Peak Male Performance

Young Frankenstein (1974)

Gene Wilder and Peter Boyle in Young Frankenstein (1974) | art by Tony Stella
illustration by Tony Stella

“On Young Frankenstein we asked ourselves, Would the monster enjoy a nice Irving Berlin tune? Yes, he would, and so would the audience.”

-Mel Brooks, “Puttin’ On ‘Puttin’ On The Ritz’: Remembering Gene Wilder”

 

Five minutes into Young Frankenstein, and I’m graced with an angled close-up profile of Gene Wilder as Dr. Frederick Frankenstein. His long, dark lashes line his eyes which, even in black and white, are languid and expressive—the filigree curl at his cheekbone a soft chaos against the otherwise manicured slopes of his eyebrows and mustache. The doctor swivels abruptly to correct a mispronunciation of his name which, though familiar, is barbed—itself a mischaracterization of his work, a misidentification of his lineage. “Fronkensteen,” he enunciates in a stormy register. Behind those bright eyes, a haunting is already in effect. 

Tag yourself; I’m disavowing the men in my family. I’m giving myself my own name. I’m pretty and proud, with long lashes and a boyishness that belies my age. 

I could spit and hit a good reason why I map my gender experience as a trans man onto Young Frankenstein. It’s almost too easy. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has been long explored for its trans affect, and I’ve thought of the author as a personal foremother—the teenage girl who charted an unholy union between science, horror, and fiction. 

Mel Brooks’ telling of Frankenstein takes the searing import of Shelley’s work and spins it into parody, appropriating the black-and-white conventions of old horror movies to their most absurd ends. There’s an oddball servant whose back hump moves from side to side as if itself conscious. There’s an interaction with a blind hermit—a nod to 1931’s Bride of Frankenstein—where the monster spills hot soup all over his crotch. There’s an equally hilarious and serene sequence in which Dr. “Fronkensteen” and his monster tap dance to “Puttin On The Ritz”and I can’t tell you why it worksbut I’m wooed every time. Brooks and Wilder, who wrote Young Frankenstein together, argued about the tap dance scene, with Brooks contesting that it was “too ridiculous.” But Wilder was married to its inclusion, convinced that “it’s proof of how incredible Frankenstein’s creation is.” 

I watch the agile doctor twirl around his looming creation in the center of the stage. The monster is wide-eyed at his first performance, but confident: a child counting steps methodically up to each of his yodeled solo lines. He’s steering the punchlines but, for the moment, is not himself the punchline. I understand the shift he’s been tasked with: no longer an object of revulsion, he’s a partner in performance with his own creator. But emotionally, it’s a tenuous moment, and when I’m watching this alone, I feel like I’m the only person who realizes that this electrified ghoul, at 8-foot something, is the most vulnerable being in the room. 

It’s all too gutting for a comedy, then, when the performance goes awry. A stage light explodes and frightens the monster, triggering jeers from the audience and a self-absorbed plea for good behavior from his creator. The monster charges the crowd, and throws the doctor onto the ground. Serves him right

My one year anniversary of injecting testosterone coincided with my first retail holiday season working as a fishmonger. I cut fish, counted oysters, and packaged scallops in ice for 10-hour shifts without breaks. The unwaning line of customers propped open the door for hours, never letting us forget that it was December in Minnesota. 

My coworkersall cis straight menand I bonded over being sensitive boys. We joked that we must all have low self-esteem to work at a place that routinely asked us to complete such onerous and odorous tasks: scraping scales out of tile grout, digging a rotting mussel from a drain. In reality, we stayed because we loved each other, the kind of love that thickens when you work long hours in close physical proximity to one another: “You want anything? I’m going to the gas station on my break.” 

