Leave the dressing room antics of RuPaul’s Drag Race behind and step back in time to 1967 and the lead up to the Miss All-America Camp Beauty Pageant in the largely forgotten documentary The Queen, restored and re-released in New York this week, with other US cities to follow.
Originally released to rave reviews in New York a year before the Stonewall uprising, this cinéma vérité gem, directed by Frank Simon, was reportedly a jury favourite at the curtailed 1968 Cannes Film Festival. Simon introduces us to the pageant’s determined organiser Jack Doroshow, better known as Flawless Sabrina, as Doroshow attempts to keep the queens in check as they prepare to take to the stage to compete for the coveted crown.
The film puts us in the midst of the rehearsal room with the hopeful pageant contestants and allows us to eavesdrop on their hotel room conversations. In the lead up to the competition we are privy to some fascinating discussions which reveal the men’s attitudes towards gender confirmation surgery and detail their interaction with the armed forces at a time when known homosexuals weren’t given military positions.
With just hours until curtain, one contestant, Richard, is preparing to become Miss Harlow but finds himself wig-less, resulting in an emergency phone call being made by someone trying to help him: “I’m in a spot and it’s an absolute matter of life or death, Carol, that I get hold of a platinum blond fall, I mean life or death.”
The pageant’s judges included Andy Warhol and his superstars Edie Sedgwick and Mario Montez, who performs a number, but the film’s focus remains of the contestants.
The Queen’s most compelling scene comes after the competition ends in the form of a blazing rant from disgruntled runner-up, Crystal LaBeija. More than twenty years later LaBeija was a ballroom house mother and featured in Jennie Livingston’s Paris Is Burning.
Flowing from scene to scene, The Queen’s structure is engagingly loose and the fact that there’s no outsider commentary, with no interviewer questions heard, adds to the sense of intimacy and allows the film’s endearing and captivating protagonists to speak for themselves.
With vivid colours and artful, intimate cinematography, this 4K restoration looks stunning. In fact every frame would make a ravishing still photograph.
The Queen is a beautiful time capsule that deserves to be right up there with Paris is Burning and Portrait of Jason as a queer classic.
By James Kleinmann
The Queen screens at New York’s IFC Center 27th June – 4th July 2019. Q&A with Flawless Sabrina’s daughter Ceyenne Doroshow and author Diana Tourjée at 7pm Thursday 27th June. IFC Center, 323 6th Ave, New York, NY 10014. For showtimes and to purchase tickets go to the IFC Center website.
NY and select cities will also screen restoration of Jenni Olson’s short film Queens at Heart.
For screenings in other US cities head to the Kino Lorber website.