“The Queen” is a fascinating film artifact, newly restored and re-issued this Pride Month to remind us how far the culture has come in the past 50 years.
Here’s a drag queen culture documentary that predates the also-restored and re-released “Paris is Burning” by decades, a less showy and yet more revealing film about the state of drag gay America, pre-Stonewall.
Of course it was “groundbreaking.” Here was straight America’s introduction to the world of drag queen competitions, with all the wigs, makeup, vamping, singing and shtick, the talent and the bitchiness on full display.
There are no shrinking violets in drag, honey. And little that you’d call “closeted” either. These contestants at the Miss All-America Camp Beauty Pageant in New York are frank about their sexuality, the world they live in and the subculture they thrive in.
Yes, they’re effeminate and funny, but rarely in that campy “Boys in the Band” way. They’re out there and outspoken, not demure beauty queens who will take the judges’ decisions at face value. And the names of those judges tells you just how “in” this world already was half a century ago.
Andy Warhol and his “star” Edie Sedgewick, the journalist and publisher George Plimpton, the writer Terry Southern and songwriter Jerry Leiber (of Leiber and Stoller) are among the judges. Famed photographer Jill Krementz was there, capturing the event.
Frank Simon’s film is quite well photographed and edited (It looks like grainy 16mm.), with a polish that few similar documentaries or reality TV shows of today could match.
We meet Jack Doroshow, on the phone encouraging his parents to come as he shaves and puts on his makeup and costume as “Sabrina.”
“I do this whole ‘bar mitzvah mother’ thing,'” Jack says, noting that when drag queens are asked about who they are, or were “before” putting on their war paint, they all respond the same way.
“There WAS no ‘before,’ darling!”
Jack is our narrator-guide (and on-stage MC) into this world, who points out that the queens he knows are “night people” who only know “their street corners, their bars, the nearest YMCA, and their bathhouses.”
Yeah, that was a LONG time ago. And yes, the implication that some of these performers “perform” the services of a hooker isn’t missed.
Organizers and contestants gather backstage and gossip and kvetch as they prep for the show, a Bette Davis poster in the dressing room of that rare New York hotel “hip enough” to host them and close to Brooklyn’s Town Hall, where they’d compete.
They’re lectured about the rules, “No ‘cruising’ in front of the judges” and Jack breaks down, for the competitors and the audience, how the judges will evaluate them.
“Five points for wawwwk, five points for tawwwk, five for bathing suit and ten for beauty.”
We meet Richard, a stylish Twiggy-thin slip of a thing, who looks so feminine a little resentment sets in among the others.
They make their excursion to “Mdme. Berthe Theatrical Costumes & Gowns” to try on outfits re-engineered for men who dress as women, totally a thing even back then.
We see them rehearse the chorus line numbers and hear bits of their acts, campy impersonations in song of everybody from Mary Martin to Carol Channing, giants of the Broadway stage of their day.
That’s one of the startling things I took away from “The Queen.” There’s a live band accompanying their singing in the contest, all set to play “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody” as the winner promenades.
And plump and primped or thin and “NBW, a natural beauty wonder,” the queens are all very good. There’s no lip-syncing, no Spanx, no plastic surgery. The fakery is more honest, actual talent more obvious.
It’s also stunning to hear echoes of conversations only reaching the wider public recently, views expressed half a century ago.
One contestant recalls telling his draft board (they all refer to themselves by the gender they were born with) “My mother and father made me (this) way.”
An African American queen getting the same rejected “4F” designation from the draft, but mentions writing a letter to the president to complain. “I want to serve, protect my country…They wrote back and said ‘We understand…but maybe some day.”
Another contestant reveals that he has the money for a sex change, and a hospital that could perform it close by. “But a sex change…is the last thing I would want.”
“My husband is in the service– he’s in Japan now,” wouldn’t go for that.
The frank conversations about the nature of their sexuality may be conducted in the dated terminology of the day, but these are timeless attitudes that otherwise sound as modern as whatever show RuPaul appears on these days.
“Camp” is a word that’s falling into disuse in these more tolerant times. But back then, that was the whole point, and full ownership of it was reflected in the name of the pageant. This was “camp” back when camp meant something.
And seriously, what else could you call a singing, dancing kick-line of drag queens performing “It’s a Grand Old Flag?”
MPAA Rating: unrated
Cast: Jim Dine, Jack Doroshow, Bruce Jay Friedman
Credits: Directed by Frank Simon. A Kino Lorber release.
Running time: 1:08