Not to split bleached, teased hairs or anything, but John Travolta’s turn as Hairspray‘s big mama Edna Turnblad isn’t technically a drag performance.
Yes, he’s dressed in women’s clothing acting like a woman. But Travolta, who also sports prosthetic makeup to make him look more feminine, never plays up the fact Edna is really a man.
Travolta’s performance in Hairspray is closer in spirit to Linda Hunt’s Oscar-winning turn as a male photographer in The Year of Living Dangerously: In other words, you’re not supposed to know she’s really a he.
Here’s a quick look at some performances in famous movies that qualify as the real drag deal:
Hairspray (1988): Divine displayed a gentler, kinder side in his last collaboration with director John Waters. His Edna Turnblad was far removed from the murderous, often disgusting drag queens he played in Pink Flamingoes and Female Trouble — and he filled out Edna’s ratty houserobes without the help of prosthetic padding, unlike that skinny Travolta punk.
The Birdcage (1996): The highlight of this Hollywood remake of La Cage Aux Folles wasn’t seeing Nathan Lane in spangles: It was watching ultimate tough-guy Gene Hackman give in to his inner drag queen.
Flawless (1999): As a drag queen who helps his next-door neighbor (Robert DeNiro) recover from a stroke, Phillip Seymour Hoffman proved female impersonators can do more than just be campy.
Big Momma’s House (2000): Martin Lawrence beat Eddie Murphy to the Norbit punch as an FBI agent who goes undercover by donning the guise of an XXXL woman with a mean right hook.
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994): Terence Stamp, Hugo Weaving and Guy Pearce remained men’s men even while traipsing around the Australian outback in false eyelashes and feathered boas, all to the strains of ABBA songs.
Psycho (1960): Anthony Perkins as the scariest drag queen ever — a guy who liked to dress up as his gray-haired mother and kill people.
Dressed to Kill (1980): Brian De Palma’s crafty, suspenseful Psycho homage also featured a killer (Michael Caine) who liked putting on a wig and high heels before going to town with the sharp instruments.
Tootsie (1982): In which Dustin Hoffman, who won an Oscar for putting on a dress, conclusively proved the key to a successful drag queen isn’t just in the make-up: You have to be an Actor, dammit.
Some Like It Hot (1959): Widely hailed as one of the best comedies of all time, reaffirming the fact there’s something innately funny about men in women’s clothing — especially if they happen to be Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis.