I'm looking for good and/or early example(s) of a movie in which a male actor plays a female part (or vice versa), where the gender-switch isn't used to enact comedic or horror elements.

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Robin Williams playing Mrs. Doubtfire wouldn't count for two reasons: it is used for comedic purposes, and he's actually playing a man who dresses up as an old woman, rather than playing an old woman.

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Philip Friedman playing the Old Woman in Insidious (2010) wouldn't count either, because the gender switch is used to prop up the horror.

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Jared Leto playing Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club (2013) wouldn't count either, as he is playing a transgender woman.

So I am essentially looking for a film in which a man plays a woman (or vice versa), and it is done earnestly and "seriously", without an attempt at making the audience laugh or scared with that extra bit of dramatic irony. In fact, if the audience is fooled into thinking they are the role they're playing's gender, even better. Also, the earlier the better, too, to avoid "list", it might be nice to find the one that broke that ground.

A good example is Tilda Swinton playing David Bowie in a biopic, but it turned out to be only a rumor, so it can't be used as an answer.

  • Maybe this doesn't fit your request, but I thought of The Crying Game. Not comedic and not horror. Jul 11, 2017 at 17:17
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    Women have often, arguably traditionally, played the roles of young boys throughout the history of theater.
    – talrnu
    Jul 11, 2017 at 18:14
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    Any actor playing a female role centuries ago Jul 11, 2017 at 18:22
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    @HagenvonEitzen There were movies "centuries" ago? Jul 11, 2017 at 19:18
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    Does it have to be Hollywood? I know a few Malaylam movies that fit this description. Oct 10, 2017 at 15:50

6 Answers 6


Linda Hunt in The Year of Living Dangerously

Linda Hunt plays Billy Kwan, a "Chinese-Australian dwarf of high intelligence and moral seriousness", in Peter Weir's "The Year of Living Dangerously". This role was apparently originally given to male actor David Atkins, but was eventually given to Linda Hunt, when David Atkins felt the role did not work for him. Linda Hunt won several awards for this role, including an AACTA, an Academy Award and a Boston Society of Film Critics award; all for Best Supporting Actress.

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Divine and John Travolta in Hairspray (1988) and Hairspray (2007)

Both Divine and John Travolta play the role of Edna Turnblad, mother of the main character, in the 1988 and 2007 versions of the movie "Hairspray".

Hairspray is considered a comedy drama; however, I feel this is a good example of actors playing a female role for other listed reasons. After the original casting was made, the director of the original movie went on record as noting that on set, he felt Divine was not out of place. To that effect, "Edna Turnblad isn't a drag-queen part", even though the original actor was technically a drag queen. As a result, future versions have tried to keep this template, including musical variants. You can read more about this, here, as someone has previously asked about it.

I will admit that I only learnt, after the fact, that John Travolta was playing the role, and not an actual actress.

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Nancy Cartwright in The Simpsons Movie

I feel it impertinant to note that you do not make any mention of such actresses acting (or rather, voice acting) in a live action movie; that is, you do not disclude animation. While this technically grossly expands the range to choose from, another great example is Nancy Cartwright, who plays Bart Simpson in the TV show and eventual movie, "The Simpsons". Again, we have a comedy; but not a comedy in which a female is cast as a male for comedic reasons. In fact, to this day, it is still a common misconception that Bart is voiced by a male voice actor - probably because of the fact that you can't actually see her. Nancy also provides voice acting for other male characters, such as Rod and Todd Flanders, Nelson Munz, and Ralph Wiggum.

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Betty Bronson in Peter Pan (1924)

Peter Pan is a story that often cases female actresses in the main role of Peter Pan. It is not uncommon for there to be little to no effort to disguise this fact; however, when considering the general characterisation of Peter Pan, a female actress easily suits the role without further effort to immerse the audience.

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    Regardless of how the director felt about Divine, it is my estimation that John Travolta's role of a woman in Hairspray is exactly the kind of role I specified to avoid - it is very much akin to Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire (minus the part where Robin's character is a man dressing up as a woman, and John's part is actually a woman), where the gender swap is used for comedic purposes. Really digging the Linda Hunt example. Jul 11, 2017 at 6:21
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    @GhotiandChips: A woman could have played John Travolta's part, without changing the plot in any way. The same is not true of Mrs Doubtfire, where there is in-universe acknowledgement of the gender swap. Sure, there is an out-of-universe reason for John Travolta's part (a wink to the older version of the movie), but pretty much everything has an out-of-universe reason if you look hard enough.
    – Flater
    Jul 14, 2017 at 7:52
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    @Gnemlock: Nancy Cartwright is a great example, but iirc most prepubescent boys are voiced by women. E.g. Ash Ketchum is voiced by Veronica Taylor, Sarah Natochenny, and (Japanese) Rica Matsumoto; all women. TV TROPES WARNING: "A common example is for young boys, usually twelve and under, being voiced by an adult woman. This is because it’s easier casting an experienced actress than a real boy whose voice may change as he goes through puberty [..]"
    – Flater
    Jul 14, 2017 at 7:57
  • @Flater If you look at my question, and see the part about Mrs. Doubtfire, you will see the caveat "wouldn't count for two reasons". Obviousy I am aware of the difference you point out, as I even bring it up in the comment you are replying to. However, you have to ignore the first reason to accept Travolta's Hairspray role as an acceptable answer. Jul 14, 2017 at 22:39
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    @GhotiandChips Your question's definition is your own of course, but "used for comedic purposes" is a bit ambiguous. In Hairspray, all characters are comedic. Everyone is a bit naive and archetypical, there are no deeply nuanced characters. John Travolta doesn't particularly stand out compared to others (script wise), and the movie doesn't seem to be drawing attention to his gender reversal. As far as I remember, there are no movie jokes about John Travolta being a man in women's clothing, not even vague hints. You could understand the whole movie without realing the mom is a man.
    – Flater
    Jul 16, 2017 at 18:32

