Cate Blanchett as Bob Dylan: A Concise History of Actresses Playing Male Roles

As one of the top leading ladies of film, Cate Blanchett has played roles as diverse as Elizabeth I, Audrey Hepburn, and the elf queen Galadriel. She further extends her range of diverse characters in the movie directed and co-written by Todd Haynes, I’m Not There, playing Bob Dylan during the most prolific and provocative phase of his career after “going electric” in the mid-1960s to the disappointment of many of his earlier “folk music” fans.

While five other actors perform Dylan in different stages of his career in the innovative biopic, including an African-American teenager, the pre-release buzz is on Blanchett’s surprising performance. I’m Not There opens in a limited U.S. release on November 21, 2007.

While a number of famous film roles have had male actors dress in drag as women, often for comic effect, it is much rarer to have an actress play a male role. Notable examples of actors playing women include Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie, Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire, and Jack Lemmon in Some Like it Hot.

In contrast, Blanchett’s performance is intended to be unique and surprising in its portrayal, but not comic. In fact, early reviews and video clips indicate that she bears a closer resemblance to Dylan’s appearance, voice, and mannerisms in the era than do the actors playing Dylan in other periods.

While rare to have actresses performing adult males, there is a history of such performances. While Haynes’ movie is attempting to be “cutting edge” and modern, a 1911 New York Times article discusses women in male roles in theater.

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Most notably, the article references women in the 18th and 19th centuries performing Shakespearean roles such as Hamlet, Prince Hal, Romeo, and Falstaff. Sarah Bernhardt, the French actress who was known as “the most famous actress in the world,” played Hamlet in a 1900 silent movie.

Often, females play the roles of young men who may have not fully developed an adult male physique or deep voice. For example, Mary Martin was renowned for playing Peter Pan, and Mary Pickford performed Little Lord Faunteroy. Often, opera performances have women performing young men since the female singers may have better vocal range for these roles. Similarly, Chinese opera has a tradition of women performing as young princes and boys.

More unusual, though, is having actresses perform in dramatic adult males. Only one actor or actress has won an acting Academy Award while playing the opposite sex-Linda Hunt’s Best Supporting Actress award in 1983’s movie The Year of Living Dangerously. The diminutive Hunt impressed filmgoers and Academy Award voters with the unique performance of a Chinese-American dwarf who helped the journalist played by Mel Gibson.

Cate Blanchett’s performance as Bob Dylan is worthy of notice for the risk that Blanchett and Haynes took in the casting decision. Nonetheless, while rare it is not unprecedented and continues a centuries-old tradition of actresses playing males.

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