The Queen 1968 Documentary
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REVIEWS

New York Times

By Renata Adler
June 18, 1968

“The Queen” is an extraordinary documentary about the Miss All-America Camp Beauty Pageant held at Town Hall in 1967.  The contestants were transvestites from all over the country – some of them winners in regional contests – judged for walking, talking, bathing suit, make-up, hairdo and, of course, beauty.  The star and the winner was Harlow, a frail, blond, pouting young man, formerly Miss Philadelphia.   The director was Frank Simon (his first feature film,) and the movie itself is funny – not tactless – and inspired the way “The Endless Summer,” of surfing, was inspired.  It shows us another America.

It is good to watch for about an hour these colorful human beings whose entire self-image is a put-on, in their Atlantic City of Genet, in their Forest Hills of drag.  The drag queens are, of course, perfectly aware that they are not women, and even their mannerisms – the flatted vowels, the relaxed wrist, the gait of the homosexual who wants it known – are not female imitations at all, but parodies…very witty, detailed parodies at that.  The question of invasion of privacy does not arise; one is watching actors, very conscious actors, at work.  They may be absolutely miserable (like others) in their private lives, but in their costumed appearances they enrich the landscape enormously.

At times, Miss Sabrina, Miss Crystal and Miss Harlow and the rest seem to have taken Hollywood’s old message very much to heart:  Both the two-fisted gunfighter and the sex queen could find stardom, but the sex queen really had all the lines.  The cosmetic idea was bound to spill over a bit.  So here are all these gentlemen in bras, diaphanous gowns, lipstick, hairfalls and huffs – discussing their husbands in the military in Japan, or describing their own problems with the draft.  One grows fond of all of them.  They are much more entertaining than the conventional Miss This or Miss That.



By Roger Ebert

Narcissism, that sweet but too-ripe flower, is one of the easiest weaknesses to forgive because it is so clearly born of need.  Who can blame another for loving himself?  Is this not our own secret sin?  And, is it not possible to understand the depth of need, the pathos, the sad beauty, of the person who cannot love himself and must instead love another person, also himself?

Right.  And, now that we’ve scared off the sensation-seekers with a paragraph of easy philosophy, let’s the rest of us get on to “The Queen,” a gutsy, funny, pathetic, really very moving documentary about the 1967 All-America Camp Beauty Pageant.  From all over America they came, “each a winner in her own right,” the champions in their local contests, hoping to be named the best drag queen of them all.

This is a fairly dicey subject, but director Frank Simon handles it as well as we could hope.  Using available sound and light, he sends his 16-mm cameras creeping into the boudoirs of the contestants and comes back with the startling information that drag queens are very much like the rest of us, and perhaps even more pleasant than the average All-American straight beauty queen.

Any dumb broad can be beautiful, but it takes a bit of thought, an ounce of imagination and even a certain sense of humor to put oneself on the line in a transvestite contest.

It is unpleasant enough to risk rejection as yourself – but on top of that to be rejected as somebody else, too!  There can only be, the mistress of ceremonies reminds us, one queen: “I would certainly hate to judge this contest.” 

Simon takes us to a planning session, where it is decided that pages will stand by to whisk away discarded items of clothing.  We watch as the contestants check into a friendly hotel and begin rehearsals for the great night.  There will be a chorus line (“It’s a Grand Old Flag,” etc.,) a lineup of entrants and scoring by a point system on the basis of gown, hairdo, poise, bathing suit, talent and beauty.

There are also discussions among the contestants, who for the most part seem unhappy but not as unhappy as they might.  They exchange stories of draft boards and lovers, parents and friends, childhood and the strange ways they came to where they are now.  There is an easy camaraderie to these scenes, not unlike the scenes, in a dozen war films, of a Marine platoon swapping BS on the eve of battle.

But the tension grows as the hour of the contest approaches.  We watch (and this is the most frankly exploited aspect of the film) as the queens apply makeup and slip or struggle, as the case may be, into their costumes.  Some of the transformations are frankly effective; most are sad.  Miss Philadelphia, a young blond named Harlow, wins the contest, accepts his crown, understandably weeps a bit, and then must endure a bitter backstage tirade from a disappointed runner-up.

The film ends with Harlow, back in pants, holding the crown in his hand, sitting rather forlornly in the Port Authority Bus Terminal waiting, I guess, for the next bus to Philadelphia.

