Boys Don’t Cry: Gender Construction

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In the film Boys Don’t Cry, Hilary Swank plays the role of Brandon Teena who is a transgendered man, that is an individual who is assigned a female at birth yet identifies as a male. The film naturally raises the question: what is masculinity? Masculinity is defined as “a set of qualities, characteristics, or roles generally considered  typical of, or appropriate to, a man.” Therefore masculinity is a social construct that an individual can display regardless of their biological sex.

When playing gender on screen, actors look towards what they see in everyday life to build authenticity to their performance. This means actors not only stay true to their roles and scripts, but also often incorporate stereotypes such as portraying males as macho and strong.

In order to play Brandon effectively, Swank underwent many physical changes. One of the most obvious transformations include her hair cut. She also reduced her body fat to 7% so her facial structure was more defined. Swank also carried herself in a more masculine way, she hunched over slightly, with her legs farther apart and with her hands in her pocket. Swank also used ‘tools of the craft’ to portray Brandon authentically, including her voice. She lowered her voice for the role, however was careful not to lower it too much, she was mindful to the fact that Brandon is physically a female. Thus her analysis of the role led to this well thought out action. Swank stated she had her father in mind as she carried out actions such as slicking her hair back in the mirror. Therefore one could propose that Swank was able to choose an action after modelling ‘as-if’ examples after her father.

Brandon displays stereotypical male mannerisms. This includes having a tough exterior and risk taking such as speeding in cars, bar fights and dangerous stunts like bumper skiing. Brandon also smokes, drinks, curses and chases after women. Swank holds the cigarettes and beer bottles in a characteristically male way, she uses her index finger and thumb to hold the cigarette and even places the cigarette over her ear.

An actor who also displays many stereotypical male characteristics is Robert De Niro. In many roles, Robert is a confident, alpha male and often takes the role of the caretaker. He’s aggressive, cocky and often a womanizer. De Niro embodies these roles through his demanding physical presence and ruggedness.

Swank’s Brandon Teena may have similarities to Robert De Niro’ roles however there are many differences. Swank was careful to not forget that Brandon was once a female, thus he is not always a stereotypically emotionless male. Brandon is more friendly and well-mannered than the other guys and is even great with kids. Brandon is shown as weaker than the other guys, this is evident as Swank gulps in fear when Tom shows his self inflicted wounds. Contrary to De Niro, who acts very naturally as a male, Swank purposely over acts her male actions, to show that Brandon was trying really hard to convey that she is a male to society to gain acceptance.

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One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest

ImageThis week in Screen Acting we watched the film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest starring the talented Jack Nicholson. Nicholson plays Randle McMurphy, a rebellious criminal who believes he is above the law. Randle is brought into a mental institution but he is seemingly sane in the beginning of the film, as the film progresses however, we see the arc of his character go from sane to insane. The film provides a critique of mental institutions and challenges that instead of these institutes actually ‘treating’ individuals with mental illness, they instead contribute to the patients psychopathology. Randle provides a glimmer of hope for these individuals who are stuck under the rigid routines of Nurse Ratched. Randle shakes up the routine by inviting over girls, partying, bringing in alcohol and even acting out the commentary to a fake baseball game after Ratched denies to put it on. Randle enables all of the patients to liven up, he gets the Chief to finally talk and for a brief moment BIlly’s stutter disappears. However his efforts are stopped in their tracks when he is punished for his misconduct and faces shock therapy and even lobotomies which eventually strip him of his sanity.

Nicholson brings Randle to life through his physicality, particularly through his high energy and inability to remain still. His signature facial expressions which include him raising his eyebrows up and down and moving his head around as he talks also add life to his character. He is constantly in motion, which is a stark contrast to Nurse Randle who is still, stern, cold and quite passive. She rarely changes her straight faced expressions. In contrast to Randle, whose character arc completely flips by the end of the film, Nurse Randle stays the same throughout the film. Even after being almost strangled to death by Randle, she is back to business as usual. The contrast between these two characters plays out beautifully in the film, it seems that the more energetic Randle gets, the more stern Ratched gets and vice versa. It is evident these two actors worked off each other in the film. With that said, Melanie pointed out an interesting fact about Nicholson in discussion, that other actors don’t particularly view Nicholson as a ‘generous actor’. I felt that this was evident while watching the film, and with the exception of Nurse Ratched, Nicholson steals the scene quite often when he is with the other actors, and he seems to be more interested in delivering an enticing performance than playing off others.

Overall I thought it was a great film and even though Nicholson may appear to act very similarly in his films, I enjoy his acting choices and believe he brings a unique quality to his roles that no other actor could.