Movie Night in Canada: Straight editor recommends Outrageous! gay classic

    1 of 3 2 of 3

      Unlike our previous installations of Movie Night in Canada, our next recommendation came from right within the Georgia Straight offices. So we didn't have to travel very far.

      Nonetheless, the film chosen was truly out there.

      Senior editor Martin Dunphy, who has edited the movie section and has written film reviews for our publication, chimed in when he heard about our initiative to ask film-related folk what their recommendations were for obscure, underrated, weird, or forgotten gems of Canadian cinema.

      He came up with a zinger: Outrageous!, a 1977 gay comedy that has become a cult classic. 

      It's been regarded as queer cinema landmark: it was one of the first North American films with a gay theme to receive a widespread theatrical release.

      Although Dunphy isn't gay, he explained why this film deserves to be seen by all audiences. And he had plenty to say.

      I’ve selected Richard Benner’s 1977 comedy Outrageous! as a Canadian film I’d recommend. Benner wrote the screenplay as a vehicle for Craig Russell, a Toronto-based female impersonator and hairdresser who was known on the gay-club circuit for his devastating impressions of celebrities (now drag queen staples) such as Judy Garland, Mae West (for whom he briefly worked as a personal secretary when 17), Tallulah Bankhead, Bette Davis, Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler, Marlene Dietrich, and others. You get the picture.

      The difference between him and other drag performers at the time was that Russell had a versatile three-octave voice, a quick, natural wit, and never lip-synched on-stage, performing his characters’ signature songs and speaking in their voices as a true impressionist. People loved him, straight and gay, and Benner probably realized his crossover potential.

      The cult film, based on an autobiographical story penned by a troubled former roommate of Russell’s, featured (surprise!) a gay hairdresser named Robin Turner trying to kick-start his career as a female impersonator while also attempting to help out a roommate coping with mental illness. It had a minuscule budget (about $165,000), lots of amateurish acting (as well as the screen debut of Michael Ironside and one of the earliest Helen Shaver appearances), and a bit of a murky ending, but audiences loved it and the quirky film scored relatively wide general distribution in North America and internationally. At the time, that was a first for a Canadian film with an openly gay lead and theme (and pre–La Cage aux Folles [the original] and Torch Song Trilogy).

      Russell won the best-actor award at the Berlin International Film Festival for the role, not to mention both the best actor and best actress awards at the Virgin Islands Film festival, and Harvey Fierstein and Scott Thompson (of Kids in the Hall fame) have cited Outrageous! as inspirations to continue in show biz and come out as gay, respectively.

      I was born in New York City and moved with my family to Toronto years later, so I identified with both of the film’s major locations. But for me—and, undoubtedly, for many thousands of other viewers who embraced the slightly dark, bitter-sweet comedy—the real discovery was the film’s portrayal of the big-city gay community. Those were pre–HIV/AIDS days (Benner and Russell would both die young, of AIDS-related complications, within weeks of each other in 1990), and the film’s matter-of-fact presentation of that tolerated yet scorned twilight zone and its denizens’ solidarity, rivalries, and workaday lives was a revelation, as naive as that may seem now. And Russell’s sheer force of personality while inhabiting personae as indomitable as Mae West or Bette Davis, for example, was a pleasure to behold. (Hollis McLaren, who went on to land a role in the great Atlantic City a few years later, also more than held her own as Robin’s roommate, Liza Connors.)


      Roger Ebert gave it three stars and described it as " a low-budget, rough-edged effort, yes, but with warmth and sincerity and two very engaging performances" in his review of the film.

      Here's a clip that will give you a peek at the film:

      Another clip, of Russell performing in drag, is available here.

      The film provides an interesting time capsule of Canadian gay depictions on screen, and a perspective on how much things have (and perhaps haven't) changed in Canada. 

      Checking it out is a good way to get into gear for Pride, as it is Pride Month and Pride season kicks off in Vancouver on June 27.

      That's all for this episode of Movie Night in Canada. Stayed tuned though, true northerners, as there are plenty more Canuck cinematic recommendations in store...