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Why You Must See Daniela Vega’s “Performance For The Ages” In “A Fantastic Woman”

Also: The second worst movie ever made is total fun.

You think transgender people have come a long way in society’s eyes? Not according to the Chilean film A Fantastic Woman—directed by Sebastian Lello, with a screenplay by Lello and Gonzalo Maza—which aims to expediently short circuit that idea as quickly as you can say “phobia.”

In the Oscar nominated film, the commanding Daniela Vega plays Marina Vidal, a Santiago waitress and singer who has a loving relationship with an older boyfriend named Orlando (Francisco Reyes), with whom she banters, makes plans, and kisses passionately.

When Orlando has an aneurysm and quickly dies, Marina’s transgender status gets in the way of her being greeted with consolation or even respect. One horror follows another as she is dissed, degraded, suspected, objectified, called a man, called a faggot, asked inappropriate questions, and even brutalized, as she valiantly tries to find any upside to each demoralizing encounter.

She’s denied her right to mourn Orlando, her right to be a woman, and other significant rights as she keeps waking, driving, and confronting. This all might have been too rote, except that it’s a trans character, and besides, the film is expertly done as a sort of glazed journey through time, Marina constantly either driving or walking to her hellish appointments with a sort of sad strength despite it all.

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Furthermore, the film’s chapters sometimes culminate in stylized imagery, whether Marina’s fighting against the wind or rising up in a hallucinatory tinsel dance at a nightclub. See this harrowing tale, though I hope movies give us some more glimpses into trans acceptance, too.

I asked a longtime chum, Boston Herald critic Stephen Schaefer, for his feelings on the film and he said, “A Fantastic Woman is easily the gayest of the five films in this category. One reason may be that it has no sexually provocative content like its South African competitor The Wound, which did not make the final five with its closeted tribal lovers and a grim circumcision ritual. Rather than focus on a sexual dynamic, Fantastic is a portrait of stoicism, endurance and pride–in the face of prejudice, harassment and humiliation. Trans actor Daniela Vega easily, fiercely, commandingly never loses the simmering rage that is barely beneath the surface, which must always be kept in check. It’s a performance for the ages, one you can’t imagine anyone else, even a Meryl Streep, matching.”

The Second Worst Movie Ever Made

And now, on to a film that received no Oscar nominations. Thanks to one of the members of my long running good/bad movie club, I’ve caught up with a wonderfully rotten cinema experience—Birdemic: Shock and Terror, James Nguyen’s 2010 homage to Hitchcock’s The Birds, which is really for the, you know.

Before the deranged birds even hit, there’s long exposition and useless character development as a software salesman (Alan Bagh) courts a model (Whitney Moore, whose acting is actually okay), with quick cuts, terrible sound, and wasted detail (like a bizarre panning shot of the mural at a Vietnamese restaurant they have a date at). That kind of weirdness is reminiscent of The Room, the best/worst movie of all time (which is memorialized in The Disaster Artist and which has its own gratuitous vignettes).

What’s more, the model’s mother is a chirpy, intrusive type who exudes distinct echoes of Lisa’s mom in The Room. But Birdemic is a real cheapie, with hilariously lame effects and Bagh surpassing Tommy Wiseau in earnestly atrocious acting. Alas, there are moments when I think he might be trying to be bad, which is not as much fun as earnest ineptitude, but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and believe he’s terrible.

In any case, this is a gem.

If You Wannabe

Girl power took the stage at the East Village playpen Club Cumming last week when, in the middle of screening the immortal Spice World, Alan Cumming himself (one of the kitschy flick’s costars) hosted a quick and silly Spice Girls lookalike contest.

One Baby Spice wannabe had two-toned hair, a teddy bear, and a lolly, claiming to be Baby “before they got famous, before the budget.” Another Baby Spice, Lady Havokk, made a dissy remark about the first contestant, which led to Cumming banishing Havokk from the stage, upon which she fell, but, restoring her girl power, got right back up again without seeming that bitter.

The winner was Grace Ann Compassion, a Ginger Spice in a U.K. flag dress, and one of the prizes she got was a British poster for Spice World, which Cumming said shows that the people behind the film had little faith in it being a hit: The big selling point on the poster is “They Don’t Just Sing!”

Cumming was in the audience the next night at the Yotel’s Green Room 42 cabaret for Frances Ruffelle LIVEs in New York, an engaging act by the 1987 Tony winner for Les Miserables (She was Eponine), who truly worked the place. She sings! Backed by a four-piece combo, Ruffelle eschewed a lot of patter and simply dug into singing, whether onstage, in the crowd, atop the piano, or across the room.

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In great voice, she was part chanteuse, waif, siren, vaudevillian, rocker, and wench, as she performed an exotic swirl of songs, the best known of which included “Bang Bang,” “Gotta Move,” “Alabama Song,” and “Je Ne Regrette Rien,” but which also spanned some less familiar numbers, from Broadway to France and beyond.

Represented, of course, was a Broadway version of France, namely “On My Own,” Ruffelle’s signature Les Miz ballad, which she did in a sort of rousing doo-wop version twice, the second time putting the mic in the faces of audience members (like Cumming) for impromptu solos. The act—conceived by Ruffelle and Gwyneth Herbert, and featuring guest stars Stuart Ward, Sally Ann Triplett, and Craig Bierko—was a refreshingly textured and bracing turn by a woman who should be allowed to play any concert hall or Broadway stage she likes.

Michael Musto is the long running, award-winning entertainment journalist and TV commentator.