Dad’s Bikini Line? An All-American Gender-Bender

I seldom write about television, but when the best movie of the week is on the little screen instead of the big one, attention must be paid. Reserve some time-or program your VCR-for Sunday night, March 16, for the HBO premiere of Normal , a tender and touching film about the shattering effect of gender dysphoria on a seemingly normal family that’s destined to stir the fudge and whip the emotions raw. Written and directed by Jane Anderson, it will undoubtedly force you to re-examine your own definition of what “normal” means.

The muted atmosphere of rural Midwestern life is established fast, in pastel images of placid domesticity that are enviably free of the raveled sleeve of care. There’s a periwinkle blue sky, and the white birthday colors of a bridal shop fade to the meadows surrounding a farmhouse, where wash dries on a clothesline and framed photos of a happily married, middle-aged couple beam nostalgically from the waxed tabletops as Jo Stafford sings “Long Ago (and Far Away).” This is the home of Irma and Roy Applewood (Jessica Lange and Tom Wilkinson), whose friends and neighbors have gathered on this cloudless day in Illinois to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary. No couple in town is more in love, more respected or more devoted to each other. But when Roy passes out cold at the sight of the anniversary cake, you know there’s trouble in paradise. Sure enough, Roy has been distant and distracted lately and suffers from migraine headaches. Irma thinks it’s just stress. But Roy hasn’t been doing so hot in the bedroom, either. The minister encourages a private heart-to-heart, and here it comes: Roy has two conflicting personalities at war in his own mind, and the dominant one is a woman’s. He has suppressed it all his life, ever since his dad caught him as a child dressed in his sister’s clothes and forced him to sleep in the barn buck naked. But now Roy is ready to risk everything to have a sex-change operation. The emotional, psychological, medical and spiritual chaos that ensues has a devastating effect on the church, the community and especially his family. People love Roy, but hell, Bubba, this just ain’t … normal !

Everyone who cares about Roy becomes an amateur problem-solver. Guilt and blame are affixed and then analyzed to exhaustion. The pastor looks for answers in the Bible (“He that loveth his wife loveth himself / For no man ever yet hated his own flesh- bingo !”). Irma goes into shock. Their grown son, a rock musician who never got along with Roy from the start, hangs up the long-distance phone. Roy gets thrown out of the church choir for singing soprano. The guys at work, where Roy makes farm equipment, go ballistic. Roy promises the changes will be gradual; he shaves his armpits and takes to perfume like Elizabeth Taylor. But when he arrives at the factory wearing 65-cent earrings to the locker room, you can’t really be surprised at the bashing he gets. Of course, nobody understands the pain Roy is going through. He really believes that God made a big mistake and, like Renée Richards, Christine Jorgensen and thousands of other unpublicized private citizens who have changed their sex and altered their lives to find their true identity, Roy is convinced that surgery is the only answer. Irma leaves him, but she still loves him, too. He is still her heart; how can she turn her back on the man who makes it beat? And when she discovers Roy with a shotgun aimed at his own throat, she is forced to make some courageous choices of her own.

Ms. Anderson covers every angle of how a dilemma like this can affect a marriage, from parenting skills to joint tax returns. It’s a difficult, uncomfortable subject that walks a fine line between melodrama and farce. To her credit, Ms. Anderson never succumbs to the temptations of either, though she does keep the mood light, punctuating the phases of Roy’s transformation with pop tunes by Patti Page and the Mills Brothers, like chapter headings. “Buttons and Bows” accompanies his first shopping excursion, and Perry Como sings “Home for the Holidays” before the big, climactic explosion at Thanksgiving dinner, where the children see their father in drag for the first time. Are you supposed to laugh or cry? My guess is that you’ll do a little of both. And you’ll love the teenage daughter (wonderfully played by Hayden Panettiere), who gives her father support in unexpected ways, teasing him about his bikini line, thrilled that after his hormone treatments, they both have the same breast size. The strength of Normal , the thing that gives it ballast and makes it memorable, is the sensitivity and style with which it addresses and examines the issues it raises. Roy is not some Greenwich Village goth or a freak on The Osbournes . He’s an Illinois country boy from the corn belt who is more confused and conflicted by his predicament than anyone else. Should he torture himself to death living a lie for the sake of the people around him, or face responsibility for his own happiness?