Reality Can Be a Drag

By Judith Crist

New York Magazine

To each his own fantasy bag, as they say, and a movie week that offers us drag queens in Town Hall and Duke Wayne in Vietnam more or less proves the point and indicates the cinematic range.

It’s the Town Hall affair on film that interests us most at the moment, almost in  escapist terms.  The times are such that the bloodlust-on-film malaise we discussed two weeks ago is unbearably present in fact and fiction, and we turn almost in a sense of relief to a film that is concerned with fundamental exploration of people rather than an exploitation of still another of our social sicknesses.

The Queen, a documentary of the 1967 Nationals, a beauty contest for female impersonators, might well have been another freak show, another venture into non-art camp, just a further step in the movies’ discovery of homosexuality.  For we are in the age of the cinematic homosexual’ to over-simplify, let’s just say that the bared-shoulders-in-bed bit has become old-fashioned and aberration is now the order of the thrill.  (And time out, perhaps, to mourn the passing of the “sissy” – the non-sexual priss who was a standard ingredient in any good comedy set-up, epitomized perhaps by Franklins Pangborn’s bank examiner in The Bank Dick.) 

The emergence of homosexuality on film in the past couple of years has been slow but sure.  Back in ’62 only familiarity with the novel and nothing on screen would have suggested that Barbara Stanwyck was competing with Laurence Harvey for the body of Capucine in Walk on the Wild Side; heavens, in the movie it was simply a matter of keeping a good moneymaker in the house.  It took us until ’65, via The Loved One, to get Rod Steiger’s marvelous portrait of Joyboy, the embalmer, a bespectacled Gorgeous George who brought a mincing menance to the comedy of his character.  And comedy is, of course, the easy approach – whether it’s the hysterical director in The Producers, piercingly played by Christopher Hewett, or the prancing wigmaker Steiger presented in No Way To Treat a Lady.

But the bars – and even the high-comedy aspects – have been down in the past months.  Joh Huston may have had to have Marlon Brando sneaking a look at photos of naked Greek states to get the message across to the great unwashed in Reflections in a Golden Eye, but the exploitation aspects soon became apparent to those more accustomed to catering to the tastes of that audience.  Point Blank took a tough-guy approach to the subject; in Tony Rome a pair of lesbians put on a sparring match to titillate the voyeurs, and P.J. took time out to go in for some sadistic blood-letting by the spike-ringed habitués of a fag bar.  The Detective is probably the first tough-crime film to deal with so sensational a subject with compassion.

To define what this “taste and compassion” is, consider The Fox, which so beautifully depicts interrelationships and sees lesbianism in large part as an aspect of the bisexuality latent in us all.  The credit is more the film-maker’s than D. H. Lawrence’s, for the film depicts where Lawrence implied, and the implication is more devastating in the explicit contemporary terms of the film than in the 1921 setting of the story.  And to glean the difference between exploration and exploitation, put in contrast to The Fox the film version of Violette Leduc’s Le Batard, labeled Therese and Isabelle, and see the vulgar and lubricious and, even worse, boring exploitation of the theme of lesbianism. 

In these terms Andy Warhol’s films – My Hustler, Bike Boy, I, a Man, Nude Restaurant,- are exploitation films, vulgar and lubricious and stultifying.  Again, if we are seeking cinema verite, place in contrast to Warhol’s work Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason, a brilliant piece of truth-seeking and truth –finding via the camera, a film too few have had an opportunity of seeing.  Miss Clarke has an aware man in front of her camera, a performer, a self-styled queen and exhibitionist – but it is ultimately Jason’s unawareness of what the camera shows that this the revelation in this scathing and heart-breaking portrait of a man molded in large part by our society as well as by his own psyche.

The Queen offers a broader aspect of the world of which Jason is one part, baiting us as voyeurs into watching a drag beauty contest but making us se its concomitants with our hearts and minds as well.  It is a beautiful and beautifully made film; its potentially sensational and shocking subject matter is not only unexploited but treated with such sensibility, taste and compassion that what might have been a grind-house or underground movie emerges as an impressive human document.

