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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

In Flawless, Philip Seymour Hoffman gave warmth to a transgender stereotype

Illustration for article titled In iFlawless/i, Philip Seymour Hoffman gave warmth to a transgender stereotype

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: To honor the life and career of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, we single out some of our favorite performances.


Flawless (1999)

Joel Schumacher’s Flawless was a potentially disastrous film that turned into an enjoyable one because of the warmth and humanity Robert De Niro and Philip Seymour Hoffman gave the two leads. Part of Hoffman’s late-’90s breakthrough as one of America’s premier character actors, Flawless joined The Talented Mr. Ripley and Magnolia in cinemas at the end of 1999 to announce him as a considerable talent working at the height of his powers—even in somewhat-cheesy message dramas.


Film history is rife with straight actors trying their hand at gay or transgender characters, playing up all of the worst stereotypes the roles might offer in hopes of seeming “brave” enough to win an Oscar or two. (Just look at the film’s hilariously awful trailer to get an idea of how this type of performance was often sold.) The strategy has only fitful success now, but when Hoffman played the trans woman at the center of Flawless, he consistently underplayed moments that could have easily turned into an actor hammering stereotypical bits and pieces over the audience’s head. Hoffman plays Rusty, who’s saving for her sexual reassignment surgery and hoping to earn a little extra by helping De Niro’s Walt, a cop who finds himself half-paralyzed after a stroke, regain his ability to speak clearly. (Rusty teaches voice lessons.) The relationship the pair strikes up is straight out of ’90s message-movie boilerplate—would you believe these two have more in common than they think they do?—and Schumacher does the movie no favors with inexplicable shaky cam and other baffling directorial choices. But the acting by Hoffman and De Niro is so honest, so real and lived-in, that the movie can’t help but succeed, almost in spite of itself.

Schumacher wrote and directed Flawless, and to modern eyes more aware of GLBT issues, the film’s handling of Rusty will seem like a weird mishmash of various types and tropes popular at the time. (For one thing, Schumacher clumsily conflates the drag queen scene with trans women and vice versa.) But the film attracted the most awards success Hoffman had seen to date for a reason: He could have made Rusty a flamboyant cliché, but he chose, whenever possible, to dig deeper, to figure out how it might be to long so deeply to become oneself, but be stuck without economic options to make the transition. Hoffman’s work is quiet, moving, and humanistic, and it provides the film with a core Schumacher doesn’t remotely earn. No matter; this is another movie worth seeing almost entirely for the titanic work Hoffman does near its center.

Availability: Flawless is available on DVD and to rent or purchase from the major digital services.

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