Queer cinema history is littered with enough coming out stories, hot shirtless guys, and campy comedies that they’ve been labeled “Bad Gay Films” as if that’s the norm. For sure, filmmakers have stepped up their game and have produced artistic, challenging, cinematic masterpieces, but often it’s been at the expense of dismissing, sometimes rightfully so, the types of films which started it all. At Outfest this year, I’ve seen such a wide swath of voices and stories. Some have a deadly serious tone or challenging ways of presenting their material. I see you The Novice! I see you Potato Dreams Of America! Sure, we all get tired of the same old tales, but I’m convinced D’Arcy Drollinger understands that all too well. He’s clearly studied where things went wrong and has come out blazing with his campy drag comedy, Shit & Champagne, producing spectacular results.
Drollinger, who writes, produces, directs and stars as Champagne White, adapting from her hit stage show, is obviously a student of all things John Waters, Russ Meyers, and Mel Brooks. Opening with the classic “Our Feature Presentation” announcement, grainy footage of San Francisco, and a score seemingly straight out of an episode of Kojak, the film sets itself firmly in 1970s Grindhouse Exploitation territory. Champagne works as a stripper at the Shaboom Boom Room, hilariously exposing real stunt double tits and a merkin you will never forget. Champagne has all of the confidence, shimmy shaking, tongue wagging, nipple tweaking, ranting, and the angry smoking bluster of the late great Divine as Dawn Davenport in Female Trouble. I’ve been hoping for a successor for so many years, and, eureka, here she is! Add her own brand of goofiness and a new National Treasure is born.
Drollinger, who hasn’t met a trope he doesn’t want to push in our faces, gets things underway with a double murder, sending Champagne down the rabbit hole of underworld crime. Describing the plot seems like a useless exercise. You’ve heard this overly convoluted story before on a million episodes of Charlie’s Angels and Magnum P.I., with storylines progressing via double crosses, karate chops, and bombs exploding. Add booty bumps, endless poop stains on pants, and drug pushing scientists, and you have a cavalcade of insanity.
The real beauty, however, is in the cast, the writing, directing, and the delicious repetitions and ways Drollinger stretches out scenes for maximum comedic effect. I’m reminded of Mel Brooks in the way Drollinger can crank up his hard-boiled dialogue or use the motif of people slapping each other literally hundreds of times and making each one of them funny. The first slap comes courtesy of Serge, the hilariously over-the-top James Arthur M., who must be channeling a gay stereotype version of Love Boat’s Ted Lange meets Eddie Murphy’s SNL character, Dion. He knows exactly what movie he’s in, as does the rest of this stellar cast.
Every single scene works, containing gems like a spotlight coming out of nowhere when Champagne shares her dreams. Watch the perfectly timed gag as Champagne kneels over a dying friend who keeps sitting up for one last gasp, or how Champagne spits out an alliteration as the camera zooms in on her and results in someone getting a face full of saliva. Drollinger takes the time to end one scene with the cast laughing and then stopping to look at the camera as the music comes to a big finish. The desire and energy for a laugh gave me such joy. Witness a character dying only to be followed by the volume being turned up on a boom box and an out-of-nowhere disco dance number. I giggled every time Champagne announced, “My name is Champagne Horowitz Jones Dickerson White. So I’ve been married a couple of times. It’s none of your fucking business!” There’s not a shred of laziness to this film. These bitches work hard for their money!
Actors like Mario Diaz and Steven LeMay nail the ridiculous tone as characters required to overdo the angst. Nancy French nails the droll, dead inside stripper with a tendency to tear bandages off her body and fling them into customers’ cups. Seton Brown as the tough-talking detective who spews patriarchal nonsense while clearly falling for Champagne injects straight guy energy into this campfest, nearly stealing all of his scenes from his drag counterparts. A late cameo by RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars hall of famer, Alaska Thunderfuck, reminded me how hard it is to pull off this type of comedy, something rarely achieved on that show’s skits. Matthew Martin does an amazing job as Dixie Stampede, the evil pimp/terrorist who will stop at nothing to achieve world domination. It’s a testament to his fun performance that you kind of want him to succeed.
The big difference between this film and the also-rans which came before is that Drollinger knows his cinema, filling his scenes with endless references while carving out a tone all of his own. My only wish is that he had added a grainy filter or shot the movie on film to really give it that dirty, 70s feel, but that’s a minor quibble. Comedy is hard, but drag comedy is a whole other animal. Drollinger has made a new camp classic look so easy, and in heels!
Screens virtually at Outfest LA 2021 August 19th-21st 2021.
by Glenn Gaylord, Senior Film Critic