Unlike the Clarke film, wherein Jason gives a solo performance and reacts to a variety of stimuli (slowly but surely doing away with a bottle of whiskey, responding to needling questions from those behind the camera,) this one is carefully edited into a taut documentary of an event through which individuals reveal themselves.  It is an account – of the setting up and execution of the beauty contest, for which 40 young men (“every one of them a winner before he came here”) gather from various parts of the country.  The questions are not asked; the film provides the answers.  Whatever narration there is, is provided by comments made by Jack Doroshow, organizer of the contest and its “mistress” of ceremonies under the name of “Flawless Sabrina.”  His concern, Doroshow emphasizes, is not in recruiting for “the drag bag” – only in selling tickets.  He is admittedly the exploiter, the film is not.

The instructions, the housing of the contestants (“we have three problems – one, finding a hotel with 28 empty rooms; two, finding a hotel hip enough to let our guys in there and, three, keeping the guys in”,) their rehearsing, their idle talk between times, their costuming and their final competition are covered in the film.  And by its end we have a portrait of outsiders who exist within our society.  Where one might feel scorn, let alone disgust, one is strangely brought to humor; when the sense of put-on becomes acute (and the “guest” appearance of Warhol star Mario Montez is the ultimate put-on) one is jolted by the complete cynicism of the event itself; when one has a surfeit of cynicism, the reality of the participants turns one to tolerance and understanding.

There is a heartbreaking climax as these female impersonators – some of them achieving a moment of remarkable surface beauty, creating so complete an illusion of femininity that it is only the coarse-boned wrist, the heavy shoulder line or the stubb finger that reminds one of the reality – walk down stage and runway to the moaning accompaniment of “I’m just a woman, a lonely woman…”  And one question: whose is the reality?

Well, there’s John Wayne’s Green Berets and there’s Elvis Presley’s Speedway and the grand cliché: To each his own bag – or fantasy.

Cosmopolitan Magazine

By Liz Smith
September, 1968

If things keep going the way they’re going, very shortly someone will make a film – and I mean a high-budget, Technicolor, big-screenwriter, name-actor film – where the entire sex act will be shown graphically.  (One hopes the sound track will be as effective as the Strauss waltz was when the spaceship floated off in 2001: A Space Odyssey.  No, no, not Ravel’s Bolero!)

Hollywood has found out it can get away with practically everything, and though I don’t know whether Hollywood is following foreign films, or vice versa, both genres are traveling fast in the realms of permissiveness.  People are getting to see things today that would have been unheard of only five years ago.  A documentary called The Queen has made a tremendous splash among the New York film critics.  It shows the 1967 national beauty contest for female impersonators, and it has been done with taste and perception.  Some people will walk out on what is essentially a “freak” show, but others will stay to see what is truly going on in a certain strata of America’s subculture. 

 

Evening Standard

By Alexander Walker
January 1969

“I don’t say she’s not beautiful…but she’s not looking beautiful tonight!”  I’ve always longed to hear the loser in a beauty contest have this kind of showdown row with the winner after the audience have gone home.

My pleasure at hearing it in “The Queen” is in no way lessened by the fact that it is one young man who is yelling it at another young man while looking him straight in the mascara.

The Queen has nothing to do with royalty.  It is a documentary about the finals, held in new York publicly and with evident lack of self-consciousness to select the Drag Queen of America from 40 young and not so young men who were the regional winners in 1967.

It is an enormously amusing film – a sad and compassionate one, too.  It is entirely without offence.  Though obviously homosexual in character, the contestants have an un-sensational way of treating their own condition, a frank self-examination that mitigates any feeling of prurient interest on our part. 

They are also desperately, touchingly serious about it all.  The rules are sternly read out as they gather in new York City after finding a hotel hip enough to lodge what amounts to 40 female impersonators.  “Anything removed, gloves, boas, anything,” decrees Flawless Sabrina, the organizer, “must not be dropped on the floor….that would savour of burlesque.”

The candid confidences of the wig-fluffing, gowning, stocking-straightening and beauty hints exchanged between males trying to contract their chests into some semblance of a bosom are a hilarious parody of femininity – but they are mingled with more serious, illuminating comments on the attitude of their parents, the sex change, even their experiences at the Army draft board where one contestant was told to apply again in a few years when “things might be different.”

The actual contest avoids the off-putting feeling of watching panto dames because many of the boys make such stunning looking girls, give or take a few trips in their long gowns or a wobbly high-heel going up the steps.

