It’s hard to believe that Boys Don’t Cry came out 20 years ago. The small, indie movie made quite an impact back when it came out in 1999, not only in propelling star Hilary Swank to fame (and an Oscar), but affecting conversation about hate crimes against the trans community in America, a subject that is more discussed today, but, back then, was rarely addressed. Director Kimberly Peirce talked about the legacy of the film and its impact on her life during a screening and discussion of the film this past weekend at the inaugural “WUTI Goes Wild”, a three-day festival in Idyllwild, California to celebrate women in film.
Peirce introduced the film as “the love of my life,” later explaining how much the movie based on the real-life story of Brandon Teena spoke to her the first time she heard it. Teena, born as a woman but self-identifying as a man, was saving up money for an operation, but, in the meantime, dressed and lived as a man. When two male friends found out, they brutally raped and murdered Brandon, who was just 21. Peirce, who herself identifies as non-binary and admitted to having times in her life when she herself wasn’t sure where she fell on the spectrum, said that Brandon’s story immediately spoke to her. “It felt like somebody had come into my life and taken over. I fell in love with Brandon.”
Right after learning about Brandon’s story, Peirce switched the focus of her film thesis at Columbia, and instead made a short film based on Brandon’s story, which would later serve as the basis for the full-length feature, which she co-wrote and directed. Peirce consumed everything she could get her hands on regarding Brandon’s life and the details of his rape and murder, even attending the trial of the killers and meeting with Brandon’s friends and former girlfriend in Nebraska. While researching for the film, Peirce herself lived as a trans man for a week. She told the crowd that experience made her feel even closer to what Brandon may have been going through. As for the character of Brandon in the film, Peirce says he was “drawn from life but shaped into myth.” It was all pulled from authentic experiences, Peirce was adamant that Brandon’s life and death be portrayed accurately, even in the horror of the rape and murder.
The rape scene was so raw, unflinching, and realistic, in fact, that the film was slapped with an X rating. Despite pressure from her producer to edit the film enough to “get it down to an R,” Peirce was initially reluctant to alter a single frame of the movie because of its truth, and her desire to have an effect on the audience, but she also became concerned about what some were calling “the pornography of violence” in the scene, which finally convinced her to tweak it just enough to get the R rating. Peirce had even taken the very rare of step of going before the MPAA board herself to defend the creative necessity for the graphic portrayal, but she finally relented, admitting she used a little sleight of hand to alter it just enough to get the rating she needed without really touching the integrity of her cinematic vision.
The film, both the X version and the R version, is still received very well all around the globe. Peirce says people come up to her in other countries, all united in one thing they say to her: “I love Brandon.” The affection Peirce has still to this day for the person and the character of Brandon Teena is obvious and quite moving. What the movie did for her and her cast was also very meaningful, as Peirce recalled the experience of the awards season in 1999, as she and the producers took the movie around the circuit as critical reception kept building. She admitted that all the attention was great, but what meant the most to her, as a New Yorker, was when she found out the movie had been accepted to the New York Film Festival. She confessed she had never heard of the Golden Globes when she was told she needed to go promote the film to them. As for the Oscars, where Boys Don’t Cry was nominated for two awards, Best Actress (Hilary Swank) and Best Supporting Actress (Chloe Sevigny), Peirce recalled the moment that mattered the most to her: being interviewed on the red carpet on live TV and seeing the chyron on the screen that read, “Brandon Teena: who lived and loved as a man.” It was such a big moment that she even took a call on her cell phone from her friends watching at home in New York, who were all screaming because of what an impactful moment that was for the LGBTQ community to have that visibility and acceptance on such a stage.
The host for the evening, Chloe Coover, a trans woman herself, called Boys Don’t Cry a document of its time and stated how moved she was by the movie and how necessary it still is for stories like Brandon’s to be told and for awareness of the bigotry and hate that is still pervasive against the trans community to be as heightened as possible.
Boys Don’t Cry deserves its legacy, in every sense of the word, and the hope is more generations continue to discover it as a watershed film, both artistically and culturally.