The New York Times, 11/20/05

Groups that hand out awards can be suckers for acting stunts, from Nicole Kidman's fake nose in "The Hours" to Adrien Brody's near-starvation for "The Pianist." The tradition is so entrenched that Kate Winslet, playing an outrageous comic version of herself in the HBO series "Extras," listed a surefire way to get that elusive Academy Award. "Daniel Day-Lewis in 'My Left Foot?' Oscar. Dustin Hoffman, 'Rain Man?' Oscar," she says. "Seriously, you are guaranteed an Oscar if you play a mental." Irreverent, imprecise (the Day-Lewis character was not mentally troubled) yet essentially true.

This season she might have added: playing gay. There has been an explosion of Oscar-baiting performances in which straight actors play gay, transvestite or transgender characters. Philip Seymour Hoffman melts into the role of the gay title character in "Capote," while Cillian Murphy plays a transvestite in 1970's Ireland in Neil Jordan's witty, endearing "Breakfast on Pluto." Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger, at left, play lovers in "Brokeback Mountain" (set to open Dec. 9), already better known as "the gay cowboy movie" and already a Letterman joke.

But big-name actors are leaping into such roles in smaller films, too. Felicity Huffman stretches way beyond "Desperate Housewives" as a man about to become a woman in "Transamerica" (Dec. 2) and Peter Sarsgaard plays a gay Hollywood screenwriter who has an affair with a closeted, married studio executive (Campbell Scott) in the current "Dying Gaul."

It's this cluster of sexually different roles that is new, not the idea itself. These actors are simply following the Oscar-winning path set more than a decade ago by Tom Hanks as a gay man with AIDS in "Philadelphia," followed by Hilary Swank as the cross-dressing heroine of "Boys Don't Cry" and Charlize Theron, whose role in "Monster" was a kind of award-baiting triple-whammy: she gained weight, wore fake teeth and played a lesbian. With evidence that they will be rewarded for such stretches, and with a public now accustomed to seeing gay characters in movies and television shows like "Will & Grace," big-name actors seem eager to take these roles. Ralph Fiennes is now filming "Bernard and Doris," in which he plays the gay butler of the billionaire Doris Duke (Susan Sarandon).

The actors are straight as far as we know (give or take the occasional rumor on the Internet, where you can find rumors about anything), an issue that matters only because it becomes part of the filmmakers' shrewd if unspoken calculation. Especially in today's celebrity culture, the line between the actor's life and the movies never entirely vanishes. Mr. Hoffman chats about his son's Halloween costume on the Letterman show, Mr. Sarsgaard's name appears in gossip columns linked with Maggie Gyllenhaal and no one thinks Ms. Huffman was ever a man. Our awareness of these nonfiction roles makes it easier and maybe more acceptable for middle-class heterosexual viewers - a group that does, after all, include most of us in the audience - to embrace characters whose sexual preferences we don't share.

This politically incorrect pragmatism aside, portraying gay, transvestite and transsexual characters allows actors to draw on a huge supply of gimmicks - wigs and costumes, mannerisms of speech and posture - that signify Acting. The real magic is to let the stunt give way to character, which happens in the best of these performances. Mr. Hoffman in "Capote" and Mr. Murphy in "Pluto" use the outer signs of dress and manners to get to the essence of the men they play, to define a richness of personality that is entwined with the character's sexuality, yet goes beyond it.

The transformation of the burly Mr. Hoffman, at right, is so complete that you might spend five stunned minutes thinking "That's Philip Seymour Hoffman?" only to forget very quickly that anyone is acting at all. The film is set during the early 60's, when Truman Capote, already well known, was researching and writing "In Cold Blood." Mr. Hoffman does more than impersonate the real Capote. The mincing delivery of his speech and the lighter-than-air voice become the character's brazen declaration of how special he is. He stands apart from mainstream 60's society not only because he is gay but also because he considers himself a genius, flaunting his wit and flashes of brilliant insight as flamboyantly as he tosses a scarf over his shoulder. It is all part of who he is.

Manners and costumes don't automatically lead to such depth. "Flawless," the 1999 film in which Mr. Hoffman played Robert De Niro's cross-dressing neighbor, shows that you also need a script. Dan Futterman's "Capote" screenplay allows Mr. Hoffman to probe the ruthlessness the character turns on his subjects. He may be attracted to Perry Smith, one of the murderers he's writing about, but he cajoles, flatters and finally deserts him. He feels guilty about needing Smith to be executed so he can finish "In Cold Blood," but longs for the execution anyway. Capote's longtime lover, Jack Dunphy (Bruce Greenwood), is a character here, but he is purposely incidental in a story that is primarily about the author in all his self-absorbed ambition.

