“All drag queens want is love. And they try to get that love by being sexy and beautiful,” proclaims legendary drag impresario Jack Doroshow (a.k.a. Flawless Sabrina) in The Queen, a wildly entertaining account of the 1967 Miss All-America Camp Beauty Pageant in New York City. Newly restored by Kino Lorber from its original negative, the amazing 1968 documentary is now getting a limited release across the country (it opens June 28 at New York’s IFC Film Center) and will hit digital and Blu-ray later this year.
Like a prequel to Jennie Livingston’s better-known Paris Is Burning (which has also been rereleased in theaters this summer courtesy of the Criterion Collection), The Queen gives us an intimate behind-the-scenes look at its fascinating subjects through interviews and fly-on-the-wall footage. Our 28 contestants check in to the Woodstock Hotel with their wigs, gowns, makeup, and high heels. We follow them as they go through rehearsals, lounge around in their hotel rooms, and finally compete to become the titular majesty.
“If you’re difficult you may be dropped from the contest,” Sabrina warns them in her sassiest alto, bearing shades of the film’s closest and most popular successor, RuPaul’s Drag Race. In contrast to Livingston’s 1990 exploration, whose subjects were primarily trans women, this collective portrait mainly features gay men who identify as drag queens. At one point, contestants sit together talking, out of drag, sprawled casually on the beds in their hotel room. They confide in each other about their sexual orientations and gender identities, and they almost universally express that they have no interest in transitioning. One man, who identifies as gay and as a drag queen and mentions his husband in the military, makes it known: “I’m proud of what I’ve got, and I certainly don’t want it whacked off.”
His friend, a jaw-droppingly adorable Truman Capote look-and-sound-alike, campily concurs, adding, “Even if I could have a sex change I wouldn’t have it anyhow. Goodness gracious, no.” (Earlier in the film, this amazing queen delivers a knockout impromptu soprano rendition of Mitzi Gaynor’s “Honey Bun” from South Pacific, singing, “She’s broad where a broad should be broad.”)
Another wonderfully effeminate blond talks about how complicated it is that his lover wants him to be more of a boy. Describing his coming out, he says, “I come from a small town of about 500 people, and everybody in that town knew I was gay from about the time I was 5 years old… Mother said, ’Well, I love you just what you are.’”
As organizer of the pageant and mistress of ceremonies, Flawless Sabrina camps it up both on and off the stage, luring us in with dish and drama galore (a longtime queer icon in New York City, she passed away in 2017). Most poignant is the story of the astoundingly beautiful Harlow, a.k.a. Richard, a.k.a. Miss Philadelphia (in a juicy conflict-of-interest twist, Harlow is also Sabrina/Jack’s lover). At one point we’re told that Harlow is an “NBW”—a Natural Beauty Wonder. Indeed, she is absolutely riveting on screen, exuding an aura of irresistible pathos that carries us through the entire film. Harlow did transition in 1972, and went on to become an actress and model.
Without spoiling the plot by revealing the winner of the pageant, I will say that the legendary Crystal LaBeija (Mother of the House of LaBeija and of Paris Is Burning star Pepper LaBeija) comes forth in the end with the kind of spectacular shade and reading that fans of Paris and Pose have come to associate with the ball scene. “I declare her one of the uglier people of the world,” Crystal rages against Harlow. “I don’t say she’s not beautiful, but she wasn’t looking beautiful tonight. She doesn’t equal me. Look at her makeup! It’s terrible!”
The pageant itself, staged at Town Hall in 1967, was attended and juried by some of the cream of the downtown scene at the time. We catch glimpses of Andy Warhol, Mario Montez, George Plimpton, Edie Sedgwick, and others in attendance to witness or judge the competition. The Queen had an extremely high profile upon its release. After making a splash at the Cannes Film Festival, it opened at the Kips Bay cinema in New York City. Renata Adler gave it a rave review in The New York Times, calling it “extraordinary” and expressing great affection for the film’s subjects: “One grows fond of all of them,” she wrote.
Truly, one does. It isn’t hard to imagine audiences back then falling just a little bit in love with these screaming queens and, presumably, becoming just a little bit more enlightened and less homo- and transphobic. One also can’t help but regard the film as a kind of prelude to Stonewall. No doubt some of these folks were about to become the instigators of the modern gay liberation movement.
Being shown in front of The Queen is the 1967 short Queens at Heart, in which we meet Misty, Vicky, Sonja, and Simone, four courageous trans women who candidly discuss their personal lives and talk about how they dream of “going for a change.” It, too, includes extensive footage of a 1967 drag ball and is a remarkable look at pre-Stonewall queer life. On a personal note: The restoration of Queens at Heart was done using a 35mm print I unearthed in the mid-1990s (I bought it from an old projectionist in Kansas City for $75).
Thanks to the Outfest UCLA Legacy Project for Moving Image Preservation, the restorations of both these films are stunning. You’d be remiss not to go see your forebears back on the screen, looking as fabulous as ever.
The Queen opens June 28 at New York’s IFC Center.