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The film 'Boys Don't Cry' turns 25 this year. What's its legacy?

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Trans cinema has come a long way.

WILLOW CATELYN MACLAY: We're kind of having a moment that we've never really seen before.

DETROW: That's film critic Willow Catelyn Maclay.

MACLAY: We're having these directors do very different things related to their own specific experience with queerness, which diversifies the trans image.

DETROW: Maclay is the co-author of the upcoming book "Corpses, Fools And Monsters: The History And Future Of Transness In Cinema." She singled out this year's critically acclaimed films like A24's "I Saw The TV Glow"...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "I SAW THE TV GLOW")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) I like girls. You know that, right?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Totally. That's fine.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) What about you? Do you like girls?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) I think that I like TV shows.

DETROW: ...And the indie superhero parody "The People's Joker"...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE PEOPLE'S JOKER")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) I'm trans.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Oh, well, I'm sorry. Whoa. I'm not sorry.

DETROW: ...Just the latest examples of films by and about transgender people that are exploring that identity in fresh and exciting ways.

MACLAY: So we have this influx of trans-authored cinema. Not all of these films are super mainstream, but like, these films are getting out, and they're being watched.

DETROW: Still, Maclay says this is a recent development, this idea of transgender people getting to tell their stories in their own way. And centering trans people in film at all still remains a rare occurrence. But 25 years ago, an independent film from a first-time filmmaker broke new ground.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BOYS DON'T CRY")

HILARY SWANK: (As Brandon Teena) I don't know what went wrong.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) You are not a boy. That is what went wrong. You are not a boy.

SWANK: (As Brandon Teena) Tell him that. They say I'm the best boyfriend they ever had.

DETROW: Written and directed by Kimberly Peirce, "Boys Don't Cry" told the true story of Brandon Teena, a young trans man searching for love and connection in Nebraska.

MACLAY: "Boys Don't Cry" comes out at sort of the peak of the new queer Cinema, but there wasn't a transgender presence in the films from that decade.

DETROW: "Boys Don't Cry" was the first mainstream film centered around a transgender man.

MACLAY: At the time, it was considered a big moment in queer cinema and in cinema at large.

DETROW: The film garnered critical acclaim, as well as winning Hilary Swank the Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Brandon. During her Oscar speech, she paid him tribute.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SWANK: His legacy lives on through our movie to remind...

DETROW: But for many trans viewers like Maclay, Swank's casting set an unwelcome precedent.

MACLAY: For the next 15 years, we had this kind of presence about cisgender actors playing transgender characters such as "Transamerica," "The Danish Girl" and "Dallas Buyers Club."

DETROW: Maclay also argues the film's subject matter and arc also proved troubling, since, just like another influential film about queer people from that decade - 1993's "Philadelphia" - "Boys Don't Cry" ends in tragedy.

MACLAY: The end result is that this character is raped and murdered. And you kind of take in this notion that, like, if this is the only film about transness that is worthy of mainstream attention, then, you know, you kind of internalized that feeling about yourself.

DETROW: Still, Maclay credits the film as the first of its kind to ask mainstream audience to empathize with a transgender protagonist.

MACLAY: We have to keep it, obviously, because it's a teaching moment for how transness was perceived at the time. It has an undue burden in representing trans masculinity going forward. And I do think that Kimberly Peirce would probably do things differently if she were making the film now compared to then.

DETROW: We spoke to Kimberly Peirce and asked that exact question, whether Peirce would do anything different. But first, Peirce told us what strikes her most when she rewatches the 1999 film these days.

KIMBERLY PEIRCE: It's kind of amazing for me to go back and rewatch it and put myself back in my shoes when I was pretty much a kid in grad school at Columbia, grad film, and remember how overwhelming it was to read about Brandon in The Village Voice. What blew me away was his enormous power of his imagination, his desire, his will to live, how he lived as who he was and how he wanted to live and love, when so few people did that at that point, and particularly on the scale that he did. So I look back, and I'm still really moved by Brandon.

DETROW: I do have one question just about the nuts and bolts of making the film itself because it's hard enough for any student filmmaker to get to the point of a widely distributed feature film, it was probably hard enough for a woman in the mid-to-late '90s, you know, looking at who dominated the film industry, probably even harder to make a thoughtful film about a transgender person in that period of time. What was the biggest challenge you faced as you tried to get this story out there?

PEIRCE: Well, there were so many. And at that point, I was thinking I was probably trans. I was somewhere between a butch lesbian and a trans person - I didn't know exactly - when I fell in love with this person. And I said, this is the story I want to make. It just didn't make sense to people. And one of the biggest questions that came back was, you need to decide, does Brandon want to be a man, or does Brandon want to sleep with women, right? Is Brandon basically a trans person, or is Brandon a homosexual? And there was such a divide in that question.

