- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 20, 2006

They don’t make ‘em like “Some Like it Hot” anymore. We’re not talking about that film’s crackerjack timing or Marilyn Monroe’s va-va-voom silhouette.

Drag comedies have changed since their earliest incarnations, yet they remain a small but stubborn subgenre of our popular entertainment.

And every time it appears the form is about to fade to black, along comes a “White Chicks” or the forthcoming “Hairspray” — featuring John Travolta in drag — to recharge the dying batteries.

Last year’s “White Chicks” and the “Big Momma’s House” films were modest hits, but both featured twists on the drag formula. The former’s big concept turned two black men into white socialites, while the latter played up Martin Lawrence’s grandmotherly girth as well as his sex change.

Drag comedies once mocked women, or at least played up the shallowness of the fairer sex. Just recall Jack Lemmon’s Jerry — as Daphne — swilling hooch with “her” fellow band members early on in “Hot,” a scene in which the women were silly, frilly and eager to talk about boys.

The modern drag performer is far more likely to celebrate the female experience.

Dustin Hoffman’s “Tootsie” became a better man because he spent quality time as a woman.

Patricia King Hanson, executive editor of the American Film Institute’s catalog, says nearly 200 films from the dawn of cinema to the year 1971 featured female impersonators.

Ms. Hanson says everyone from silent film stars like Lon Chaney to Jack Benny went the drag route at some point.

“In the movies the plot device was mostly for humor. It was very often an aspect of the French drawing room comedies, with people hiding out from the police,” she says. “Almost any comedian at one point did it.”

Ms. Hanson believes drag comedy may be staging a minor comeback, a rebound from a relative low point during the 1970s.

During that feminist era, some looked upon drag as “more of an insult,” she says.

Jeremy Kagan, author of the just-released “Directors Close Up,” says films are simply reflecting an evolving culture.

“The kind of judgmental and superficial look at who and what a woman is doesn’t play anymore,” says Mr. Kagan, who directed “The Journey of Natty Gann” and Court TV’s “The ACLU Freedom Files.”

“I don’t think you could make [‘Some Like it Hot’] now,” he adds.

Comedy typically involves some sort of imbalance, with a creature of the Australian Outback like Crocodile Dundee dropped in the middle of Manhattan.

But in a culture of converging sex roles — where metrosexuals and muscled women are more and more the norm — throwing a dress over an actor’s head may no longer be enough for modern drag comedies.

“The imbalance has to be greater and more absurd,” Mr. Kagan says.

The Wayans brothers must have known that when dreaming up “White Chicks.”

Movie critic Michael Medved, syndicated columnist and talk show host, is surprised at how resilient drag comedy has proven.

“It’s very fashionable. The Travolta project is good evidence of it,” Mr. Medved says.

Just don’t count him as a fan of the genre. Most drag comedies, “Some Like it Hot” being an exception, are “painfully unfunny.”

Far more clear is why drag comedies typically flow from men dressing as women, and not vice versa.

“Gwyneth Paltrow in ‘Shakespeare in Love’ is not particularly convincing as a guy,” he says.

“It’s hard for a mannish female star to make it,” he says, but a delicately structured man like Johnny Depp faces no such limitation.

“Some Like it Hot” gets the DVD makeover treatment this week in a new, two-disc set featuring a remastered “Hot” along with numerous interviews and documentary segments.

The film arguably is dated in more than a few spots, but a closer look reveals a hint at what drag comedy would become.

When Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry first don their female guises, it’s all about slumber parties and socializing with the female band members. By film’s end, Jerry is seriously considering marriage to a male suitor and Joe’s time as a woman has opened his heart up to embrace poor, misguided Sugar Kane (Miss Monroe).

“Hot” may be not only one of the best American comedies, it also could be one of its more prescient.

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