight people who can't get comfortable in their own skin.

"Hairspray" (2007)
The play has a history of casting men in the role as Momma. However, "Hairspray" turned Hollywood on its end when Oscar award-winning star John Travolta decided to don a dress for the role. As Momma, Travolta also had to put on a fat suit. Despite the bulk, he was able to dance and sing with what looked like little effort. Travolta shimmied across the screen, making audiences forget that a man was actually in the dress. The role was essentially symbolic, but Travolta also made it legendary.

"Psycho" (1960)
If you haven't seen the film, then you may not know that there is a man in women's clothing in "Psycho." The infamous horror film about a strange, murderous hotel owner waits until the end to reveal that the mother who has timid Norman Bates (played by Anthony Perkins) living in submission is actually Bates himself in his mothers' clothes! The cross-dressing in "Psycho" is used to ram home the many ways that Bates is disturbed-if you didn't get the message through the rest of the film.

Ron Perlman is in good company in his role as Aunt Phyllis in "Frankie Go Boom." Though his role has no grand significance and there's no lesson to be learned from Aunt Phyllis, Perlman still dazzles onscreen as a rebellious cross-dressing hacker in the 2012 comedy.