The commentary hasn’t a touch of lip-smacking or sly innuendo about; and indeed the only unharmonious note has been struck by our film censor who has decreed that the commonest four-letter word, which occurs once in the film and is currently appearing in books and even newspapers these days, must be painted out on the soundtrack.

It is a pity when the censor has to apply his own makeup in public, too.

 

New York Post

by Audrey Farolino
New York Post

One of the most priceless moments in “The Queen,” an acclaimed 1968 documentary about a rather unusual beauty pageant, is the scene in which an infuriated runner-up goes ballistic backstage and vents all her jealousy and anger towards the winner.

“I’ll sue the b----,” rages Miss Manhattan, an exotic beauty named Crystal, who lost out to the willowy Miss Philadelphia.  “Get a picture of [her] and me and see who’s more beautiful…Look at her makeup, it’s terrible,” Crystal fumes.

What makes this all the more priceless is that Miss Manhattan and Miss Philadelphia, along with all the other contestants, are actually Misters, for we are backstage at the 1967 “Miss All-American Camp Beauty Pageant,” in which the nation’s premiere drag queens are vying for the honor of being named the fairest queen of them all.

Praised when it was first released for its sensitive and subtle handling of what was then considered shocking subject matter, “The Queen” is no longer very startling, but it is still revealing, funny, and involving.

You don’t get to know any of these men very well but you want to know them all better, and, given all that’s transpired in the gay community between then and now, you especially want to know what’s happened to them since.

It’s also fascinating as a woman to watch a group of males embrace all the little tortures that lie behind society’s image of feminine beauty.  They stuff themselves into too-tight bras, tape their flesh into a semblance of cleavage, suffer corns from mincing along in high heels, dye, pluch and otherwise eradicate offensive hairs, and hide themselves under pounds of makeup and outrageous wigs.

They do this, of course, for the same reason women do:  “All drag queens want is love, and they try to get that love by being sexy and beautiful,” observes Jack Doroshow (a.k.a. Sabrina when in drag,)  who set up the contest and served as its “masterful mistress of ceremonies” (judges included Larry Rivers, Jim Dine, and who else?  Andy Warhol.)

Most of the film consists of the camera simply hanging out with the contestants in their hotel rooms or backstage at Town Hall, site of the contest.  We eavesdrop on them as they discuss everything from trivialities like the state of their wigs (“Look at this – I’m going to have to reset it.”)  to weightier matters like relationships with their families (“My mother won’t talk about it anymore – she really doesn’t understand.”)  and with the draft board (“Did you tell them you were homosexual?” one asks.  “No, they told me,” is the dry response.)

 

New York Times

by Wiliam Grimes
March 27, 1958

‘The Queen’ On the Runway Again

In June 1968, New York filmgoers had a clear choice.  They could watch John Wayne in ‘The Green Berets’ or Sabrina “the masterful mistress of ceremonies,” presiding over the Miss All-America Camp Beauty Pageant in a documentary titled, “The Queen.”  When cultural historians talk about the polarization of American society in the 1960’s, this is the sort of thing that brings the point home. 

‘The Queen,’ which has been revived for a run through Thursday at the Film Forum in New York, caused a stir when it had its premiere.  It was America’s first look at the subculture of drag, a dress rehearsal, so to speak, for ‘Paris is Burning’ the acclaimed 1991 documentary about the Harlem drag scene.

The timing was right.  Audiences who might have been appalled five years earlier were enthralled.  Critics heaped praise; the film broke box-office records at the Kips Bay Theater in Manhattan, and ‘The Queen went to the Cannes International Film Festival, where its star and pageant winner, a 19-year-old Philadelphian with the drag name of Miss Harlow, became the darling of photographers.

“I couldn’t go out of the hotel without being besieged by cameras,” said Miss Harlow, who has since undergone a sex-change operation and, as Rachel Harlow, is well known as a nightclub owner and restaurateur in Philadelphia.  “Usually, it’s naked women, but that year it was men in drag.”

The film records the preparations for a national drag contest held in 1967 at Town Hall in Manhattan and the contest itself, an evening of glamour, musical production numbers and cutthroat competition among the winners of regional drag contests.

The organizer was Jack Doroshow, also known as Sabrina, who held 46 contests a year from 1959 to 1967 through his company, the Nationals Academy, which in its heyday had 100 employees on the payroll.

