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CRITIC AT LARGE

The Matter Of Sexual Pretensions

July 14, 1987|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

The miracle of television is that it not only makes history, as in the hearings, it recirculates history indefinitely. Sit long enough and you can study the whole life of the movies and win a doctorate in Trivial Pursuit.

The other day, playing channel roulette when all the other demands of the world took more energy than I had, I came upon "Victor/Victoria" and Julie Andrews pretending to be a man.

I wouldn't for a minute have let her into the locker room without yelling a warning first; some fellows are terribly shy. But the great pleasure of a lady masquerading as a gent or, more often, the gent dressed up as a lady, is the presumption that you as audience are in on the secret but everybody else is fooled.

It has been one of the gleeful suspensions of disbelief in all of show business. Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in drag would clearly have fooled no one long enough to get near the powder room, but "Some Like It Hot" is as funny now as it was in first release more than 25 years ago.

Anthony Slide, an English-born archivist at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Library, is a one-man publishing phenomenon who has written or edited 26 books since 1971. (I forgot to check last week; there could be another.) The 26th, "Great Pretenders" (Wallace-Homestead Books, Lombard, Ill. 60148: $14.95, soft-cover), is an illustrated history of male and female impersonation from Elizabethan times through music halls and vaudeville to the movies.

The book becomes in part an homage to some of the recent stars of the craft, like the late T.C. Jones, a short, stocky man who did marvelous impersonations of Tallulah Bankhead, Luise Rainer and Bette Davis (every impressionist's favorite) in "New Faces of 1956" on Broadway.

Jones ended his act by ripping off his wig to reveal a bald head. Slide reports that at one performance a woman was heard to say, "Oh, the poor dear! She's bald!"

The stage tradition goes back to Shakespeare, when all the female roles in his plays had to be taken by men or boys. Walter Kerr, who did not care for a one-person revue T.C. Jones did after "New Faces," remarked in passing that it was probably as well he wasn't reviewing in Shakespeare's day.

What was called "the wench role," played by a man who could sing soprano, was a feature of U.S. minstrel shows as early as the 1840s, Slide says, and George N. Christy of the original Christy Minstrels wrote a kind of theme song for the part called "Lucy Long."

Down the years there have been a number of inspired impersonators--some preferred to call themselves illusionists--Julian Eltinge, Arthur Blake, London's Danny LaRue and Craig Russell, a Canadian impressionist who starred in the small but memorable film "Outrageous." Charles Pierce is one of the most successful illusionists of the moment, and the success on stage and in film and nightclub of "La Cage aux Folles" has embraced both gay and straight audiences.

The subject bristles with sexual overtones, obviously, but Slide walks a cool, objective and non-exploitive path. He argues that Dustin Hoffman's performance in "Tootsie" "made the art form and the profession respectable."

The film, Slide says, brought "issues involving women's rights to the conscience of mainstream America through the use of a grand tradition of both comedy and farce. . . . It was a ploy as old as 'Charley's Aunt,' but 'Tootsie' gave it new life--and meaning."

Slide also has high praise for so serious a use of cross-dressing as Vanessa Redgrave's tour de force performances as Renee Richards and Richard Bradley in "Second Serve"--the woman freed from entrapment in a man's body.

Slide argues that critics and observers have often been readier than the performers themselves to do heavy psychological interpretings of the arts of impersonation. Yet even in the high-camp humor of "La Cage aux Folles," which seems to be letting the straight world in on the private lexicons of the gay life, there is a poignancy, the sense of a wistful, perfect accommodation to an imperfect reality.

What is probably already true is that the later terrible reality of illness and death lends the camp jokes a gallows humor and makes the undeniable artistry of impersonation more poignant than ever.

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