Why Oscar Voters Love Gender-Bending Roles

For Glenn Close, the coming fall season is going to be a real drag—and that’s a good thing. The acclaimed actress is set to storm theaters with “Albert Nobbs,” a passion project in which she plays a woman masquerading as a male waiter in 19th-century Ireland in order to land a job.

It’s a performance that’s already generating buzz for Close, who played the role in a 1982 Off-Broadway play and won an Obie award for it. Thirty years later, the Emmy- and Tony-winning actress is no doubt hoping her big-screen turn in “Nobbs,” which recently screened at the Telluride Film Festival and which she also co-wrote and produced, will nab the one award that has eluded her: an Oscar.

Close has been nominated five times for an Academy Award but never won. She could be primed to receive her sixth nomination, boosted by a hat trick that always wows Oscar voters: the sexual switcheroo.

“The performances that are gender-benders always seem to get a lot of attention,” says a longtime Academy member who follows such matters. “Amongst our friends, we’re already predicting that the female race is going to be very strong this year. One slot’s going to go to Meryl Streep [for “The Iron Lady”], one slot’s going to go to Viola Davis [for “The Help.”] But we already are assuming that Glenn Close is going to get a nomination—she is really a great actress.”

Indeed, Oscar voters love female actors who play men, male actors who play women, and—in the case of Felicity Huffman’s pre-operative transgender in “Transamerica”—female actors who play men who play women.

The roster of past Oscar nominees who’ve done this is more sparkling than Dustin Hoffman’s sequined gown in “Tootsie”: Julie Andrews in “Victor/Victoria,” Jack Lemmon in “Some Like It Hot,” “John Lithgow in “The World According to Garp,” Jaye Davidson in “The Crying Game.”

Some roles, such as Linda Hunt’s Oscar-winning turn as a Eurasian man in “The Year of Living Dangerously,” are obvious casting stunts. Others, like Hilary Swank’s Best Actress performance as a transgendered victim in “Boys Don’t Cry,” are volatile inquiries into gender politics. All share one thing: an astonishing degree of transformation.

“I think Oscar voters really like to see profound physical transformations,” says Dave Karger, Entertainment Weekly’s movie-awards expert and the Oscar telecast’s official red-carpet greeter. “There’s nothing as dramatic and drastic as playing with gender lines. In the right hands, it’s ‘Boys Don’t Cry.’ In the wrong hands, it’s a farce. And in the really wrong hands, it’s offensive. [It's] right up there, as far as degree of difficulty.”

Adds Tom O’Neil, founder of awards-tracking site GoldDerby.com, “Oscar voters love big, obvious, perform-with-a-sledgehammer acting. So if you cross over genders, that’s impressive to them.”

This tremendous degree of difficulty also appealed to the actors who’ve taken on these roles. “I loved the challenge and I loved the conundrum of it,” Felicity Huffman tells Speakeasy of her celebrated, if tricky, “Transamerica” performance. “It’s like riding a bicycle on a high wire [while] balancing a glass of water, and you have to go cross-country.”

Huffman admits she identified with her character’s “pain of waking up in her own skin,” and went to great lengths to be respectful to the community she was evoking, working with transgendered activists and attending transgender conventions to prepare for the role.

That element of gender politics, which Karger describes as “the final taboo in our society,” no doubt fuels the provocative interest in these types of performances. “We’ve conquered race [and] women’s issues—not completely but in many ways,” he says. “But the idea of sexuality has not been fully dealt with yet by our society. And so I think performances like Hilary Swank’s or Glenn Close’s carry with them a strong current of political electricity.”