A documentary directed by Frank Simon. Runs to Sunday (August 11) and again on Tuesday (August 13) at the Vancity Theatre
The divine drag artists of New York City’s Miss All-America Camp Beauty Contest carry themselves with such glamour and confidence, and chat about their lives in such a candid way, it’s easy to forget the era they live in.
In this beautifully restored yet still raw, handheld documentary, it’s 1967, almost five decades before RuPaul’s Drag Race and two years before the Stonewall riots. Cross-dressing is a criminal act in many American states, the target of police harassment and widely considered deviant.
And yet here these fellows are, in this remarkable time capsule: gathering in their faded Times Square hotel rooms in button-downs and V-neck sweaters, preparing their teased wigs, feathered robes, fake breast inserts, size 11 heels, and stubble-covering makeup routines.
Later, at the contest, the spotlight will catch their oversized bauble earrings and silvery sequins as they compete for the national honour. And it feels like these are acts of bravery and rebellion as important as any that will take place on the streets in the coming years.
Coaching them along is LGBT legend Flawless Sabrina (Jack Doroshow), the flamboyant pioneer behind the big event. Sabrina's perfectionistic showmanship extends to pages who pop on-stage on cue to catch a dropped boa or cape. (“If you remove a garment we must know about it,” Sabrina says, reciting a list of strict rules.) Among Sabrina's celeb judges you’ll spot Andy Warhol.
It goes without saying that there is drama: at its climax, supremely pissed off third runner up Crystal LaBeija (of Paris Is Burning’s House of LaBeija) stamps off the stage and calls out the contest's bias toward Edie Sedgewick look-alike Harlow.
But the film’s biggest draw is those fly-on-the-wall hotel-room confessionals, where the contestants talk honestly about everything from costume tricks and being gay to draft-dodging and whether they'd ever want sex-reassignment surgery.
The new 4K restoration from the original negative amplifies director Frank Simon's swoony retro feel, with old street shots of New York City and closeups of liquid eyeliner and fishnetted legs backed by heady jazz.
The movie is by turns a historic document, a milestone of queer filmmaking, and a celebration of people who might have been curiosities from a hidden world when The Queen made a splash at 1968 Cannes. Watching them today, they seem more like fabulously coiffed soldiers on an underground frontline.