By Robert Galvin
Ellen Ripley is one of the most-famous, most-heroic, and downright most bad-ass characters in science fiction history — fighting off (and mostly defeating) the hang-toothed, chest-bursting, acid-dripping killing machines in the “Alien” films before sacrificing herself into a pit of fire, being reincarnated through strands of DNA and ultimately becoming part-alien herself.
And, in the beginning, Ellen Ripley was a man.
Ridley Scott, director of the first “Alien” in 1979, made the historic decision to change the role of Ripley from its male origins (Allen vs. Alien?) to the female protagonist that jump-started the career of Sigourney Weaver — who reportedly won the role over Meryl Streep (imagine Streep saying, “We’ll go step by step and cut off every bulkhead and every vent until we have it cornered, and then we’ll blow it the f--- out into space.”)
Gender-switching was not entirely new territory — Rosalind Russell famously turned the role of Hildy from the classic farce “The Front Page” into a wisecracker of her own making in “His Girl Friday” — but there was something about Ellen Ripley that should have signaled that some traditional casting mandates are best left to history.
And yet, like the aliens themselves, they keep rearing their ugly heads.
Consider the situation in Bend, where the Cascades Theatrical Company’s community production of the stage musical version of “9 to 5” was handed the equivalent of a cease-and-desist order because it swapped the role of a secondary character from man to woman.
The supporting role of “Joe,” an office worker with a crush on one of the three leads, became “Jo” — not for the intent of making a political or social statement, the Cascades troupe said, but because they simply didn’t have enough qualified men try out for the show.
This change found its way to Music Theatre International (rights holder for “9 to 5”), which said that “Joe” could be played by a woman — with one stipulation.
“The problem is that in the contract, it says that we can’t change pronouns, and we can’t change gender, basically,” CTC business manager Howard Huskey told the Bend Bulletin. “If a woman’s going to do a man’s role, they have to dress as a man, keep the name of the man and play the role as a man.”
In community theater, as in deep space, no one can hear you scream.
Still, the Bend “9 to 5” kerfuffle notwithstanding, theater is a more welcoming avenue for progressive experimentation — the long history of reimagined productions has created such a foundation. Movies, however, are an entirely different kettle of fish that’s opening up a new can of worms.
The 2016 remake of “Ghostbusters,” for example, came under fire from fans of the original and some members of the media for featuring four women leads. The attack included an abusive and racist Twitterstorm targeting co-star Leslie Jones.
It’s a fate that was discussed, but didn’t hinder, this summer’s “Ocean’s 8” — a female-driven reboot of the “Ocean’s 11” franchise that earned favorable reviews and has made more than $200 million worldwide.
The difference between the two could come down to source material. “Ghostbusters” was a cultural touchstone that was an original concept, while the “Oceans” series was a re-telling of a 1960 film featuring a similar all-star cast — and is seen more as a spin on a familiar story.
The “Ocean’s 8” success would seem to lay the groundwork for next year’s release of “The Hustle” starring Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson — a remake of 1988’s “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” with Michael Caine and Steve Martin which itself was an updated version of 1964’s “Bedtime Story,” featuring David Niven and Marlon Brando.
Now, it’s long past the point that any card-carrying member of the entertainment writers’ society would have followed the unwritten rule about gender casting — and mentioned that in Shakespeare’s time, men played all the roles because women weren’t allowed to be on the stage.
There, I mentioned it I’m sure it will save me a demerit down the line.
But as long as we’re talking about de Vere’s mouthpiece, consider that our own adventurous Oregon Shakespeare Festival has had no qualms about breaking through those glass curtains under the leadership of Artistic Director Bill Rauch.
We’ve seen women portray Falstaff and Julius Caesar, and enough gender-swapping in the comedies to bring a tear to the eye of Julie Andrews’ Victoria even when she wasn’t passing herself off as Victory doing a stage act as Victoria.
And, of course, this season has seen OSF taking that most American of musicals — “Oklahoma!” — and showcasing it as an LBGTQ+ production that has the blessing of the estates of Messrs. Rodgers and Hammerstein.
And to be sure, this wasn’t being done because OSF was lacking in qualified men to cast.
There have been some grumbles from those either betraying their own biases or lamenting the lack of respect for “traditional” productions; but overall, OSF’s “Oklahoma!” has been more than O-K in the eyes of the theater-going public — proving once again that clearing the cobwebs out of a closed mind begins with opening your eyes.
Mail Tribune senior designer Robert Galvin, who’s still baffled by “Glen or Glenda?” can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.