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Frank Simon’s ‘The Queen’: The Restoration of an Icon

The Queen

From its roots in the “pantomime dame” craze of the late 19th century to the modern-day antics of RuPaul’s Drag Race, drag has served as a way of subverting audiences’ expectations about gender. By performing as the opposite sex, drag queens (and kings) shine a light on the performative nature of both maleness and femaleness. As RuPaul himself has famously put it: “You’re born naked and the rest is drag.”

Just over five decades ago this year, documentarian Frank Simon turned his lens towards the fascinating, fabulous drag universe. The resulting film, The Queen, just received a magnificent 4K transfer courtesy of Kino Lorber’s Bret Wood. The new transfer also happens to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall riots. It breathes new life and wonder into a little-known document of 20th-century queer culture.

“It’s a matter of absolute life or death, Carol.”

Simon’s film takes us behind the scenes of the 1967 Miss All-America Camp Beauty Contest. The Town Hall in New York City serves as the venue for the affair. Legendary trans activist Flawless Sabrina (then known as Jack Doroshow) serves as mistress of ceremonies and also narrates the film. Simon’s fly-on-the-wall approach gives a slice-of-life feel to the loose but captivating narrative.

Image via The Frida Cinema

We’re treated to plenty of behind-the-scenes looks at the contestants rehearsing their dance routines and transforming into their personas. It’s striking how much respect and pride they have for their craft. They squeeze into tight undergarments, apply makeup, fit dresses, and crack wise about their fake breasts (“I think I’ve got three of ‘em — extra points!”). All the while, they carry themselves with a mix of quiet decorum and sly humor.

A minor drama ensues when one queen finds himself in need of a new wig just before showtime. (In Sabrina’s words, it would be like sending him onstage “without his head.”) According to Sabrina, many queens place a great deal of importance on fully inhabiting their roles. She recalls meeting fellow queens who, when asked what their names were before turning to drag, simply reply, “There was no ‘before.’” Simply put, the stakes at the Town Hall are more or less life and death.

”I feel like money in a box!”

During their downtime, shacked up in the Strand Hotel, the contestants chat frankly — often hilariously — with one another about their experiences as gay men in the sixties. One competitor recalls being turned away from the draft board because he, in their words, “really should have been a girl.” Another jokes that his family found out he was gay by the time he married his second husband. Yet another states that he has “nothing against girls,” but would never want to have a sex change operation. (This emphasizes the important difference between men who perform as women and men who want to become women.)

Image via New York Daily News

Even in the supposedly enlightened sixties, these men still fall victim to prejudice and closed-mindedness. But drag presents them with a perfect opportunity for self-expression that their restrictive backgrounds rarely afforded them. Breaking away from society’s heteronormative shackles, they can experience a taste of real freedom.

“I am beautiful, and I know I’m beautiful.”

At the end of the evening, the crown goes to Harlow (aka Richard), a Philadelphia native who happens to be Sabrina’s protégée. Fellow contestant Crystal LaBejia, who finishes fourth, reacts to the news less than charitably, storming offstage in a huff.

Simon devotes a decent chunk of the film’s final stretch to Crystal’s outraged tirade post-pageant. She confronts Sabrina, accusing her of rigging the contest and threatening to sue her. When one of her competitors claims Crystal has “shown her true colors,” she snaps back: “I have a right to show my color, darling — I am beautiful, and I know I’m beautiful.”

Image via IFC Center

Is Crystal’s outburst a display of genuine anger over a “fixed” competition or simply another layer to her performance? Either way, the scene reminds viewers that racial tension can, tragically, spring up even in the most accepting of public spaces. (Crystal would go on to establish the legendary House of LaBejia, featured prominently in Jessie Livingston’s 1990 documentary Paris is Burning.)

A beautiful piece of living history, The Queen is just as vital today as when it premiered at Cannes in 1968. It’s a dazzling window into a unique world, connecting the trailblazing queens of yesteryear with their modern-day counterparts, uniting queer communities past and present. Wood’s dynamic restoration work makes the movie sparkle like the treasure it is, bringing the icon to life for a new generation.

Image via The New Yorker

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