Mainstream America didn’t know it, but the nation had a flourishing drag subculture, and not just in the major cities.  “The places that were kind of off the beaten track were the places where the largest number of drag queens would come of out of the hills in sausage curls and hoop skirts,” Mr. Doroshow said in an interview.

The Nationals Academy would send advance men from town to town, putting out the word of a contest through gay bars, which sold tickets.

“We also located what we called phone freaks,” Mr. Doroshow said, “girls who loved to gossip on the phone for hours.  We’d give them tickets and have them hype the contest.”

Since local laws often prohibited cross-dressing, Mr. Doroshow would meet with officials and propose a donation to some unspecified charity.  In return, the town would pass a variance allowing the contest to take place.

“In the main, the city fathers thought it was a show we were bringing in from out of town,” he said.  “They didn’t accept that it was people from the local area.”

The contest organizers would set up in a cheap hotel and, out of discretion, would hang sheets on either side of the hotel’s awning so audience members could step from their cars and enter unobserved.

The New York finals in 1967 were a far more visible affair, which led to some high-level consternation.  In a surge of marketing hubris, Mr. Doroshow pitched the contest to the Muscular Dystrophy Association as a charitable fund-raiser, and the society in turn attracted lady Bird Johnson and Sammy Davis Jr. as co-sponsors of the event, to which a long list of notables, including Robert F. Kennedy, lent their names.

As the event neared and its contours came into focus, the sponsors headed for the hills.  Mr. Doroshow still seems faintly puzzled by this.  “I thought it was a swell thing, that it was about America getting healthier,” he said.  “They didn’t seem to agree with me.”

As Mr. Doroshow tells it, Kennedy bowed out reluctantly: “Bobby Kenndey was 100 percent on our side, very open-minded, as opposed to Mrs. Johnson, who, I think, thought it was just plain perverted.”

Judges began to fall by the wayside as well when word spread that film was being made of the contest.  Judy Garland, a judge for previous contests, dropped out, and although George Raft was listed on the program as a judge for the event, he did not show up.

George Raft?

“We had a particular reason for inviting him,” Mr. Doroshow said, “but I think I’d rather not say what it was.”

The final panel of judges included Larry Rivers, Andy Warhol, George Plimpton, Terry Southern and the songwriter Jerry Leiber, diligently awarding points for walk, talk, bathing suit, gown, makeup and beauty.

 

San Francisco Chronicle

by John L. Wasserman
May 10, 1968

“They’re like in this fantasy bag,” the narrator says of the drag queen beauty contestants.  “But who’s not in the fantasy bag?”

This is somehow the most affecting line from “The Queen,” a fascinating documentary.  The statement shows compassion on the one hand, and raps the complacent, condescending viewer on the other.  One’s fantasy bag may not be dressing up in ladies’ clothing but we all have one…or a dozen.

“The Queen,” amounts to a subliminal, even unintentional plea for tolerance, without ever mentioning the word.  And, this beyond its enlightening look at an American sub-culture that, in terms of percentage, is probably more prevalent her than in any other U.S. city.

Town Hall, New York city, is the setting for the “Miss All American of 1967” pageant – the grand finale to some 40 regional drag beauty contests produced and promoted by Jack Doroshow – “The Most Masterful Mostress of Ceremonies.”  Doroshow, professionally know as Flawless Sabrina, narrates the film and contest with agreeable wit; Frank Simon directed the work of five cameramen; the Grove Press Film Division is distributing it.

The picture opens with the gathering together of the queens, a recitation of the rules (anything removed – gloves, boas – must not be dropped to the floor lest it smack of burlesque,) beauty secrets exchanged, gossip and rehearsal.  Some of the dialogue is very funny, some is sad.  Throughout there is the inherent contradiction of apparent contentment within what seems, at least to the straight world, like an unhappy existence.

The queens are always matter-of-fact about their homosexuality but, interestingly enough, there is a distint lack of interest in physical sex change.  One simply likes to be a drag queen, another says that his boyfriend “wants a boy, not a girl.”  They talk about the draft, which is very amusing; about their “husbands,” about their parents.

