Saturday, June 6, 2020

Frank Simon | The Queen


the party’s over
by Douglas Messerli

Frank Simon (director) The Queen / 1968

Frank Simon’s documentary of 1968, The Queen is perhaps one of the most significant films of its time on gay drag and issues of gender in general.

     It’s not that this film is particularly well made or even so significant for his views. What Simon and his co-cinematographers basically do is to train their camera first on a small room where the contestants of the 1967 Miss All-America Camp Beauty Contest gather, calling out to each other in their drag names and seemingly all delighted to being seeing their friends again while reminiscing about old times: all of these figures have been selected in other such drag beauty pageants across the country. And later, in the seedy hotel where several of the participants share beds.
     Finally, at last, at the venue of the contest, New York City’s Town Hall where we see the queens in the bathing suit contest, the ball dress contest, and, through rehearsals the talent contest. In short it is very much a parody of the Miss America pageant, even if, in this case, the contestants are sometimes seemingly assigned the city (no states here) they are to represent.
     The most interesting segment is actually in the close quarters of the bedroom, where we come better to know these outré figures—whom narrator Jack Doroshow (known to the others as Flawless Sabrina) describes as living only at night on stage, in their local gay bars, or occasionally on the streets—discuss numerous issues such as the draft, possible sex changes, gay love, and, of course, their costumes and possibilities of being crowned.
      One drag-queen was eager to serve his country, but was told that he was two feminine. Others were glad that military psychiatrists immediately released them (I too was given a 4-F because I was gay, after speaking to just such a psychiatrist).
      When one asks would they be willing to become transgender; most say no, that they love gay boys and sex too much to give it up.
       As they begin to practice their singing, put on their wigs and dresses just to test them out, the youngest of them, a beautiful blonde-haired boy, Richard (drag name, Rachel Harlow) is suddenly told that he cannot simply puff up his longish hair but must wear a wig, and goes into a kind of funk, while the contest handlers quickly call up a costume shop demanding the immediate delivery of a blonde wig.
       For the others make-up artists paint over any remaining stubble and lining their eyes and applying outrageously long lashes. Their lavish dresses and boas are tested and, if need be, sewn up for any flaws.
       Previously the contest’s manager has told them that if they want to remove their capes or boas they must not toss them to the floor, but signal to one of the assistants to come and take it; “It’s much sexier that way,” he proclaims. They have also been told how the voting will take place: a maximum of five points each for walk, talk, bathing suit, gown, make-up and hair-do, and ten points for beauty. Their lives, clearly, are centered in just how much illusion they can project.
       Meanwhile, the most honest of them Jack/Sabrina puts on his own make-up and dresses himself. “My name is Jack. My mother and father call me Jack, but to all the drag queens I’m known as Sabrina.”
        His ability to dress in a way that makes this young 21-year-old look like a slightly stern mother takes him away from any competitiveness the others might feel, allowing him not only to be the mistress of ceremonies, but to help calm the others. Sabrina arrives, fully dressed at the last moment.
        Meanwhile, they have found a wig for Richard/Rachel, the boy whom the others see as Sabrina’s protégé, although Sabrina argues from the beginning that he did not want a protégé, and pushed him away.

       The contest itself at Town Hall is rather drab affair, a weak version of the Miss America contest. Despite the fact that everyone of them strut their stuff, most of them are neither truly feminine nor beautiful.
       But they seem to have bought into, at least partially, they own pretense. Despite the word “Camp” in the contest’s title, there is little intentional camp except through their outrageous look own bodies.

        Four finalists are chosen, among them Crystal LaBeija and Rachel, each of the four making a final walk into the audience before the announcement of the judges. When Crystal is chosen fourth she runs out into the audience in a huff. Richard/Rachel is chosen queen and, for a moment, delights in the crown and the bunch of roses he is handed.
        Yet immediately after Crystal and others openly decry the choice, suggesting that Rachel is not uniquely beautiful—although we know that he is the only truly beautiful and feminine looking contestant. The protestants threaten to sue Sabrina, since they see Rachel as his protégé and suspect that she helped choose the judges (Andy Warhol is one of them, with whom Jack/Sabrina had met). When she denies both charges, they still continue to voice their anger, as Rachel, crown in hand, suddenly encounters the angry harpies.
  
    The final scene shows us Richard on his way back to his home in Philadelphia, walking, now dressed in normal street clothes, carrying her crown through the Port Authority Bus Terminal, finally sitting face out in a phone birth, twirling the silver award as if it were a kind of toy. It’s so clear that even in the underground, in a world of outsiders, love and fame are so very fleeting. Moreover, it almost as if Richard has now come to regret his aspirations. As July Holliday sang so hauntingly in Bells Are Ringing, “The Party’s Over.”

Los Angeles, June 6, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (June 2020).

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