Photo: Courtesy of Focus Features.
By the end of this Sunday's Academy Awards, Jared Leto will, if savvy guessers are to be believed, exit Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre an Oscar winner. His performance as Rayon, a transgender woman addict living with AIDS in Dallas Buyers Club has been applauded by critics and audiences across the nation. Its earned him a Golden Globe and served as a reminder that he's not only an edgy band leader, but an actor with some serious chops. This recognition has, however, become something of a polarizing topic.
Time's Steve Friess penned an op-ed boldly calling out the false sense of progress the Academy might feel awarding Leto the golden statue for Best Supporting Actor called, "Don’t Applaud Jared Leto’s Transgender ‘Mammy.'" He relates Leto and his imminent award to Hattie McDaniel's Oscar-winning performance as Mammy in Gone With the Wind. Awarding Leto for his work would, Friess believes, be the Academy's way of extending an olive branch and honoring an underrepresented minority. He writes: "It’ll be another moment when liberals in Hollywood, both in the industry and in the media, showed how little they understood or empathized with the lives of a minority they imagine they and Leto are honoring." If the predictions do come true, the moment will then "belong in the dishonorable pantheon" of the voter's misguided empathy — another check on humanity's good-deed tally.
Though the Oscars have a history of awarding those performances that challenged the status quo, lumping Leto's performance with McDaniel's is missing the point. Friess argues that Leto's Rayon is riddled with every stereotype a man playing a trans woman could have. Sure, Rayon's penchant for makeup, clothes, and the excessive use of "honey, sweetie, sweetheart" are familiar, but they were not two-dimensionally conceived. McDaniel was a black woman playing a black woman. Leto is a cisgender male playing a transgender woman — a woman with complex character traits unique to her. If those happen to fall under a stereotype, so be it, but Rayon was never meant to represent every trans* person out there. Yes, Friess is right in that, despite the film's pride in being based on a true story, Rayon never existed. But, just because Rayon is fictional does not, by any means, call for a reason to discredit Leto's performance as being a shallow interpretation of the transgender experience.
Rather, Leto's performance deserves the applause Friess proudly argues it shouldn't. We reached out to Vanity Fair's Richard Lawson for his thoughts, as he tweeted his distaste yesterday. He echoed our beliefs and expanded on them saying:
"While I understand that some might bristle at things that Leto has said about his work in 'Dallas Buyers Club,' and that Rayon does strike some occasionally too-familiar poses throughout the film, I think the comparison to Hattie McDaniel is misguided. The most obvious problem with the comparison is that, unlike cisgendered male Jared Leto playing a transgender woman, McDaniel was a black woman playing a black woman. But, more subtly, Friess confuses the merit of McDaniel's performance with 'Gone With the Wind's' larger problems, and in doing so makes the ugly insinuation that McDaniel was somehow too ignorant to recognize her own supposed exploitation."
Leto humanized a character that, yes, could have veered towards the realm of camp in a swift curl of a lash. It was sensitive and, at its heart, honest. Does it matter that Leto isn't trans* himself? Not in the least bit. Rayon was not born out of a stereotype, and was definitely not, as Friess argues, soulless.
Leto was, arguably, the soul of DBC. His character was the most compassionate, understanding, and, yes, lighthearted personality out of the entire cast despite the heavy-hearted shame he felt for his father's lack of acceptance and falling victim to AIDS. Had Rayon not existed, Matthew McConaughey's Ron Woodruff would not have found compassion himself and would've not survived as long as he did.
The trans* experience is as varied as any other sexual identity's. Jared Leto deserves every bit of recognition and praise he's getting, because he made the trans* experience a human experience. We are not all Rayons. So, why should Rayon have to represent an entire group of people? Rather, he highlights a moment in time that, when viewed in relation to other experiences occurring simultaneously, lends depth to the larger, incredibly complex human experience. It's a supporting role not just for a film script, but for a minority group seeking to be understood. (Time)