February 19, 2020 at 5:30 pm PST | by Scott Stiffler
‘The Queen’ earns its crown in drag herstory pantheon

Image courtesy of Kino Lorber

The stunning looks! The larger-than-life personalities! The compelling personas! The last-minute wig emergencies! The shared stories of family rejection and acceptance! The stern mother hen who sets the bar high! The scathing reads from a fourth-place queen convinced the competition was rigged!

No, that’s not a recap of a “RuPaul’s Drag Race” episode. This all happened long before that beloved elimination format show stoked a mainstream appetite for drag — a full year, in fact, before Stonewall.

Shot in 1967 and released domestically in mid-June of 1968, director Frank Simon’s “The Queen” clocks in at just over an hour — but the fly-on-the-wall documentary seems longer, and that’s a compliment. It’s dense with candid moments culled from cramped hotel room prep sessions, production number rehearsal footage, and before/after moments from the 1967 Miss All-America Camp Beauty Pageant.

Long out of circulation and largely absent from the LGBTQ+ consciousness, “The Queen” demands to be seen — and it can. Right now.

“I’d read so much about the film,” says Frank DeCaro. “It loomed out there, this lost drag artifact. The moment I realized I could stream it on Netflix, I did. Anyone with any sense of history — not just drag hags — needs to watch it immediately!”

DeCaro name-checked “The Queen” as an “alternative classic that often gets overlooked in surveys of drag on film,” in his meticulously researched, delightfully dishy 2019 tome, “Drag: Combing Through the Big Wigs of Show Business.”

Placing the film in its time capsule context, DeCaro told the Los Angeles Blade, of an era when drag visibility was largely the stuff of straights baiting the audience for laughs at the mere sight of a man in a dress, “Seeing drag with any real gay truth to it was nearly impossible, unless you went to a club with no windows, in a dicey neighborhood.”

That’s why “The Queen” is so amazing, says DeCaro. “They’re not in some out-of-the-way venue. They’re at Town Hall in New York City in 1967, and the judges are celebrities like Andy Warhol. You realize that there was this very rich drag culture that one could tap into, if you knew where to look. Every generation likes to think it invented being gay, but people were big queers long before any of us got here, and they were being fabulous in huge hair and high heels!”

Not that those heels and hair are up to modern standards, mind you. Los Angeles-based drag queen Jackie Beat, who began performing in 1989 and has made a career out of telling it like it is, notes, “Not to be too harsh, but … Everyone in the movie had a five o’clock shadow. And if you have an Adam’s apple — and some of these gals had pineapples — wear a scarf or a choker. It’s so important to recognize that all the contestants were working the same brand of old Hollywood glamour.”

But even if some of them were “broad-shouldered, sweaty messes with handlebar mustaches,” Beat has “respect all the queens back then, because they were true trailblazers, and simply existing was rebellious and courageous. And can we please talk about how handsome many of them were out of drag? So hot!”

That said, when asked how the film fares, compared to the Reality TV “Drag Race” format, Beat hails “The Queen” as “a true documentary, in the fact that it is not really manipulative or even that creatively edited. It’s just like, ‘Here’s what happened.’ And today’s audiences, who were raised on ‘Real Housewives,’ may get a bit restless, but stick with it. There’s definitely drama, but it comes at the end.”

“So few of our stories were archived,” says Zackary Drucker, an independent artist, cultural producer, and trans woman. “I think it’s hard to understand who we are in the present without knowing where were coming from. Documents like ‘The Queen’ are crucial for trans people today, to know. It’s such a raw and authentic representation of the community, and I’m thankful it exists.”

In 2014, Drucker initiated an effort to organize the archives of Mother Flawless Sabrina, aka Jack Doroshow, who co-organized the pageant and presides over the Town Hall event. Of his onstage persona, notes Doroshow in the film, “Look, I’m 24 years old. But in drag, I come on like 110, and I do this whole bar mitzvah mother things, you know, gaudy gowns and pushy.”

Drucker, who first met Doroshow when she was 18 and considers herself Mother Flawless Sabrina’s granddaughter, says the Flawless Sabrina Archive will be part of the NYU Fales Collection, and will serve as a resource for artists, activists, and scholars.

The Flawless Sabrina legacy will be further expanded in late May/early June of this year, when “The Queen” gets a Blu-ray release packed with extras, including a track with commentary by Drucker and GLAAD Media Award-winning trans journalist Diana Tourjée.

That commentary track is “probably the most valuable” offering in the Blu-ray release, says film historian Bret Wood. Film Distributor Kino Lorber’s Senior Vice President and Producer of Archival Releases, Wood worked on sourcing and finishing restoration of “The Queen.”

“They reveal so much information that’s not there on the screen,” says Wood, of Drucker and Tourjée’s commentary track. “The film attempts to be one of these objective films that isn’t giving you people’s last names or backstory—but to have them tell you what’s happened to the people since the film, is a transformative viewing experience.”

Wood, who was pouring over hours of deleted scenes when he spoke with the Blade, says that in addition to that never-seen-before footage, the Blu-ray will also feature an interview with Doroshow shot “pretty late in his life,” as well as a short film called “Queens at Heart.” Made the same year as “The Queen,” it has a “very square interviewer” asking drag performers questions like, “Why do you dress like this?”

That window into how mainstream media regarded 1960s drag is “very different, very stiff,” says Wood, compared to what director Frank Simon achieved with “The Queen.” Similar subjects, he says, “but totally different styles.”

As for how “The Queen” reads when viewed by contemporary eyes, DeCaro notes his favorite part of the film is “hearing the contestants talk about being gay, coming out, and doing drag in the 60s. Their attitudes are surprisingly modern — very ‘born this way.’ How inspiring, too, to hear that their coming out stories aren’t all tragic. A few of them talk about their families just sort of saying, ‘Oh, well, you’re a drag queen. Be a good one.’ I think the queens of ‘The Queen,’ by example, remind us that men and women who were too queer to pass for straight — the ones that no closet could ever contain — have always been the most forward-thinking activists in our community. We really owe them a debt.”

She’s got a right to read: Third runner-up Crystal LaBeija (foreground) walked off the stage in a huff, later saying, of winner Rachel Harlow, “She doesn’t equal me. Look at her makeup: It’s terrible!” (Image courtesy of Kino Lorber)

 

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