"Jorgensen went abroad and came back a broad!" The joke is indicative of the type of humor, sarcasm and outright condemnation that greeted the world's most legendary individual to have undergone a gender transformation. Jorgensen's name has largely been lost to obscurity in recent years but if you grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, she was a household name. She was born a male, George Jorgensen, in 1926 and had a fairly normal childhood- except for the fact that from a very early age George was haunted by the feeling that he should have been born female. We're not talking about homosexual behavior or tendencies, rather, a deep-seated belief that only becoming an actual female through a surgical procedure could bring him happiness. Jorgensen got his wish when he underwent the procedure in Denmark and returned home as a "she". Predictably the media went into a frenzy and Jorgensen decided that if she couldn't live in obscurity, she would capitalize on her new-found fame. She wrote a best-selling autobiography and transformed her experiences into a campy night club routine before passing away from cancer in 1989.
Jorgensen's book became the basis for The Christine Jorgensen Story, a sincere low-budget film made in 1970 and released by United Artists, which curiously kept its logo confined to the very last roll of the credits as though there was something shameful about a major studio releasing the movie. Jorgensen herself acted as technical adviser on the movie which makes it all the more puzzling as to why there are so many apparent embellishments and lapses from the truth. For one, Jorgensen was not the first person to undergo sex change surgery, as the film implies, although she was certainly the most prominent. The movie also tosses in quite a few plot devices and characters that appear to be wholly created for purposes of artistic license. The movie's melodramatic aspects have become grist for the mill in terms of its reputation as a camp classic. Indeed, there are plenty of unintentional laughs and some over-the-top moments by leading man John Hansen, a blonde haired pretty boy whose career went precisely nowhere after his bold decision to play the title role. Hollywood's glass ceiling on actors affiliated with gay behavior was firmly in place at the time.
The movie was directed by the once-esteemed Irving Rapper (Now, Voyager) who had obviously become much less selective about the types of screen projects he chose to be affiliated with. Nevertheless, for all its flaws, The Christine Jorgensen Story doesn't deserve its reputation as a cheesy sexploitation movie. In fact, there is virtually no sex in it at all save a relatively chaste romantic interlude between Jorgensen and her biographer. The only nudity is relegated to medical procedures and there is barely a naughty word uttered throughout the film. If anything, the movie was ahead of its time in preaching tolerance to those who have suffered the slings and arrows of sexual prejudice. In scenes relating to George's childhood, there are painful moments in which he is bullied by friends because of his lack of athletic prowess. When his mother catches him innocently dressing in his sister's clothing, you can also feel sympathy for her, as she realizes her son will lead a tortured life. George's macho dad tries everything to turn him into a John Wayne-type to no avail. When George is drafted into the Army he suffers merciless taunts from fellow soldiers and he attempts to nullify these criticisms by joining them on a trip to a bordello- with predictably disastrous results. John Hansen is a lightweight as an actor, but does manage to convey sympathy for Jorgensen's plight. The post-operation sequences would seem to be the ones that would lend themselves to the most ridicule, but Hansen manages to play Christine without looking absurd. Even critics of the movie concede he makes for a convincing female. A stronger actor would have been more effective, but then again, a stronger actor probably would not have been willing to commit career suicide by taking the role.
The film moves at a relatively breezy pace but there lies the rub: it's short on detail and leaves out all mention of what happened to Christine after she returned from Denmark, aside from the fact that she was finally embraced by her parents, who came to accept her fate. The movie's adherence to historical fact may be questionable, but it would be a mistake to lump this in with the types of films people hoot at when they are shown at midnight screenings.
"The Christine Jorgensen Story" is available on DVD through MGM's burn-to-order service.
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