Men dressed as women was key to great comedy

Political correctness aside, films with characters in drag have remained popular through the decades

Robin Williams in Mrs Doubtfire

It is usually a man dressed as a woman that is considered funny and not the other way around. 

Political correctness aside, films with men in drag have remained iconic over the years.

A resounding proof of this is that the two films that top the American Film Institute’s (AFI) list of top 100 funny films are both about both men in drag: ‘Some like it hot’ and ‘Tootsie’, respectively.

Metrolife looks back at some of the most iconic drag comedies in cinema.

Drag in Bollywood

While no A-lister in Bollywood has donned the role of a transgender, almost every single has acted in drag for a comic scene.

Aamir Khan has taken on the role in ‘Baazi’, Ajay Devgn in ‘Golmaal Returns’, Shah Rukh Khan in ‘Duplicate’ and Govinda in ‘Aunty No 1’ and ‘Raja Babu’.

One of Amitabh Bachchan’s most famous songs, ‘Tere Angne Mein’ from the movie ‘Lawaris’, shows him in drag.

Sometimes, the mere mention of drag can be comic. After P V Sindhu won the world badminton championships, a joke that was passed around on Twitter had a picture of Akshay Kumar in drag from the movie ‘Khiladi’.

The caption to the picture, to be read in the context of his penchant for nationalistic films, reads ‘Akshay Kumar getting ready for his role as P V Sindhu in the upcoming biopic’.

The humour of drag — both mainstream Hollywood and Bollywood — lies in the fact that drag is only temporary and the comedy of errors that led to the A-lister having to look like a woman, and it’s equally important to the humour that the actor eventually resumes his manliness. Salman Khan looks beefy even while in drag in ‘Jan-e-man’.

Robin and Kamal

There are many reasons why Robin Williams is considered one of the greatest comics of all time. His humour, a lot of which depended on mimicry and other gymnastics with speech, was what gave flavour to roles from Popeye the sailor man to radio jockey Adrian Cronauer in ‘Good morning, Vietnam’.

And it’s not just his voice that he changed for ‘Mrs. Doubtfire’. His character, Daniel Hillard, estranged from his wife and children, wants to spend time with them.

So, he dresses up as the eponymous Mrs Doubtfire and becomes a nanny to his children.

Indian audiences may be more familiar with the Tamil and Hindi remakes of the film, the Kamal Haasan starrers ‘Avvai Shanmughi’ and ‘Chachi 420’, respectively.

While these films also use the logic of ‘drag only temporarily’, Mrs Doubtfire and the remakes began the use of heavy prosthetics for drag.

Tilda Swinton

Type ‘Is Tilda Swinton…’ on Google, and one of the first option thrown up by the prediction is ‘Is Tilda Swinton a man?’

For your average Hollywood celebrity actress, this should not be one of the top searches for Hollywood, but this is perhaps not surprising for someone familiar with Tilda’s work.

The biggest contributing factor — and what started it all — is perhaps her role as Orlando in the film adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s novel ‘Orlando: a biography’.

The eponymous hero is a nobleman from Queen Elizabeth the first’s court who lives on for the next couple of centuries without ageing perceptibly.

Over the course of time, he becomes a woman.

Since the movie, there have been jokes about how Tilda is a man or a boy, but she never seemed to care about them.

In 2018, Tilda acted as an 82-year-old man in the movie ‘Suspiria’, initially without taking credit for it.

The Guardian reports that the film’s director Luca Guadagnino insists Tilda playing the role of a male was essential because the film is about female identity.

Pink Flamingos

Chucking out mainstream cinema’s practice of having a man be in drag for just a little while, ‘Pink Flamingo’ burst out into the scene, having a real-life drag queen play a
fictionalised version of herself. 

Today, the outrageous film is a cult classic, and does what most films are frightened to do — relishes its own bad taste.

The film subverts decency and shows exhibitionism, voyeurism, sodomy, masturbation, gluttony, vomiting, rape, incest, murder, cannibalism, castration and foot fetishism.

It tells the story of the drag queen ‘Divine’, who is living the life of a criminal under the name Babs Johnson. As the film starts, a local tabloid has called her “the filthiest person alive”, and jealous rivals Connie and Raymond Marble attempt to usurp her title.

‘Good Will Hunting’ director Gus Van Sant calls ‘Pink Flamingos’ “an absolute classic piece of American cinema, right up there with The Birth of a Nation, Dr. Strangelove, and Boom!”

The most famous of them all

‘Some Like It Hot’ is not just the most famous comic film about men in drag; it may be the most famous comic film of all time.

It tells the story of two musicians, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon, who have to join a women’s music group because they are witnesses to a murder, and gangsters want them killed, too.

With them in the music group is Marilyn Monroe as lead vocal, in one of her best performances.

Curtis soon lets go of drag and starts to woo Marilyn pretending to be a millionaire. In one of the best conversations from the movie, she asks him: “You collect shells?”

“Yes, so did my father and my grandfather,” Curtis says, “You might say we had a passion for shells. That’s why we named the oil company after it”.

Lemmon, on the other hand, goes full swing with his drag. He traps a rich millionaire himself, and even elopes to get married.

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