An interesting recent example is found in the SciFi thriller/drama/mindbender Predestination.

The movie is built on a mind bending time-loop of a plot. A large part of the mystery of what is happening (which we see in flashbacks and in real time conversations) is built around the identity of two characters chatting in a bar, one played by Ethan Hawke, the other by Sarah Snook). In the scenes in the bar, she plays a male character but in flashback scenes she plays a female character (this is far less obvious than you might think so for most of the movie you won't realise she is the same character).

So she plays both a man and a woman in the same movie for dramatic rather than horror or comedic reasons. Her ability to play the same character as a woman and as a man is central to much of the drama in the movie and to the plot. I'm not sure the movie broke any records for this sort of role, but it is an amazing example of someone acting convincingly as the opposite gender and as their natural gender while being completely convincing in each role.

The end of the movie has even more twisty revelations which I won't reveal here.

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    For those who are familiar with the Robert Heinlein short story "—All You Zombies—", this movie is based on that story. Jul 11, 2017 at 15:50

In the first Star Trek pilot, The Cage (1965), Meg Wyllie played an apparently male Talosian alien. The pilot was rejected and The Cage wasn't shown but much of the footage was used in the Star Trek TOS double episode The Menagerie.

Meg Wyllie Pic

Gene Roddenberry and director Robert Butler thought that having a woman play the male part would add some weirdness to the part. A male actor's voice was used over hers.

Talosian Pic

The producers and Gene Roddenberry decided to cast the Talosian roles as females and then dub male voices over the footage. In a 1988 interview, Director Robert Butler uncertainly recalled that this idea "might have been" his. He went on to say, "When I saw the characters in the script I thought it would be interesting to get a difference, and one easy difference is to cast women just because of their size and grace, and then add voice-overs later. Therefore you get an oddness, an antisexuality that certainly might be more the case in other galactic cultures than our own, and I think that might have been my notion.

The idea of casting women, with their lighter builds, appealed to Roddenberry because he thought it might give the impression that the Talosians had let their bodies atrophy in favor of higher brain development. ("The Menagerie, Part II" text commentary, TOS Season 1 DVD)

Memory Alpha Wikia


Since you already mentioned Tilda Swinton the most obvious example would be Orlando, which is neither comedy nor horror (although it might count as a kind of fantasy, and the protagonist turns into a woman some time into the movie).

Orlando has also Queen Elizabeth being played by Quentin Crisp.

As another example, Cate Blanchett played Jude Quinn/Bob Dylan in "I am not there".

Eva Mattes played director Rainer Werner Fassbinder in the German movie "Ein Mann wie Eva". Annamirl Bierbichler played the role of playwright Herbert Achternbusch in the German movie "Rita Ritter".

Linda Hunt played Billy Kwan in "The Year of Living Dangerously".

Wikipedia actually has an entry on cross gender acting which includes several non-comedic/non-horror entries

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    Good examples but it's a bit of a list when the question's looking for early and quality examples, could you maybe expand on these adding the year and what type of roles they are and/or why a different gender actor was chosen? Basically why they're good examples of serious roles? I'm not sure if Orlando counts because the Orlando character was a woman posing as a man, played by a woman? Jul 11, 2017 at 8:03
  • @user568458 re: Orlando. No, the character was a man who for unknown reasons transformed into a woman (and went on to live for several hundred years). That's a major plot point, since Orlando was denied property bestowed on him/her by the queen because she was accused of having been a man all along.
    – user9103
    Jul 11, 2017 at 8:13

What about Cate Blanchett in 'I'm not There' where she portrays Bob Dylan?enter image description here


Would Gillian Anderson as Media playing David Bowie in American Gods count? I haven't actually seen it, I just know that it happens.

  • Is there a reason for -1?
    – John Doe
    Nov 10, 2018 at 6:06

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