This week saw the release of the Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There at the Venice Film Festival. For months now, it’s received media attention and a healthy dose of skepticism (even around here). You may remember why — it’s the one where Cate Blanchett morphs from this:
Blanchett’s among several actors playing Dylan, but so far, her portayal is generating the most buzz (and Oscar speculation). Director Todd Haynes explains his unconventional casting as a “radical device” to emphasize “how extraordinary and eccentric” Dylan appeared to his contemporaries. (Personally, I don’t find it that much of a stretch — I saw Dylan a few years back, and I am telling you, anyone could have been up on that stage under that enormous cowboy hat, mumbling the words to his songs.)
But it’s not like casting women to play men is anything new; the term breeches role in opera refers to the tradition of a woman singing/playing a man’s part. I don’t mean roles for women who pretend to be men but eventually must unmask themselves as women (mostly so they can fall in love with men), such as some of these lovely ladies: Katherine Hepburn in Sylvia Scarlett, Barbra Streisand in Yentl, or Julie Andrews in Victor/Victoria.
Women in breeches roles are accepted as men by other characters and the audience. I’ll never forget my first experience with a breeches role: Watching Der Rosenkavalier in music history at university. Sure, as a horn player I’m a fan of Richard Strauss’s music, but as an as-yet-still-closeted lesbian what really held me riveted was this:
Or Bellini’s reworking of Romeo and Juliet, played here by Kathrin Göring and Eun Yee:
Then there are the the modern classic roles like Peter Pan, made famous by Mary Martin and upheld by the likes of Cathy Rigby (the Olympian, yes, who can also sing):
Some feminist critics will argue that breeches roles were always just ploys to draw in audiences for the spectacle of seeing women wear men’s clothing and romance other women. This promotional image from a 2005 production of Der Rosenkavalier by the Los Angeles Opera sort of supports that view. But you know what? I’ll just enjoy the spectacle, too.
So, um, what does all of this have to do with Cate Blanchett as Bob Dylan? Maybe not a whole lot. I’m not comparing Blanchett to a contralto or Dylan to a Bellini: I just wanted an excuse to post pictures of women in pants. Happy Friday!