Then the contest surfaces in earnest, with the makeup, the gowns, the falsies, the wigs, the flurry.  One looks down at his-her chest and drawls, “I think I got three – that’s extra points,”  There are small crises – Harlow’s wig is missing – and a big one when Harlow wins and Crystal ( Miss Manhattan) throws a temper tantrum, bitching that the contest was rigged by Sabrina because Harlow is his protégé.

One has, by this time, become completely caught up in the drama and it becomes almost impossible to see the girls as boys.

Director Simon has done a brilliant job – in balance, in sight, the use of color film and in editing 50 hours of film to 68 minutes.  The angles, the lenses and composition are beautifully exploited.

 

San Francisco Examiner

By Lisa Hobbs
May 7, 1968

Viva La Difference … Gay Ones

If a movie like “The Queen” were shown in this city five years ago the hackles of every police officer from the Chief down would have risen in wrath.

Next Friday, “The Queen,” which deals entirely with homosexuality, will open in eminent respectability at the Presidio Theatre.

After the premiere, the stars, all American, will leave for France where the film has been entered at the Cannes Festival.

It appears homosexuality has “arrived.”

It has been less than five years since police broke up a New Year’s “fancy dress” ball here: even less time has elapsed since charges of police harassment of homosexuals was a big issue.

Has this society become more perceptive, more humane, in these five years, or does Friday’s premiere mean that American society is as valueless as some charge it to be?

Certainly, the attitude of Police Chief Thomas Cahill has undergone a transformation, in public at least.  What the Chief says out of the corner of his mouth might be another matter.

In any case, whether as a result of public pressure or a bolt of sentimental lighting, the Chief does have a special officer working full time in the central city “to find out what makes homosexuals tick.”

All this brings me to the point of shedding a few tears for the middle-aged, middle-class squares like myself who were raised on the idea that homosexuality was an unmentionable, and that men of this ilk were as mysterious as the Red Chinese and a jolly sight more threatening.

The question is whether this city has become more realistic and humane in the past five years towards those who are different from the accepted norm, or whether this rapidly changing world has reduced everyone to a state of shock where anything goes.

 

The Hollywood Reporter

By Ray Loynd
June 10, 1968

Miss Alfonse from Manhattan knocked us out, but she didn’t win.  Richard did, or Richard Finnochio, better known in the drag queen Nationals last year as Miss Harlow.  The preparation, rehearsal and crowning victory of such drama is the subject of “The Queen,” a gay documentary about a transvestite beauty contest, Miss All American of 1967.  Needless to say, it’s the one subject Wolper never documented.  We hesitate to call it a labor of love, but producer Si Litvinoff and director Frank Simon have measured out this world with coffee spoons.  If fact, careful editing and the jolt of cinema verite have captured a kind of Prufrockian obsession with braceleted arms “downed with light brown hair” or “perfume from a dress” or “a bald spot in the middle of my hair.”

It is, of course, perhaps irrelevant to use a literary medium to illustrate a visual one, but we bring up Eliot’s J Alfred Prufrock because his neurotic indulgence in daydreams of beauty and pleasure so manifestly describes this rather amazing documentary, presented by Grove Press as a Si Litvinoff-Vineyard Films-MDH Enterprises production.  The contestants in this film, whose story and conversations are caught in disarming and often witty banter, are naturally, from one point of view, alienated and lonely, people who have their own answer to themore physical and passionate demands of life.  From another point of view, we see them cheerfully babbling about “husbands in Vietnam,” about sex change operations (they are wary of them,) their willingness to join the army (“to protect the country,”) and their total unabashed merry commitment to feminine competition.

As for its box office potential, all we can say is that it’s doing well in San Francisco.  It reportedly made a big impression on some directors and critics in a pre-Festival showing last month at Cannes, and it opens here and in New York next week in predictable and exclusive small-house bookings.  Naturally, it has some guaranteed customers.  But it is a film worthy of good business (and an unadorned, low-key ad campaign) because it is an example of technical skill in the documentary field, because it neither exploits nor glorifies homosexuals but rather explores and mirrors in the best sense of a documentary, and because it is often funny, occasionally in a har-har way to the brash heterosexual but more often in a natural way.  Only the most stupidly virile redneck will fail after the initial unconvention of it all to more often laugh with these drag queens rather than at them.

