Thursday, July 10, 2014

Paul Henreid, or Everything was Better Back in the Day.

Recently I've developed more appreciation for Paul Henreid. You know him as the actor who played Victor Laszlo in Casablanca. He preferred to be known for his role as Bette Davis' lover in Now, Voyager (which is a very weird movie and I should blog about it.) Anyway, after watching a few of his films I became interested enough to read his autobiography, Ladies Man.

In order to understand why I am so susceptible, you must know that my favorite historical era runs from approximately 1885-1935, in England and Europe. Henreid was born in 1908, which is almost exactly at the midpoint of this period, and brought up in Vienna. Vienna before the war - is there any more romantic city?

The fact is that Henreid doesn't say much about his early childhood; the book begins with an anecdote from 1921, when he was thirteen. As a young man, he received a thorough theatrical education:
Acting in Austria in those days was considered as much a profession as medicine or law. You had to attend school and study [for three years] and eventually take an examination to determine not only whether you could act, but also how much you knew about makeup and the theater, its lore and its history. You had to know the leading parts in eight plays by heart - four classical and four modern ones. Of the classics, two had to be in prose and two in verse. Of the modern plays, two must be comedies and two dramas.
In 1935, he had a successful stage career and was starting to break into films. When the famous German film studio, Ufa, asked him to sign a contract he was overjoyed. He went to Berlin, saw the studio . . . and when he sat down to sign the contract, discovered that he was required to become a member of the Nazi party. He refused, and went back to Vienna.

Soon he discovered that he had been blacklisted by the Nazis. (Ironically, just 12 years later he would be blacklisted again, by HUAC.) When the film he had just completed was shown in Germany, his name was removed from the credits. No one else in the German-speaking film industry would hire him. Remarking that unlike many people, he wasn't deeply attached to Vienna, he began to look farther afield.

He got a part in an English play (not allowing the fact that he knew no English to slow him down.) One role led to another, and when the Nazis invaded Austria in 1938, Henreid and his wife were both in England.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

"The Picture of Dorian Gray" and "The Portrait of Mr. W.H."

I recently acquired an edition of the complete works of Oscar Wilde, and I've read most of it. I used not to think too highly of Mr. Wilde. But no one can read De Profundis and "The Ballad of Reading Gaol" without being affected.

I also recently happened to watch two filmed versions of "Dorian Gray." Both of them suffered from clunky dialog and slow pacing - but the 1976 version with Sir John Gielgud at least has plenty of homoeroticism. The other one I saw was the 1945 film, which has its moments but some of those moments were added heterosexual interest. Also, although it's a black-and-white film, the sinister portrait appears in color, with psychedelic bubbles on it. (I haven't seen the recent version with Colin Firth yet.)

Despite its flaws, I think it was while I was watching the BBC version that I realized there's a connection between the story of Dorian Gray and Wilde's semi-fictional essay about Mr. W.H., the man to whom Shakespeare's sonnets were dedicated. Wilde (or his characters) argue that the lovely young man of the sonnets was a boy actor in Shakespeare's company.

Dorian Gray's life of evil begins when he becomes infatuated with a Shakespearean actress and then abruptly falls out of love with her. I believe that Wilde portrays her sympathetically, and yet the fact remains that she is an interloper. It's not for her that the parts of Juliet, Portia, or Ophelia were written. After reading "The Portrait of Mr. W.H." I start to ask myself if Dorian fell in love with the idea of a boy in girl's clothes (not the other way round.)

Anyway, the point is: read some Oscar Wilde. It will make you sad.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Out in the Open

Recently I was at a church event where our minister led us in a song called "Safe Passage." When he sang the line "Safe passage, sisters" he glanced at the woman on his right and squeezed her hand. When he sang the line "Safe passage, brothers" he glanced at me (on his left) and squeezed my hand. I was pleasantly surprised, especially since he and I had never had a conversation about my gender identity and I wasn't sure how much he knew.

But although I was happy, when I thought of this occurrence on subsequent days, I found myself feeling angry too. I now believe that this anger was a form of fear. I mentioned in my last post that the idea of presenting my "true self" to people is still strange to me. It's also very, very frightening. To be out in the world with no camouflage, nothing to hide behind . . . as I mentioned in my previous post, this is not what I'm used to.

Another expression of fear is that when I started writing this blog post, my brain started telling me that the incident I described above never happened. I was remembering it wrong, I misinterpreted his actions, he couldn't possibly have done that on purpose. These thoughts never crossed my mind until I wrote the incident down. I spent a week remembering it and wondering why I felt angry. (Can you feel angry about something that never happened?)

Update: I actually went and asked the minister if he remembers that incident the same way I do. And he does. He writes:
You do remember accurately, and though you and I never have had that conversation (until now!), several of your friends at church who know and care about you made sure I knew your gender identity. And, yes, I absolutely intended to call you "brother" in that moment. And what else I remember is how you smiled and showed me by the glint in your eye that you felt seen and known in that moment.
Take that, evil brain!

The mind is a very strange place. I spent most of my life in complete denial about my gender identity. And now I realize that my powers of denial have been reversed. It no longer seems strange to me that I'm what people used to call "a man in a woman's body." (We no longer consider that terminology to be politically correct, but I'll use it now for its element of paradox.) In fact, in a surprisingly short amount of time I went from "of course I'm not transsexual" to "of course I'm a man." It seems perfectly natural to me now. I know what I am on the inside.

I believe now that denying my gender identity enabled me to keep it safe, untouched, buried like treasure deep in the earth. And now that it's uncovered, it's amazingly strong.

The thing that frightens me is that I still don't expect other people to understand. I still expect other people to disapprove, to hate and fear and despise me. I find myself in a welcoming community now. And I want to emphasize that the reason this community is welcoming to trans people is because of the work of those who went before me. I wasn't the first trans person they ever met. (I assumed I would be, but I was wrong.)

I rely on my trans brothers and sisters to protect me, even if they never met me. They keep me strong. And in my heart it's perfectly clear. But there's a big huge world out there. And I still don't like being out in the open. That's why I'm posting this.