On those long holiday shifts, my eyes went glassy and my brain fuzzed to static. Just going through the motions, just barely a body. Just moving everyone along as quickly as possible. When customers asked me for my name, I produced one from a movie I loved, Young Frankenstein, a name that I gave because the joke kept me warm through hours of retail hell:Actually, it’s pronounced 

Igor, the groundskeeper of Frankenstein’s mansion, is a candle of fireworks aflame in a snowglobe. Even his namepronounced “Eye-gor”is a delicious mirroring of the doctor’s inherited wound. One moment, he’s leering up at the doc, decidedly devious; the next, he’s a bebop vocalist framed by cobwebs, cued in a row of shrunken heads excavated by Dr. Frankenstein and his assistant Inga (played by Teri Garr). I’ll admit that I jumped when Igor’s shrouded head came into view, but my gasp gave way to delight with the whole thingthis little man with the audacity to follow his ghoulish “Ahh!” with two lines of breathless scatting, to return the doctor’s admonishment with his own scold. Igor doesn’t miss a beat, as if he’s written the lines himself. I mean, why shouldn’t he be there? By squatters’ rights, isn’t this his mansion? 

Marty Feldman plays Igor to weirdo perfection, stealing every scene that he is in. He breaks the fourth wall, winks at the camera, and never seems too pressed about his own unnerving presence. What does he know that everyone else doesn’t? In this comedy of errors, Igor is the buffoonish core. In my favorite scene, he reveals to Dr. Frankenstein that the brain he stole to transplant into the monster belonged to an “Abby Normal.” Igor, his features bulging frog-like as the enraged doctor chokes him, calls for Frankenstein’s assistant Inga to help him and immediately motions as if playing charades. “Second word?” cries poor Inga as Igor swings in the air like a carnival lever. Is he in on the joke? Hamming it up? Or stuck in some recursive loop?

As I write this, a memory comes to me from years ago: an older white male film professor divulged the tale of Carl Theodor Dreyer forcing Renée Jeanne Falconetti to kneel on stone during the filming of The Passion of Joan of Arc. That’s how Dreyer achieved his singular vision of Falconetti’s stoic face as Joan, concealing within herself a real hell. My professor’s usually grim face was festooned with a wide, blank smile. Plain as porridge. As if he told us a joke.

I believe that jokes can accurately distill realities in ways that we’re not yet consciously aware of, and even open pathways to redress a situation with icy clarity. As my best friend likes to say, “there’s a troof to every goof!” Early in my decision to take hormones, I would joke that I was transitioning to make fun of men. Now that I’m far enough along the punchline, I feel deeply that living as a trans man has been the weirdo delight of my life. Wanting transness and then giving into that want has allowed me to verbalize other hidden wants, and fight for their reality.

As I approach year two on testosterone, I now think of myself as a man publicly, and a nonbinary person privately. During a pandemic with no end in sight, the volume of sales at the fish store skyrocketed but raises were foreclosed indefinitely. I was not at all eager to lug bullets of frozen tuna or perform the grotesque grin of photogenic customer service, only to deepen the pockets of the dumb dudes at the helm of our store.

When I quit, I read my boss a three-page letter that ended with the phrase, “I have no respect for you.” My coworkers were so proud of me, and it felt good. We’d supported each other through our separate addictions, divorces, injuries, and frequent, grating exchanges with customers. Our “brotherhood” disintegrated, however, when I advocated for us to unionize. Didn’t they realize that I had the most to lose? That as an already tokenized brown trans man, I was vulnerable and still willing to risk it all for what we all rightfully deserved? Something more substantial than treats from a gas station run or a sweet discount on scallops.

When I call myself my chosen name, I intend it as a joke, in the sense that a joke is also an unspoken revelation. A feeling of lightness in the body. Or a bitterness in the back of the throat. 