The film opens with narrator Jack Doroshow (Sabrina,) the pageant’s director and mistress of ceremonies, talking to his mother over the telephone and inviting her to the contest.  He also makes a few remarks that are pertinent to the world at hand: “When you ask a drag queen ‘what was your name before?’ the queen will look at you straight in the eye and say ‘there was no before.’”  Later, as we watch the boys – like any group of girls, some are pretty and some are homely – the narrator says off camera that each “queen’s drag scene is love and they try to get it by being sexy and beautiful…it’s a fantasy bag.”

It’s such verbal verite, coming from a swish, that informs the film as much as the work from the five cameramen credited with the lensing.  Largely, however, the soundtrack records the youths in their hotel rooms as they primp and makeup for the big night in Manhattan’s Town Hall.  At one impressive point, the footage goes silent and the camera roams cluttered hotel rooms as we watch some 8 or 9 fussy lads taping down their hair, combing their wigs, applying eye shadow, etc.  One rather chubby fellow is enamored with this cleavage, there’s a close-up of a queen examining her face in a mirror and, then, from outside, gradually filling that incredible room, is heard a siren, a wail from the other world heightening and drawing with exceptional skill the contrast between this cluster of outcasts and the routine and violent noise of the world out there.

Now switch to the jammed Town Hall auditorium (we catch glimpses of a couple of judges, Andy Warhol and Terry Southern) and the parade of stars.  They waltz up and down an apron in dazzling gowns (they’re not allowed to drop any clothes because that would smack of a leering striptease) and five finalists are named, and svelte, blond Richard (Miss Philadelphia) gets the crown.  Earlier, she – he – had tossed in bed and moaned because his fall had not yet arrived.  Now a winner, he is violently berated by one of the losers who claims the decision was rigged.  Richard is weeping, a forlorn image in the dressing room.  And, at the end, in a particularly telling statement, Richard sits alone in a bus terminal, a shattering image of loneliness, dejectedly curling his fingers around his pretty, silver crown.

Not least among the film’s achievements is that it is conveyed in 68 minutes in sharp, paced editing.  Certainly, the subject is not among the world’s most crucial, but as a study of people who have their own fantasy bag, as an observation of whose who obsessively devote their lives to the way they look, it is a reflection of one kind of human condition and done with candor and skill.

 

Women’s Wear Daily
June 18, 1968

The most reasonable and yet the most despairing request a non-conformist can make is the request not to be judged.  To be left alone.  The request is never granted.  “The Queen” is about transvestites – men who want to look like women – and perhaps there is no other non-conformist so quickly judged and condemned.

This movie does not judge them.  It judges the spectator.  Appearing objective, it is something quite different – it is subjective from every point of view.  As a result, you can find a basis in it for whatever your own reaction.  So when you leave, examine your own feelings about it.  The wholesomeness of the film will then decide just who you are, just what you are.  It is a splendid and exceptional accomplishment.

“The Queen” is a reacting documentary film of “The Miss All-American” contest of 1967, a beauty contest for drag queens.  But it more than reveals the contest (which is itself a camp phenomenon, mocking the dumbness and the anti-sex of the Miss America contests.)  It reveals the kinds of people who promote it, the kinds of people who see it, the kinds of people who laugh at it, and most of all, the kinds of people who become contestants.

Frank Simon has directed the film to show these contestants from as many points of view as possible – as foolish, as pathetic, as victims, as freaks, as comic objects, as people.  He watches them alone and in groups, rehearsing in men’s clothes and moving through the weird and wretched complications of assuming a female look.  Do women really go through all of this to look beautiful and is that beautiful?  Are these men grotesque or are they only emphasizing a grotesque thing that women have become? 

Sometimes, the contestants talk and these are the film’s weakest moments – it looks like a 100th time television documentary listening to them discuss transsexual operations (nobody wanted one,) homosexual histories (all have long accepted it and so have many of their families,) and draft board experiences.  But for the most part, “The Queen” lets the pictures speak and the only narration is that of Jack Doroshow, the contest’s promoter and emcee.

Mr. Doroshow, whose voice and attitude is uncannily like Lenny Bruce’s, has a cynical, show-biz, bright-dumb attitude toward the contest and speaking as a transvestite himself is at once informative, objective and reflective.  His narration is not the voice of the director but is part of the subject matter and this is a masterful technique of the film.

 

 
     
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Last Updated Dec. 10, 2014
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