In 1968, the fabulous and plumed creatures of the documentary “The Queen” could hardly have imagined that five decades later, their cross-dressing world would be a diadem in contemporary pop culture. Shows such as “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” and Ryan Murphy’s “Pose” have since elevated the once-taboo subsection of the gay community in the public’s imagination.
But when director Frank Simon trained his cameras on a dozen or so drag contestants vying for a beauty title at New York’s Town Hall in 1967, their milieu had been largely relegated to runways in underground clubs and fleabag hotels on the outskirts of big cities — that is, when overzealous enforcers of the law weren’t busting them. The Stonewall riots that would birth the gay rights movement were still a year away, and it would be yet another five years before the American Psychiatric Association would stop labeling homosexuality as a disorder.
What is now startling about the documentary is how empowered these contestants are in and out of their drag personae. With cinéma-vérité graininess, the cameras catch them putting on makeup or slipping on and off undergarments in their hotel rooms, all the while talking about their sexual mores, small-town backgrounds and brushes with the draft boards. This was, after all, when the Vietnam War was at its apogee.
“What I love about ‘The Queen’ is that the people who are in the film are brazen and irreverent and just don’t care. The camera isn’t making them behave any differently,” says Bret Wood, the film preservationist and vice president of archival releases at Kino Lorber, the indie distributor that has overseen the restoration of the film and is re-releasing it in limited markets on June 28. “You get this window into drag culture that is more unfiltered than if it were a more expensive studio-made film.”
The context alone for the film was rather revolutionary. The event itself was billed as a fundraiser for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, whose chairperson was Lady Bird Johnson, then the first lady of the United States. She bowed out when she learned of the rather outré details, as did Robert Kennedy, who was on the board of the charity. The celebrity quotient was filled by the judging panel, which included Andy Warhol, artist Larry Rivers and writer Terry Southern. The producers of the film, their maiden effort, were Lewis Allen, who would later produce the Broadway musical “Annie,” and Si Litvinoff (“A Clockwork Orange”).
Corralling the beauties in the film is its central character, Jack Doroshow, then a 24-year-old drag performer known as Flawless Sabrina, who had been producing such shows for several years. While Doroshow never saw himself as an agent of social change, Joe E. Jeffreys, a drag historian and teacher of theater studies at New York University and the New School, says that a compelling argument could be made the performer was just that. Could the Stonewall riots have been influenced, at least in part, by “The Queen,” with its empowered subjects, or Mart Crowley’s stage drama, “The Boys in the Band,” which had also opened that year?
“That’s certainly possible,” says Jeffreys. “Everything was in the air floating around at the time. I’m sure that some of the people who came to the Stonewall uprising, as the many nights unfolded, had seen either or both of these cultural products. Both of them, in their own way, were saying to the gay community, ‘It is time for us to speak our piece and take this power.’”
Wood concurs that the film had a social as well as political impact. “What’s valuable is that ‘The Queen’ doesn’t try to be an issue film, and yet the people in it are real pioneers of social change, whether they saw themselves as that or not,” he says. “They were probably just excited to have a platform and venue for what they were passionate about. But sometimes just being yourself is a form of power when doing that is difficult and not socially acceptable. That can be an act of resistance in and of itself. You can change society and not just by lobbying and protesting.”
Indeed, prior to this, if homosexuality was mentioned at all in film or television, the shows framed it as a pathology with a medical authority figure interviewing subjects about their impulses. These segments were often sensationalistic and dehumanizing. In “The Queen,” for the first time and with little narration and no judgment, the cameras capture the men in all of their diversity — from those who question transitioning into womanhood to those who would like to join the military and fight for the country.
“It’s a great time capsule, looking back at where we’ve been and where we’re headed,” says Jeffreys. “I’m sure at the time there were some gay men who were not exactly happy that the first positive presentation [of homosexuality] to reach a broader public was to show men in dresses. But you can’t discount the bravery of everyone involved.”
Grateful for the pioneering effort of ‘The Queen” is Zackary Drucker, a 36-year-old trans artist and producer (“Transparent”), who admires men dealing not only with the more immediate dangers they faced, such as police brutality, but also with a situation when there were few to none labels to capture their disparate feelings. “All the ways that we identify ourselves today give us a clear rendering of who we are,” he says. “They had none of that. It was all female impersonation. But we’re still struggling with some of the same issues: To be loved and understood authentically despite the complexity of the world around us.”
Drucker says that what’s “imperative” about the documentary is that it dispels the popular notion that “trans people are a 21st Century phenomenon that just popped up onto the cultural radar.” He adds, “We have always existed and been in control our own autonomy, fifty years ago and long before that. The film celebrates our enduring agency for self-expression.”
That is especially true in the documentary when the crown goes to a lithe blonde young man, Richard Finocchio, aka Rachel Harlow, who would later gain fame as a Philadelphia club owner and restaurateur who dated John Kelly, the brother of Grace Kelly. Not everyone is happy with the judges’ decision. Crystal LaBeija, an African-American drag queen who is a runner-up, has a meltdown in the dressing room afterward, reducing Harlow to tears. After her tirade, LaBeija will get her revenge by founding the House of LaBeija, a Harlem drag institution, which figures prominently in “Paris is Burning,” the popular 1991 Jennie Livingston documentary which picks up where “The Queen” leaves off.
“I’m sure some of the contestants were playing to the cameras,” says Wood, adding that the Kino Lorber DVD will include some of the more dramatic outtakes. Among them is an after-party, which got so raucous that the police were called in to quiet things down. “The film takes these characters seriously and treats them with dignity,” he says. “But also with humanity and humor.”
A 4K restoration of Frank Simon’s “The Queen” opens on Friday, June 28, at IFC Center, and will be shown in conjunction with the restored short “Queens at Heart.” A sneak preview for the film is set for Thursday, June 27, at 7:00 p.m., and will be accompanied by a Q&A between activist and Flawless Sabrina’s daughter Ceyenne Dorshow and the author/journalist Diana Tourjée. More information here.
Top Image: Still from "The Queen," directed by Frank Simon. Courtesy: Kino Lorber.