In this tragic true love story, and all-American soldier boy falls for a beautiful nightclub singer, that happens to be transgendered.
The 2003 Golden Globes almost came across as the GLAAD Awards when it came to handing out awards for made-for-TV movies, with three out of the five having gay (or lesbian, or transgendered, or whatever) themes. Two, count ’em TWO movies, Normal and A Soldier’s Girl, were dramas about transgendered folks. (Can anyone even name ANY American movie about transgenderism before these?) Though each had multiple nominations thrown at them, both movies ultimately got whupped by the powerhouse HBO mini-series Angels in America, about the AIDS crisis in the Reagan years.
Normal has the bigger name cast of the two stories: Tom Wilkinson plays Roy, a small-town Midwestern husband and father, and Jessica Lange plays his old-fashioned and sensible wife Irma. Roy faints at a party celebrating his and his wife’s 25th anniversary, and it signals the end of a secret that has been tearing him apart. He goes with his wife to his pastor and confesses that he has always felt that he was a woman inside, and needs to acknowledge it, despite the fact that he may lose everything stable in his life (his wife, job, kids, friends).
Needless to say, this announcement comes as a shock to his wife. This confession is one of the strongest scenes in the film, because you find that you are not watching Roy struggle with voicing his secret, but you are watching the confused and disbelieving emotions crossing Irma’s face as she listens. Lange and Wilkinson were both nominated for their acting, but it is Lange that is the soul of the film. As her husband slowly begins to change, first wearing earrings to work (because he wants to look “pretty”), to wearing dresses to church, to physically growing breasts because of his hormone treatments, Irma becomes the one that most of us would identify with.
And that is also some of the problem with Normal. The acting is overall excellent, but we are left with more questions than answers. I guess maybe it is too much to ask to get inside the head of Roy, but “feeling” like a woman, and wanting to “look pretty” just wasn’t enough for me to really understand his motives. But I guess that is a problem that most people have with understanding transgenderism. I wanted to know more, but maybe Normal wasn’t putting itself in that role—maybe it was instead presenting its story simply as a more traditional love story set against all odds.
Then there is A Soldier’s Girl, another transgendered against-all-odds love story (actually, I wonder if there could be any other type?). This one, however, is based on a tragic true story, about the affair between a soldier, Pvt. Barry Winchell, falling for a “local girl” who is a transgendered nightclub singer named Calpernia Addams. Calpernia, unlike Roy from Normal, is comfortable with who she is. She exudes confidence in her onstage persona, and is good at what she does (she ended up being crowned some sort of Miss Tennessee—of the not-biologically female sort). In her personal life, Calpernia (Lee Pace) is a realist, knowing that many people can’t handle who she is. So when a group of soldier boys come to the drag show on a lark, she is rather shocked and flattered at the genuine interest from one Barry Winchell (Troy Garity), a handsome, masculine, and old-fashioned All-American boy.
Barry knows pretty much from the start what Calpernia is (despite his attraction, Barry’s first encounter with, um, Calpernia’s residual male-ness is well-handled in the film). He tries to keep his personal life completely separate from his life on the base. His buddies know what is going on, but it is his roommate Justin Fisher’s (the frighteningly good Shawn Hatosy) passive-aggressive interest in Barry’s life which serves as a catalyst for an inevitably bad (and shocking) conclusion to the affair.
Both leads, Troy Garity and Lee Pace, were also nominated for Golden Globes. Though the role of Calpernia is the more showy, it is Garity’s central performance of Winchell that needs to carry the story, and he is very very good. There is a heartbreaking scene in Calpernia’s kitchen where the pressure of the military’s intolerance starts to eat at Barry, and he finally breaks down. Calpernia could see this moment coming from the start, but Winchell’s realization that their relationship can’t be accepted for what it is, is truly heart-wrenching.
Overall, A Soldier’s Girl stuck with me much longer than Normal. Maybe it is because Soldier has the added punch of being based on a true story that was splashed across the headlines a few years ago. Or maybe it has more of a Point A to Point B dramatic arc (rather than the “year in the life” focus of Normal). Normal‘s acting has much to recommend, but A Soldier’s Girl proves to be the more satisfying “transgender love story” of the year.