Old Hollywood liberates a transgender woman in this historical adventure.
Short of stature, slight of frame, delicate of face, and lilting of voice, Joey Elliot, a 22-year-old man living in Glendale, California in 1935, often gets bullied, even by his own father. Seduced by a gay lothario, he moves to Los Angeles where he works at a flower shop and becomes a fixture at gay orgies. He escapes this rut when he delivers flowers one day to the head of Crown Pictures, where he startles everyone with his uncanny resemblance to Lana Montague, a starlet who became pregnant and quit the industry without finishing her debut film. Joey saves the production by redoing some of Lana’s scenes. Indeed, he does this so convincingly that he’s signed to a contract as actress “Claire Rambeau” and fed into the studio’s star-making machinery, complete with glamorous makeup, hair weaves, and lessons in womanly deportment. Reveling in “dresses swishing and heels clicking” and the appreciative attentions of straight men, Claire realizes that she’s really a woman and proceeds with hormone treatments. Overshadowing her transformation, however, is her fear that her secret will be exposed to the public—and to Jeffrey Alexander, the man with whom she’s fallen in love. As Bishop’s (Friends, 2018, etc.) giddy novel celebrates Hollywood’s power to turn dreams into reality, it often feels like a transgender version of Singin’ in the Rain, with piquant scenes of moviemaking procedure from costume-fitting to the staging of fake dates for publicity photos, all played out in screwball repartee (Jeffrey: “We have a connection of some kind and I want to explore it….Like Stanley and Livingstone!” Claire: “So I’m Africa, now?”). Unfortunately, Claire is a domineering but bland heroine who’s effortlessly good at everything, and the overstuffed, overcomplicated narrative fixates on talky scenes of her getting makeovers, shopping, and discussing contract minutiae. The supporting cast exists mostly to marvel at Claire’s beauty and talent, and to dry her tears. There are a few intriguing characters, though, including a hard-boiled studio fixer, and also scenes of real drama and pathos, as when Claire’s mother confronts the changes in her child’s life.
An entertaining but sluggish saga.