In the Time Ideas article,”Don’t Applaud Jared Leto’s Transgender ‘Mammy’,” Steve Friess compares Jared Leto’s performance as a transgender in “The Dallas Buyers Club” to that of actress Hattie McDaniel’s performance as ‘Mammy’ in the film “Gone With the Wind.” Whatever feelings may arise from watching McDaniel’s performance now, in 1940 she made history as the first black person to win an Academy Award.
Detractors argue McDaniel won because she played a role that white audiences were comfortable with. Unfortunately, she never found roles that allowed her to explore a wide range of performances outside the ‘Mammy’ character, but her small victory paved the way future generations of actors and actresses, including Oscar winners Sidney Poitier, Jamie Foxx and Hallie Berry. In nearly 90 years of Academy Award history, Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” is the first time a film directed by a black director has won Best Picture.
It is understandable why a male actor playing a transgender on film would anger viewers and the transgender community. I applaud Leto’s research and his efforts to play a role with respect and sincerity, but I cannot defend his casting.
There are still very few well-known transgender actors and actresses in Hollywood, but fortunately there seem to be more opportunities for them, like Laverne Cox in “Orange is the New Black.” Cox is a strong and wonderful actress, but one that would not have been seen on screens even ten years ago.
There was a time, not too long ago, when white actors were cast in minority roles. Performances like Brando’s Sakini in “The Teahouse of the August Moon,” and Charlton Heston as Miguel Vargas in “A Touch of Evil” are just a few examples of Hollywood’s past social ignorance. It took time, but people eventually realized that there are great Asian and Latino actors, who could give the roles justice, and that anyone else would make the character a caricature.
In this case, Leto is a talented actor, and I am happy to see him win an Oscar. However, I agree with Freiss, who predicted Leto’s performance would not age well with time.
In ten years, twenty years, and fifty years from now, I hope transgender individuals and communities will move forward with the respect and equal rights they deserve in life, and on film. But how many transgender performances have been recognized by the Academy so far?
Leto’s performance was groundbreaking, and I hope that it will have inspired more transgender stories in future films, and hopefully open up more roles to transgender actors and actresses, but there is still work to be done.