The 15 Greatest Cross-Gender Performances in Movie History

cross-gender performances

Throughout the history of acting, cross-gender performances used to be a common thing. From ancient Greek chorus to Japanese theater kabuki, the performers used to cross-dress and portray a character of the opposite sex.

Nowadays, many things may have changed but cross-gender portrayals are not extinct from theatrical nor filmic representations and are very likely to provide splendid performances in contemporary cinema. Read below to find just some very intriguing cross-gender portrayals from the recent cinematic history.


1. Orlando (1992, Sally Potter)


Orlando is a bold, raw adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s classic homonym novel in which an innocent aristocrat journeys through 400 years of English history – first as a man, then as a woman, after Queen Elizabeth I’s request, without aging. It is a story of the quest for love, and it is also an ironic journey through English history. Addressing contemporary concerns about gender and identity, the film remains true to the spirit of Virginia Woolf, as well as skillfully adapting the original story in an innovative cinematic glance.

Tilda Swinton outstandingly portrays the omnisexual hero-heroine of the story, being slightly detached of some of the events of the plot and with a very tender personality that animates the character as the plot evolves. Orlando even as a male is not very male-like which is explained by the dandy-like behavior of the males in the Elizabethan era.


2. Albert Nobbs (2011, Rodrigo Garcia)

Albert Nobbs

In late 19th century, Ireland women were considered second class citizens and independence was a dream. Albert Nobbs poses as a man in order to work and earn some money to later open his own business. While working as a butler in one of Dublin’s most posh hotels, he encounters a handsome painter named Hubert Page and his life takes an unexpected turn.

This is a very sad film about a sad, timid child in the form of an old and most obviously asexual woman posing as a man to earn a living. Albert Nobbs doesn’t seem to make the protagonist any happier than if she just was an ordinary woman. The faux persona she creates is for the future dream of a job stability but what is all that worth if you’re alone in a mundane life?

Glenn Close gives a remarkable performance, depicting a very unlikable character in such a way that the viewers can actually empathize and like her sad, miserable self. Another character that definitely gives the needed spark to the movie, is no other than that of the frenzy painter Hubert Page, who shares a secret with Albert. They are both posing as a person of the other sex. The thing with Hubert is that he is homosexual as well and very funny.

Albert on the other hand seems naïve and completely ignorant of any form of sexuality. Janet McTeer’s cross-gender performance is indeed very unique and adds a cheerful layer to the whole story. However, Glenn Close’s performance is the one that worthily got an Oscar nomination.


3. I’m Not There (2007, Todd Haynes)


I’m Not There is a biographic film in which six entirely different characters embody different aspects of the great musician’s work (Bob Dylan), ruminating what impact it had on the crowds as well as him himself.

This is a film filled with music, wit and sentiment masterfully designed to touch the hearts of the viewers and show that great music can be interpreted in many ways. Having actors of different race, age, gender and class portray the ingenious musician was a smart move.

Cate Blanchett’s portrayal was the closet to reality though. Her resemblance to the singer, the way she was made up was wicked to say the least. Even her voice and gestures reminded us of him and it felt surreal. Definitely one of the best cross-gender performances in the contemporary film history.


4. Boys Don’t Cry (1999, Kimberly Peirce)

Boys Don't Cry (1999)

Teena Brandon, just randomly one day cuts off her hair and adopts a male name reversing her own, Brandon Teena. Going to Nebraska recklessly, Brandon is in search of both himself and true love.

The film is based on the real story of Brandon Teena. The film is sad and multilayered without clinging on the whole sexuality topic. Brandon isn’t transsexual, or a cross-dresser, he is just a girl that decides that it feels better to live her life as a boy. The resemblance of Hilary Swank to the actual Brandon is eerie. Her performance is melancholic, true and a strong element in consisting a truly compelling movie and an ode to love, recklessness and diversity in whatever form.


5. Victor Victoria (1982, Blake Edwards)

Victor Victoria (1982)

A penniless female soprano in need of a job bumps into a funny, homosexual fraud named Toddy, who suggests she works as a female impersonator. So we see a woman that is posing as a man in order to pose as a woman to earn a living.

This offbeat comedy with many gags and farces origins is exactly working out thanks to the likable characters it displays and the stylized situations they inhabit in. It’s person first and gender second. Julie Andrews is nailing the part of Victor and Victoria, presenting an extremely hilarious character in tragicomically designed situations.


6. Sylvia Scarlett (1935, George Cukor)

Sylvia Scarlett

Fleeing from France due to an embezzlement charge, Henry Scarlett and his daughter Sylvia head to England. Sylvia decides to pose as a boy to prevent further complications to their journey and goes by the name Sylvester. Everything changes when Sylvia falls in love with a young boy and takes the decision to leave her fake male identity behind to claim her love interest.

The movie is an adaptation of the compelling novel by Compton Mackenzie. The perfect words to describe this film could be as a vagabond odyssey. Father and daughter flee from a country to another with hopes for a better day and act in a bohemian kind of way, living as nomadic marginal people for some time. The trick with Sylvia’s identity disguise doesn’t seem all that needed and it doesn’t serve her sexual particularities, but it brings some laughs nonetheless.

Katharine Hepburn gives a splendid performance, giving away laughter with touching moments as well. It is in the bitter-sweet indecisions of her romance with a man who refuses to take her seriously. Watching Katherine Hepburn act like a man is pure gold, it’s both funny and moving in some cases.


7. Tootsie (1982, Sydney Pollack)

Tootsie movie image Dustin Hoffman

An unemployed actor finds a chance to work in a hospital soap-opera by disguising as a middle-aged woman named Dorothy. The double identity life he creates is both amusing and terrifying.

Tootsie is a hilarious comedy without making discounts to its quality and also moving without being overly melodramatic. It touches matters as sexism and sexuality with a tender glance. Dustin Hoffman does an excellent job with the portrayal of Dorothy, after some time the character seems so natural and takes its own entity that we as viewers find ourselves surprised. The various plot entanglements and who-loves-whos leaves us sobbing and deeply touched by this at first sight ostensibly light comedy.