The Queen, Frank Simon’s absolutely fascinating documentrary about the 1967 Miss All-America Camp Beauty Contest held at New York City’s Town Hall, has recently come to Netflix. This may finally, at long last, bring this engagingly dated (yet still relevant in many ways) movie as wide an audience as it deserves. There have always been cinematic explorations of drag life throughout history, but few of them have offered an honest, realistic “insider’s view” of this colorful culture. Another rare example, albeit brief, came the same year that The Queen was initially released: a documentary named The Wild World of Jayne Mansfield, which had the famously busty and blonde sex symbol visiting an undergound drag ball in New York City. In the most memorable moment of that segment, Jayne met an equally busty and blonde queen who looked just like her. As in The Queen, the emphasis for these contestants was “traditional” feminine beauty and high glamour, also called by some as “giving off a lot of ‘real girl'”. Later, of course, there was Jennie Livingston’s award-winning Paris Is Burning. The Queen and Paris Is Burning are indeed linked. But more about that later… While Paris Is Burning earned many accolades and penetrated mainstream consciousness, The Queen sadly vanished into “cinema obscura”. Like many other rare LGBTQ movies, it was arguably only known about in the subsequent decades by those independent movie freaks like me who scour dusty bins at end-of-life video stores or who endlessly search auction sites for out-of-print VHS tapes– or, for the lucky ones, get to see a rare big-screen showing at a film festival. With the explosion (and I don’t use that term lightly) of interest over the last few years in all things drag, this Queen is definitely ready for an encore performance.
With a running time of just over an hour, The Queen packs a wallop. The film deserves status in LQBTQ pop culture as both a classic indie documentary and as a searingly honest insider’s look at a subculture that was WAY underground– mostly for the safety of its participants. (While the laws regarding drag were very vague and undefinied during this era, the fear of a police raid always lingered in the air like the scent of Aqua Net.) When viewed by audiences today, many of whom may have first learned about drag from RuPaul’s TV show, the film is not just astonishing but also provocative and often very funny. (A priceless scene has one character speaking about being summoned by the draft board: When his friend asks, “Did you tell them you were a homosexual?”, he answers, “No. They told ME!”) As the young men in the film gossip, apply their makeup with painstaking detail, wrangle with uncooperative wigs, and rehearse their walks for the contest, the audience realizes that a LOT has changed since the 60’s for LGBTQ people. At the same time, a lot hasn’t. The queens in this movie discuss such issues as gays in the military, drag versus transgenderism, the issue of family accceptance, and other subjects which are still hot topics in 2020. Most engrossing of all, anyone who either does drag or has spent time “behind the scenes” with drag queens will agree that the characters in the movie remain eerily relatable in modern times. I won’t reveal who the winner of the Contest was, but I will say that one gal who didn’t win, Crystal LaBeija from Manhattan, gave the winner and the contest creators a truly memeorable, shall we say, “piece of her mind”. Crystal may have actually ahd the last laugh, because she founded the House of LaBeija in 1977. The House of LaBeija is credited as having started house culture for drag queens, and creating a world that queens of color could call their own
The MC of the contest in The Queen was a 24 year old Jack Doroshow, who also gets to speak candidly to the audience about his role as accidental mentor in his chosen drag community. Known by his drag peers as “Sabrina”, the young New Yorker would eventually become a legend in Manhattan nightlife and earn the name “Flawless Sabrina”. A drag icon, mentor, and matriarch to younger generations, Flawless Sabrina died at age 78 in 2017. On Thursday, May 10th, 2018, Sabrina was honored at an event appropriately named “A Flawless Night: Long Live the Queen”. The venue? Town Hall! In addition to a big-screen showing of The Queen on its 50th anniversary, the night also featured performances by some of New York City’s most original and exciting artists: Taylor Mac, Justin Vivian Bond, The House of Labeija, Julie Atlas Muz, Tigger!, Brandon Olson, Poison Eve, and DJ Sammy Jo. The evening wasted no time in kicking off to a no-less-than-royal start. Boylesque pioneer Tigger! put the “naked” in “Naked City”, starting out in a Poison Ivy-inspired costume before stripping to his nude glory– to opera music! New York City nightlife royalty Linda Simpson, wearing a pale gold evening gown, served as Host for the night. She pointed out to the audience that they may be sitting in the same seat that Andy Warhol sat in 50 years earlier. (Warhol was one of the judges, and he can be seen in the film.) Brandon Olson flawlessly incorporated poetry and song. Poison Eve paid burlesque homage to the cinematic classic Sunset Blvd, giving the crowd a mix of glam (Think Norma Desmond-meets-Garbo-meets-Dietrich) and humor. Burlesque leading lady Julie Atlas Muz managed to magically get herself inside a giant pink bubble. New York City renaissance personality Justin Vivian Bond proved why v is one of the most enduring entertainers in Manhattan nightlife– with Ms. Simpson not missing the opportunity to joke, “Justin Vivian Bond has played every venue from The Cock to Carnegie Hall!” Taylor Mac’s blinding wardrobe– complete with a sequined “In Goddess We Trust” headdress– was a performance in itself. And just like Tigger! made mixed animal prints look sexy, Taylor Mac made the ukulele the must-have accessory of 2018. But perhaps the most amazing moment came when the young members of The House of LaBeija performed to a custom-made music mix featuring Crystal’s bitchiest lines from the conclusion of The Queen. Of course, there was voguing. The dancers were remarkable fluid, smooth, and graceful, as if being pulled by invisible strings from the house lights of the theater. “Long Live the Queen” wasn’t just about the movie or great performances, however. The lovely Zackary Drucker offered the night’s most provocative moments as she spoke about Flawless Sabrina, inviting the audience to yell out their favorite “Sabrina-isms”. One of the most popular ones was “You’re the boss, applesauce!” Following Flawless Sabrina’s spirit of helping the community, the night was also a benefit for SAGE (Advocacy and Services for LGBT Seniors) and The Ali Forney Center.
So… Could a movie that’s almost 52 years old still delight an audience in 2020? The answer– judging from the hearty laughter from the audience at Town Hall in May 2018– was a resounding “Yas Queen”!
The Queen is now available for streaming on Netflix.