Continuing his shattering skill for playing impacted grass-roots American fathers-first displayed so brilliantly in In the Bedroom -the astounding British actor Tom Wilkinson meets every challenge in this punishing assignment with noble candor and careful, thoughtful craftsmanship. Jessica Lange is splendid and real in an equally arduous role, that of a devoted wife trying to cope with menopause and betrayal at the same time. When her safe world crashes down around her, she goes from disbelief to rage (“There’s no way you could be a woman! Only a man could be this selfish!”) to grief and even hate. Encouraged by Roy, she even embarks on an affair of her own. But the bottom line is, these are two people who are in it together, for better or worse. They can’t cut up their lives like two halves of a peach. Irma resigns herself to sharing, helping and loving, albeit on different terms. Even here the director keeps the honesty flowing, and Ms. Lange keeps the flag of courage flying. As she stares into the mirror, you can see a book written on her face. Roy appears in the bedroom door in his first wig, lipstick and flower-print off-the-rack ensemble, seeking approval. He’s a small boy hoping for a cookie; she’s a woman who cannot lie. “You look like my Aunt Wilma after her stroke,” she tells him. In truth, Roy looks like Marjorie Main in Ma and Pa Kettle Go to Town . But it’s the indelible portrait of a family jeopardized by humiliating circumstances beyond its control that raises Normal above the easy trappings of soap opera, and the resilience of the human heart that makes it unforgettable. Why isn’t this movie opening commercially instead of the weekly junk we’ve been getting? It’s another feather in the cap of HBO-and a television event that truly deserves the label.

Suburban Sludge

By contrast, The Safety of Objects is a dreadful mess making a brief stop at the cinema on its way to the shelves of video stores. Written and directed by Rose Troche in the borrowed style of Todd Solondz’s Happiness , it pretends to be a meaningful slice of Americana, but only succeeds in serving masses of tedium while driving its heavy foot down its own throat. Based on a series of short stories, the film interweaves the lives of four suburban families in a posh neighborhood with an S.U.V. in every garage and a nearby shopping mall to remind them all they’re still alive. Glenn Close is an anguished mother whose promising songwriter son (Joshua Jackson) is in a coma. Dermot Mulroney is a lawyer who devotes himself to his work more than to his miserable wife (Moira Kelly) or his loopy son’s burgeoning fantasy relationship with his sister’s hubba-hubba doll. Always interesting but wasted here, Patricia Clarkson is a woman in the midst of a messy divorce and looking to hold herself together while raising her children without child support. Mary Kay Place, a bored housewife, is just looking. All of their lives intersect in neighborhood stores and restaurants, in scenes that go nowhere. Banalities build like anthills while phony dramatics erode all attempts at sympathy. By the time Ms. Clarkson’s daughter is kidnapped by the sexually confused pool boy all of the women on the block flirt with, and Glenn Close kills her own child out of frustration by stuffing a plastic bag over his face, you may end up wondering why you’re not home watching HBO yourself.

Happy Hour

Blessed with perfect pitch, intuitive phrasing, an eclectic taste for everything from jazz to classics, and a range that has run out of octaves, Maureen McGovern has been a singer’s singer since she burst on the scene in 1973 with her hit record “The Morning After.” Celebrating the 30th anniversary of that Oscar-winning song and some of the highlights of the career that followed, she’s at Feinstein’s at the Regency through March 15. She calls this visit “Here’s to Love and Life,” for no particular reason-you gotta have a title or the P.R. people don’t know what to bill you for-except that the times are perilous, and love is just about the only thing left that is understood by all and sundry from here to Baghdad. (Saddam Hussein’s favorite CD-I kid you not-is Sinatra’s Songs for Swingin’ Lovers! ) Here is an act devoted to happy, uplifting, restorative songs; I mean, how much more uplifting can you get than Johnny Mercer’s “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive”? Ms. McGovern dedicates it to CNN’s 24/7 coverage of American gloom and global anxiety. And to further demonstrate just how much she’s not kidding, she launches into Bob Merrill’s silly accidental hit, “If I Knew You Were Coming I’d Have Baked a Cake.” Harold Arlen’s “Get Happy,” Jerry Herman’s “Before the Parade Passes By”andheimmortalMitchell Parish–Hoagy Carmichael classic “Stardust” all take their bows in the keep-smiling campaign. Perfectly modulated vocal tributes to Peggy Lee, Mel Tormé and Rosemary Clooney show off Ms. McGovern’s abundant gifts as a singer of great versatility, without taking anything away from the originals who influenced her. Once pegged the “disaster-theme queen,” Ms. McGovern has warmed her chops and learned to relax in recent years. There’s evidence that she also trusts her audience more: Relating a personal story about a calamitous gig singing on an airplane, she reduced the audience to hysterics. Of course, Ms. McGovern’s act-like any act-is carefully constructed to show off the many vocal and musical styles at which she is equally skilled. On one piece of special material, a wild scat singer battles for space inside her head with an opera diva-all to the transposed notes of Johann Sebastian Bach. And who else do you know who can tackle “My Funny Valentine” a cappella, without even a microphone? Any time spent with Maureen McGovern is quality time. At Feinstein’s, you get your money’s worth-and at these prices, that’s saying something.