So I was told that my idea of making a movie was not a movie. So there was an initial problem even of conception, that my society and my - didn't really understand what I was trying to do, but eventually, we did. And then once we got past that journey, it was like, OK, great, Brandon can be my protagonist.

So the second thing was I was trying to now write a story, which was challenging, so that people could watch it and could fall in love with Brandon and not hate him and duplicate what had happened to him. But I also then needed to get money. And I needed to get a crew with a sympathetic portrayal of a trans person. Prior to that, we didn't have sympathetic portrayals. Trans people weren't really our protagonists, and they weren't in feature-length films, and they weren't in feature-length films that could be released to the mainstream.

So those were huge challenges. I mean, there were many more that came with finding an actor. That took us easily - I think it was three years. No. It took five years. And it was 300 people that I interviewed. And it's an amazing journey. I wanted to cast a trans person, and that had its challenges simply in terms of who was available and who was, you know, able to carry out the role. I mean, a movie role is a complicated thing - not to say that a trans person can't play it. It's just when you're making a movie, you are looking at who you can get in the moment in history that you are trying to make that piece of art.

DETROW: And given that, and given how hard you thought about that and how much you wanted to make that work, and the fact that, you know, Hilary Swank, of course, goes on to win an Oscar for this role, I'm wondering how you have processed the criticism over the years that has come around the casting choices.

PEIRCE: I have a humility around art making, which is I know that my job is to serve the story and to serve the characters and to serve history. And, I mean, I've devoted my life to that. So I feel at peace with the fact that I, you know, overturned every stone possible to find a trans person who could play the role. You know, in the mix of hundreds and hundreds of people who auditioned, this person, Hilary Swank, does an audition where we saw the ingredients that we needed. And Hilary did a fantastic job. I always will credit her with that. And there's a reason she won that Oscar.

Now, the question of, could I have cast a trans person if they had existed and appeared before us with all my digging? I would have been the first to do it. So I accept any criticism, but I would like people to understand Brandon had not had any surgery. Brandon had not had any hormones. Brandon was - we have to be very careful here. Brandon felt that Brandon was a man. Brandon was a man.

And yet, if you had gone too far down the journey of any kind of surgery or hormones, that might have been challenging in the filming. So I'm not saying that we couldn't. I'm just saying to everybody out there, I did so much to try to make this authentic because I'm trans.

DETROW: We, as we thought about this segment and rewatched the movie, a lot of conversations just about how wildly different the world is in mostly very good ways between 1999 and 2024 when it comes to people understanding trans people, people knowing trans people in their lives, people understanding - not forcing people into categories in the way that happens in the movie because that is what was happening in real life. And there was this one scene that we kept coming back to where Brandon is talking to his girlfriend, Lana, about his past.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BOYS DON'T CRY")

CHLOE SEVIGNY: (As Lana Tisdel) What were you like before all this? Were you like me, like a girl girl?

SWANK: (As Brandon Teena) Yeah, like a long time ago. Then I guess I was just like a boy girl.

DETROW: I feel like even Brandon is struggling to find the right words to describe his situation. I mean, did that feel accurate to that moment and how people kind of struggled to think things through, just based on general understanding being much different?

PEIRCE: Well, look. You probably could have found somebody who was in Brandon's body and said, I was always a man. You might have found that. So I'm not going to say that's impossible. But to my research, Brandon had a journal entry. We had read, you know, Brandon's dating history, looking at all that stuff. It made sense to me at the time to say that Brandon was struggling with where he was going to end up because he didn't have a culture that gave him the language.

DETROW: On the topic of then versus now, are there big things or small things you would do differently if you were making this movie in 2024?

PEIRCE: You know, I'm humble. If there's things that I could do better, I'd certainly do them. It's not a thing I think about because the movie, you know, very much what you're trying to do with anything you write or direct, you're trying to make it work. And we got the movie to work. I mean, certainly, with casting, I would try to honor trans people and try to cast a trans person. And - but again, that's what I tried back then. So I would always have to see what the world delivered me and how I could tell the story in a way that was - you know, my main goal was to capture Brandon, help you fall in love with him.

DETROW: We're having this conversation as part of a series of segments we're doing looking back at the movies of 1999. And there are so many big, bold movies like "The Matrix" and "Fight Club," movies like "The Blair Witch Project." How do you think your film fits in to that mix of movies?

PEIRCE: I think I found my tribe. I'm proud that "Boys" exist in that moment. I think "Boys" came out of an explosion of all of us looking at the mainstream and saying, hey, we want to have the power to tell our stories, you know, in this medium. But what it's conveying to us is restricted in a way that we don't believe in. Let's go back to our own personal stories. And I think that's why those movies are all really great and unique. And they launched the careers, really, of the next generation of film directors.

DETROW: Kimberly Peirce is the writer and director of "Boys Don't Cry." Thank you so much for talking to us about it.

PEIRCE: All right. It was really fun. Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.