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‘Transamerica’ really about family

Stewart Oksenhorn
Felicity Huffman and Graham Greene, in "Transamerica." (Jessica Miglio/The Weinstein Co.)
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Ask Duncan Tucker, writer and director of “Transamerica,” where he got the idea for a script about a preoperative, male-to-female transsexual, and he’s got an answer at the ready. Some years ago, Tucker and his housemate of several months were discussing gender issues, when the housemate revealed that “she” had not always been Katherine, but was a hermaphrodite raised as a boy.

But Tucker says asking about transgender issues is the wrong question. A question more appropriate to the genesis of the film (which opens tonight at the Wheeler) is, why make another road story?

“The road movie is a quest story ” Huck Finn, ‘The Odyssey,’ ‘The Wizard of Oz,'” said Tucker, a New York resident who says he is “on the wrong side of 40.” “And they’re all about coming of age, learning who you are. The road-movie structure allows you to bring in all these things ” mishaps, friends and enemies, things escalating. But I wanted to do it with real characters.”

Tucker plucked his main character from the fringes of society. Bree is a kept-to-herself, prissy person who has focused all her attention on having the operation that will finally transform her from Stanley, the mistaken identity with which she was born and raised. But played by Aspen product Felicity Huffman, a nominee for the Best Actress Oscar, Bree is a real, fleshed-out character. Instead of the devil-may-care flamboyance often associated with transsexuals (see, for instance, Cillian Murphy’s Patrick “Kitten” Braden in the recent “Breakfast on Pluto”), Bree is neurotic, retiring, and diligent in her effort to arrange, financially, legally and psychologically, for her operation.

Tucker certainly could have chosen someone other than a transsexual if he were simply going for a “real” character. But a big part of the road movie tradition, along with physical travel from one place to the next, is the inner journey. Who, Tucker figured, could be on a more extreme ride toward self-discovery than someone looking to transform part of the very essence of their being?

“It’s about being a person, about growing up and becoming who you are. It’s not about sexuality,” said Tucker, of the film. “What she really has to do is be a person, a woman. That’s what growing up is all about, is learning to accept yourself.

“And if you happen to have been born a transsexual person, and feel like you’ve been born into the wrong anatomy, the journey toward self-discovery has to be even longer and harder than for most.”

For Huffman, who moved from upstate New York to Aspen as a child, the opportunity to play such a character was irresistible.

“To play a man becoming a woman, that’s something you can sink your teeth into. It’s dense. Thick. A lot of layers. It’s pastry ” you just keep piling it on,” said the 43-year-old Huffman, who looks to add an Oscar to the Emmy Award, for outstanding lead actress in a comedy series, she won last year for her role as Lynette in “Desperate Housewives.”

From Bree’s perspective at the opening of “Transamerica,” the path looks clear and smooth. She shows no ambivalence about leaving Stanley behind; in an opening sequence, asked about her male equipment, she says her penis disgusts her. Bree has lined up all the necessary approvals, including that of her shrink and confidante, Margaret (Elizabeth Pena).

But Bree, in the slightest flash of doubt, lets slip word of the phone call she received ” from a teenage boy, the apparent product of Stanley’s one, clumsy stab at heterosexuality years ago. The son, Toby (Kevin Zegers) is in trouble. With sad eyes, Margaret tells Bree this is one mess that will have to be addressed and handled before she can give the final go-ahead for Bree’s operation. Bree heads from Los Angeles to New York and finds herself making the return, cross-country trip in a beaten-up station wagon, pretending to be a Christian missionary, with her sullen, scamming son, a male prostitute, at her side.

Taking the Southern route through the States, Bree and Toby bicker and aggravate and manipulate one another. But truths and sympathies emerge, often with the help of friends and strangers met along the way, as is the road-movie custom. The bond formed is tenuous and strained by anger and resentment over past actions.

That parent-child relationship, odd as it is, will ring true for any parent or teenager. “Transamerica,” in fact, has more to say about familial bonds than about transsexuality. Beyond the universal truth of family ties, Tucker believes viewers will have little trouble relating to Bree as an individual.

“Everyone is a misfit. We all have that in common,” he said. “None of us gets perfect love. But Bree and Toby got more imperfect love than most.”

Tucker, who was interviewed for this story in December, when “Transamerica” had been in severely limited release, was unsure whether the film’s tone could be conveyed to the movie-going public. “A lot of people read the interviews with Felicity and assume the subject matter is dark and gritty,” he said. At a Denver screening, he says, a 50-ish woman told him in a post-film talk that she almost didn’t come, put off by the presumed subject matter.

“How are you going to tell people? It’s the million-dollar question,” said Tucker. “We have to see whether the company will be willing to take the risk, and take out ads to tell people what the movie is.”

The company is The Weinstein Co., the new venture by former Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein. The Weinstein Co. showed faith in “Transamerica”; it was the first film picked up for distribution by Weinstein. Tucker’s worries about getting the word across seem to be dispelled, first by Huffman’s Academy nomination, and now by box office receipts that are approaching $4 million. (Huffman has already earned the Golden Globe for best actress in a drama. “Transamerica” also stands nominated for a best original song Oscar, for Dolly Parton’s “Travelin’ Thru.”)

“Transamerica,” if anything, leans much toward the light-hearted. In a scene where Bree makes a surprise visit to her alienated parents (Fionnula Flanagan and Burt Young), in Arizona, the stereotypes (henpecked husband, prissy mother toting her poodle) gives an air of goofiness. But Tucker defends the scene.

“Some people think that sequence is over the top. But that is the most accurate scene in the movie,” said Tucker, who was raised in Phoenix and Kansas City, has lived in New York City for 20 years, and is thinking about moving westward again. “Families can be so dysfunctional, and in a way that can be tragic and humorous at the same time.”

Huffman’s connections to Aspen ” her mother lives in Woody Creek, and she and her husband, actor William H. Macy, are building a home in the midvalley ” are not the end of the film’s local ties.

Duncan Tucker’s family had a house in the West End through the ’80s; he refers to his time spent in Aspen “as kind of glory days.”

And in one of the film’s driving sequences, the background music is “I Find Jesus,” written by Woody Creeker Jimmy Ibbotson, and performed by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Ibbotson’s former group.

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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