In a similarly brilliant turn, Mr. Murphy, at left, uses the posturing of his cross-dressing character - Patrick Braden, who prefers to be called Kitten - to make "Pluto" unexpectedly moving. The son of an Irish priest and his pretty young housekeeper, Kitten is left on the rectory doorstep as a baby, and taken in by a foster mother who rejects him when she finds him trying on a dress. As an adult, Kitten's colorful 70's clothes and makeup are part of his attitude toward life. His favorite expression, a dismissive "Serious, serious, serious," is the equivalent of Scarlett O'Hara's "Fiddle-dee-dee," but his carefree pose is the disguise and defense of a character who finds life too painful, his need for love and acceptance too great, to take seriously.

The film's style, loaded with humor and period pop songs, echoes Kitten's self-protective evasion of reality. Like so many women, Kitten has rotten taste in men, falling for an I.R.A. gunrunner. He also has the bad luck to be in a disco when it is bombed, leading the police to wrongly arrest him for planting the bomb and Kitten to ask one of the officers guarding him, "If I wasn't a transvestite terrorist would you marry me?" Without ever dropping that breezy tone, the deceptively frivolous "Breakfast on Pluto" allows its audience to feel the profound emotions that Kitten spends his life trying to keep at a safe distance, even as he searches for the mother who abandoned him at birth. Although Kitten makes a pretty and flirtatious woman, we never forget that he is a man and are not meant to, but we come to believe in this character so fully that we forget Mr. Murphy is playing him.

It isn't necessary, and maybe from the awards angle not desirable, for an actor to disappear so completely into a role. "Brokeback Mountain" suggests that more conspicuous acting can be emotionally moving, too. As Jack Twist, Mr. Gyllenhaal appears early in the film standing with a hand on his hip, as if he's posing for a Gap ad; fortunately the male-model stance disappears at once, but it signals that of the two main characters, he's more comfortable in his own skin.

Mr. Ledger's character, Ennis Del Mar, is the taciturn guy, the one who tucks in his chin and mumbles the few words he speaks, who is so uncomfortable with his own sexual desires and so angry at himself for feeling them that he sometimes doesn't know whether he wants to kiss Jack or punch him.

Given these contrasting styles, it's not surprising that after "Brokeback" was shown at the Toronto International Film Festival in September the Oscar buzz began for Mr. Ledger. His is the less naturalistic performance. We know that Heath Ledger doesn't always mumble and we never quite forget how much he's acting.

That doesn't work against the film, which is clearly meant to appeal to a mainstream audience despite some unmistakable sex scenes between the men. Their affair begins in 1963, which adds a social taboo to the story. Yet as the relationship goes on, enduring for 20 years despite their marriages and geographic distance, it resonates with the emotions attached to any love facing insurmountable obstacles.

There are, in fact, plenty of heterosexual templates for the film. When Ennis and Jack meet to go fishing once or twice a year, "Brokeback" could easily seem like the gay cowboy version of "Same Time, Next Year," the 1978 movie in which Alan Alda and Ellen Burstyn meet annually at the same inn for an adulterous affair.

And when Ennis's wife (played in the film by Michelle Williams), accidentally sees the men kissing and says nothing about it, she offers another way in for a heterosexual audience, as the character we can identify with most easily. (As a public relations bonus, in real life Ms. Williams and Mr. Ledger just had a child together.)

"Transamerica" is ostensibly about essential human relationships too, those between parents and children. Ms. Huffman plays Bree, a man living as a woman who, days before gender reassignment surgery, heads from California to New York to find the now-grown son she fathered. When the two of them drive back cross-country, they visit Bree's parents and we see how the family dynamic has changed now that she's no longer Stanley. Despite the universal element of family, though, this modest film is really about Ms. Huffman's performance. She lowers her voice, wears conspicuous wigs and fake nails, and, as Mr. Murphy does in "Pluto," allows the emotional reality of the character to show through that layer of deliberate artifice.

"The Dying Gaul" is similarly driven by acting, though in this case it's not nearly enough. As the bisexual producer, Mr. Campbell's character shows the merest flicker of attraction in his eye. Mr. Sarsgaard has the flamboyant role here, and he pushes it to the very edge of caricature, in a performance shaped by a nearly lisping, precise enunciation that makes Jack on "Will & Grace" seem macho. This psychological thriller daringly turns Mr. Sarsgaard's sympathetic character, who has been preyed on by the studio executive, into a lethal villain. But "The Dying Gaul" (the first film both written and directed by Craig Lucas, better known as the playwright and screenwriter of works including "Longtime Companion") is done in by a claustrophobic style and a preposterous script. No acting trick, however energetic, can save it. Sometimes mannerisms are character, but sometimes a stunt remains a stunt.