In his beautiful, brief essay Feeling Strange, poet Cameron Awkward-Rich describes his turn from black and trans “joy” towards strangeness: “Whereas insisting on joy allows one to insist on having a claim this world, wallowing in strangeness makes it easier—at least intellectually, imaginatively—to turn one’s back, to shut the world out, even if it does not feel good to do so.” This turn towards strangeness is how I felt when I realized that the authenticity of my embodiment was not dependent on its folding into an already existing, restricting masculinity. My masculinity was actually a warm, living house that I’d already inhabited, where I turned away from the world and into myself. I’d known all its contours, enough to draw out a map—all its slopes and sleeves, the ghoulish turns kept safe by its fleshy walls, billowing as a circus tent. The stars pricking the sky above, that I’d watch through the blown-out roof. My ownership of my own body was an infinitely splitting crystal, only fixed in the awareness of its constant metamorphosis. It was a lizard creeping up the wall, a dazzling flash of lightning, a bike spoke reflecting the metallic kiss of the moon as I pedaled each night to my abandoned home. I relished my time-warped skin with a single word rippling my twisting grin: freak

Peter Boyle’s monster is the final point in Young Frankenstein’s trinity of iconic male performances. He is beastly and blank, hulking and hurt, and his mournful grunting stirs something in me. I’m certainly not the only one. In his 1974 review, Roger Ebert commented, “[The movie] works on a couple of levels: first as comedy, and then as a weirdly touching story in its own right…Boyle somehow manages to be hilarious and pathetic at the same time.” 

 The monster’s impained and confused expressions as he struggles to understand his reanimation evoke a kid who’s lost their parent at the grocery store. These moments prick through the movie’s veneer as a spoof, perhaps even heightening its absurdity. Young Frankenstein is bawdy and stupid and, yes, sometimes it makes me want to cry. Maybe I’m just not used to seeing such an array of strange male-ness to project myself into so easily, albeit by three extraordinary performers. It’s not just that they’re expressive or fancy or shifty and shrouded in black or lumbering all confused-like. It’s the combination of these things, and then its presentation and showmanship. The way they all still come out looking like idiots. That for all Wilder’s slickness, he never projects a trace of smarm. I imagine that, even on a closed set, he was probably always performing for an audience, one that he felt gratitude towards. 

Remember that cartoon kid on those “How Are You Feeling Today?” posters from your grade school nurse’s office, the one whose head was shaped like a butternut squash? Feldman’s eyes alone could map out three-quarters of that poster, and combined with Wilder’s coy eyelashes and Boyles’ browbone, a kaleidoscope of male expression is charted. 

I think often about something Daniel Mallory Ortberg said in an interview with Heather Havrilesky about coming out as a trans man: “[It’s like] I’m taking my skills and opportunities to Cleveland.” There’s an awareness here that I still relate to: that becoming a man is like knowingly sinking your life savings into a fixer-upper, one that’s constantly on the verge of being condemned. 

I’m grateful that I wasn’t successful in condemning Young Frankenstein for myself when I first saw it as a teen (and hated it!). As each male performer revels in his own strangeness, I find ways to tap dance in my own haunted house. Thankfully, movies are not mirrors, and I find new, glimmering pleasures with each viewing. Nothing quite fits all the way, but I take pleasure in discovering spaciousness in ways of being that I’d once believed to be quite rigid. 

Second puberty certainly shares the timbre of horror-comedy. The goofy monster braying on stage makes me reconsider my embarrassment over my own voice cracking. Why not dwell in these moments of potential humiliation til they give way to twisting corridors, known only by myself? Why not luxuriate in my strange and ever-evolving performance? It’s all budded weird, delightful pleasures that, frankly, I didn’t even know I could want: a hot goth wife, an enormous schwanzstucker, a dark inherited house that I reanimate by taking my desires seriously and otherwise puncturing real horror with a wink. 

Shelley’s Frankenstein and its many lives in horror films makes me believe that we’re meant to defy our creators, especially when our existence surpasses their puny dreams, their lack of imagination for our gorgeous monstrosity. Young Frankenstein drives home that we’re not only meant to defy our creators, but to also emphatically pleasure their fiancées better than they ever could. To revel in our strangeness, con or charge the audiences that assume our humanity is in their hands, and preserve a sense of capaciousness for our own sake. We are the ones who deserve our terrific timing, our delightful idiocy, the rapturous tension within which we stretch a joke to its farthest, aching reaches. 

We are here because, well, we are. Deal with it.