Dante “Tex” Gill, a transgender massage parlor owner whose portrayal by Scarlett Johansson in the upcoming film “Rub & Tug” has prompted a strong backlash, “would be laughing his ass off” at the debate, says Gill’s cousin, Barry Paris.
“That wouldn’t be as important as how he wanted the world to see him,” Paris, a longtime film critic for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, told TheWrap on Thursday.
Paris said he didn’t know for certain how Gill, who died in 2003 at the age of 72, would have reacted to Johansson or any actress playing him on film.
“I’d say it’s a toss-up, but I think it’s slightly more likely he would have liked to be played by a man because he identified as a man,” Paris told TheWrap. “I’m sure he would have liked to have been played by a transgender man, but in his day that was very rare.”
When Scarlett Johansson was first cast in “Rub & Tug,” which focuses on Gill’s rise as a cigar-chomping, sharply dressed massage parlor whose paths crossed with many in Pittsburgh’s criminal underworld of the 1970s and ’80s, Gill’s character was described as a woman who dressed as a man.
But online critics almost immediately jumped in to say that Gill was in fact a trans man. Johansson fueled anger with a pithy statement suggesting her portrayal of Gill was no different than past portrayals of trans characters by cisgender actors. Critics also noted the “whitewashing” accusations that resulted from her role in the 2017 film “Ghost in the Shell,” which was based on a Japanese anime with Asian characters.
But Paris suspects his cousin would be amused by the uproar that has resulted. “He would laugh if he were here watching any of this,” he said. “He would laugh.”
Paris has a charming way with words. A 2003 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette obituary quoted him describing Gill as “personally gentle and non-violent” while adding that Gill “made a nice corrupt life for herself in a nice corrupt American society.”
Paris’ only regret about that assessment is the use of the female pronoun. Most people were less enlightened about pronouns — and LGBTQ issues in general — 15 years ago, he explained.
Now, Paris said, there is no question Gill should be referred to as “he.”
“The pronoun needs to be ‘he’ and ‘him’ rather than ‘she’ and ‘her,’ even though the newspapers refused to do it when he was alive,” Paris said. “He totally identified as a man from the time my cousins and I first knew him. He was always overtly masculine. … He hated to be called ‘she,’ and that’s what the police always did, and the papers. It annoyed and upset him.”
The obituary said Gill, who was raised as a female in childhood, may have “undergone the initial stages of a sex change” procedure. Paris said he did not know the details of any such procedure, and that Gill’s last two surviving brothers, who might have known more, both died within the last two years.
Paris said he did not believe anyone involved with “Rub & Tug” had reached out to anyone in his family about the casting or about how to portray Gill. He said there are about 30 cousins living in the Pittsburgh area.
“Nobody has ever contacted us… it’s a little more than annoying,” he said. “There are some numbers of the family who are not well off at all, and if people are going to make tons of money off Tex’s story, it might be nice if they at least considered helping some of these people.”
Paris said he has spoken to six or seven writers over the years who have reached out to him about telling Gill’s life story. He said it was possible that Gary Spinelli, the screenwriter of “Rub & Tug,” was among them, but he wasn’t sure.
A rep for Spinelli did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.
Paris said one of his first memories of Tex was visiting him for riding lessons in the late 1950s, when Paris was a child. Gill was living in a trailer at the Schenley Park horse stables in Pittsburgh.
“He was living in a trailer located on Schenley riding stables with a beautiful blonde,” Paris said. “Everyone was fascinated and slightly scandalized by it, but that’s the way Tex was.”
Paris joked that on some level, Gill would be delighted to be connected to Johansson. “Tex would be happy with anything involving a beautiful woman,” he said.
Check out the latest edition of the Low Key Podcast about the Scarlett Johansson-Dante “Tex” Gill discussion: