Iconic Drag Doc “The Queen” Returns in All Its Glory

The cattiness! The drama! The glamour! Not even the FBI could stop these ladies in their fight to snatch the crown. A 1968 classic gets restored.

What happens when you put a bunch of drag queens together in 1967 New York City for the Miss All-America Camp Beauty Pageant and let the cameras roll? You get director Frank Simon’s unforgettable documentary The Queen, which premiered at the 1968 Cannes Film Festival and went on to become a touchstone of drag culture. The movie is rarely shown in theaters, but independent distributor Kino Lorber is now rereleasing it as a 4K restoration opening at New York’s IFC Center on June 28 (it hits other U.S. cities in the coming weeks).

The pageant chronicled in The Queen was organized by activist Flawless Sabrina (a.k.a. Jack Doroshow), and the event’s panel of judges included Andy Warhol, screenwriter Terry Southern (Dr. Strangelove, Easy Rider), and Warhol “supserstars” actress-model Edie Sedgwick and actor Mario Montez (a.k.a. gay icon René Rivera).

Bret Wood, Kino Lorber’s senior vice president and producer of archival releases, tells NewNowNext that the movie came to his attention through writer-filmmaker Shade Rupe before the distributor reached an agreement with its co-producer Si Litvinoff to restore and rerelease it. Queer film historian Jenni Olson then suggested that Queens at Heart, a 22-minute documentary about four young American trans women that she helped restore, serve as a companion at select showings of the rerelease (including a July 20 Outfest screening in Los Angeles).

Newcomers to The Queen may be shocked to discover how much more visible—and accepted—drag culture has become in America over the past 50 years. “Something so entertaining was at one time so taboo,” Wood says. “Now people don’t have to be so self-conscious about it.”

Here, Wood shares some lesser-known facts about the queer classic.

Kino Lorber

Lady Bird Johnson (the first lady of the U.S. at the time) was an honorary chair of the beauty pageant, which was also a fundraiser for muscular dystrophy.

Having the first lady’s name attached to the event was groundbreaking, considering that many prominent people who were initially in favor of it ended up withdrawing their support. “At first, they had some high-profile people on the board and partners who were sponsoring the event,” Wood says, “but some people got nervous and started bailing. At the time, people had to be careful about any association with LGBTQ culture. There was a rumor that the FBI was going to shut down the pageant. That, fortunately, never happened, but it’s a reminder that this was dangerous territory—if not an act of rebellion, a brave gesture.”

Kino Lorber

The event was marketed as a satire to appeal to audiences who might avoid it if they knew it was for drag queens and trans women.

“It was advertised as ‘camp’ from the beginning,” Wood says. “In fact, one flyer we have says it’s a ‘satirical happening.’ It was pitched to the public as satire and camp and playful.”

Andy Warhol was a pageant judge, but his screen time in the movie is so minimal, it’s a blink-and-miss-it moment.

Wood explains that the brief glimpse of Warhol in The Queen “got shot on a different kind of film. It was shot and cut into the film. We don’t know if they got a shot of him at another event. I think they knew the marquee value of having Andy Warhol there. They wanted to show he was there, but they didn’t get [footage of] him interacting with anyone.”

Kino Lorber

People might never agree if the contest was rigged or not, but some of the doc footage was probably staged.

The contestant who ended up winning (no spoilers here) got noticeably more screen time than the other queens, including footage of her arriving in New York and window-shopping before meeting the other contestants. How did the filmmakers know to put so much focus on this one contestant from the beginning? Wood has a theory: “They probably took her to the bus station and followed her after she won” and then used that footage to create the illusion that she’d just arrived.

Wood also thinks the angry meltdown that Miss Crystal (a.k.a. Crystal LaBeija) had in the movie was staged to ratchet up the drama. “I feel like there was a big element of performance going on there. Part of drag culture is the controversy and the attitude, that super-glamorous ‘Joan Crawford bitchiness.’ It’s part of the fun of it. I don’t think there was genuine animosity, but it was icing on the cake of the event.”

Kino Lorber

Kino Lorber hopes to restore and put out extra, previously unreleased footage, including a wild after-party that might have been filmed.

“The filmmakers have reels and reels of picture negative and cans of audio tape,” Wood says, “so it’s going to be super challenging to find out which reels of film are the most interesting, see if the corresponding audio exists, and then sync it up. Supposedly, there’s [footage of] an after-party and people being interviewed, and they get kind of rowdy and police shut it down. There are also some Terry Southern interviews [with the contestants]. There’s more of The Queen to be discovered. It’s just going to take more digging.”

Writer and editor whose work has appeared in AXS.com, Examiner.com, Lifetime, People, and Billboard.