Rayon, Onnagata and Cubism: Jared Leto’s Singular Creation and Its Unexpected Parallels

March 7, 2014 § Leave a comment

Jared Leto as Rayon in "Dallas Buyers Club"/Courtesy Focus Features

Jared Leto as Rayon in “Dallas Buyers Club”/Courtesy Focus Features

Jared Leto’s moving performance in “Dallas Buyers Club,” for which he won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor last Sunday night, would seem beyond reproach. As Rayon, a transgender man who joins forces with rodeo cowboy Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) in their shared fight against AIDS, Leto disappears into his character, becoming a three-dimensional, third-sex wonder. Total transformation is never easy to pull off and so much harder while starving in heels, wig and a dress. I thought Leto would receive universal acclaim for his accomplishment, but no sooner had he won the Oscar than this article, complete with blackface references, appeared:


It was written by Fallon Fox, a transgender Mixed Martial Arts fighter who believes roles should go only to people who essentially are their characters, rather than to actors capable of becoming their characters. Skill counts for nothing to Fox, who believes any trans actor could have rendered Rayon better than Leto, simply by virtue of being transgender. (By that measure, Matthew McConaughey shouldn’t have snagged the lead, since he is not a sexually promiscuous bullrider/electrician, but Fox makes no mention of him.) At the heart of Fox’s thesis are two assumptions: that shared experience equals authenticity, and that for specific roles, the transgendered, disabled, etc.–should be “just given a chance” to “become stars.” But the latter would render the acting profession an equal-opportunity reality show, while the former is simply untrue.

Far from being an asset, an actor’s close similarity to his character reduces objectivity, the quality essential to the creation of a three-dimensional character. As a non-female, non-transgender actor, Leto had to dig deep within himself to play Rayon. It shows: far being a man in drag (see Lemmon and Curtis in “Some Like It Hot,” Hoffman in “Tootsie,” and any number of Monty Python sketches), Rayon is fully realized. If she is an invention, she appears to be her own invention, not that of the actor.

Rayon has no parallels in western theater or film, but I immediately recognized her counterpart in Kabuki, where all roles are played by men. Onnagata, the actors who play only female roles, are the most celebrated of Kabuki actors, and for good reason. Like Rayon, they are not men imitating women. Rather, they are stylized, idealized females who are brought to life by men. Tamasaburo Bando, the greatest living onnagata, is neither young nor female, yet he provides a mesmerizing example of a young girl in “The Heron Maiden:”

A comparable alchemy exists in Cubism–specifically, in Picasso’s paintings of women. Figures are deconstructed and rearranged until they are radically changed, yet their femininity emerges in full force. The geometry of Cubism shows figures in greater complexity than in realistic painting, with its single viewpoint. There are also messages encoded in Picasso’s shifting angles and planes. In “La Reve,” below, the fact that Marie-Therese Walter’s face forms a heart speaks volumes about Picasso’s love for her, while the triangle of her hands points to her pubis–a scandalous detail that was missed by no one when the painting was new.

"La Reve" ("The Dream") by Pablo Picasso

“La Reve” (“The Dream”) by Pablo Picasso

Deconstruction requires distance, which brings me back to Rayon. It is Leto’s remove from the character that allows him to explore her in archeological detail, something a transgender actor drawing on her own experience could not. The resulting character is profound, a human being that Leto embodies to stunning result. Like Tamasaburo Bando and Picasso, Leto never stoops to imitation; instead, he unlocks Rayon’s essence and reveals it to the world.

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