The Mother of All Drag Movies



The most surprising thing about The Queen, Frank Simon’s 1968 documentary about a “female impersonation” pageant, is how comfortable the contestants seem.  This is pre-Stonewall.  Both drag and homosexual relations were illegal in New York, where the pageant was held.  There was tremendous risk to these men, both judicial and extrajudicial, but Frank Simon captures them at ease with themselves and with each other.  The resulting film gives insight both into the gay community 50+ years ago and into the early years of drag culture, before it was everywhere.

Of course, now drag is everywhere.  On film it first grabbed widespread attention with the 1990 documentary Paris is Burning, a vibrant look into New York’s ball culture that then came diluted to us through Madonna.  After Paris is Burning there was a brief run of straight actors playing drag queens which is mostly best forgotten.  In recent years RuPaul’s Drag Race, a reality competition show, and Pose, a dramatic series set in the same world as Paris is Burning, have featured gay and trans performers.  Drag has gone mainstream.

Drag certainly wasn’t mainstream when Simon was making The Queen.  Among the challenges faced by pageant organizer Jack Doroshow, aka Flawless Sabrina, was finding a hotel “hip enough” to house the contestants. But drag as entertainment was not new.  What Flawless Sabrina helped to change was the seedy image of drag shows, which were often performed for jeering straight crowds.  Starting in 1958, Sabrina produced 50 smaller pageants each year leading up to the national Miss All-America Camp Beauty Pageant, around which The Queen revolves, and it was no joke.  Sabrina ran a tight ship in rehearsals and there were rules upon rules  The result was a pageant with all of the campy self-seriousness of any  Miss America or Miss Universe pageant.

While Frank Simon directed The Queen, its creation was the result of Flawless Sabrina’s drive, just as all of those pageants were.  She got funding for the film from Andy Warhol, who along with his superstar, Edie Sedgewick, served as judges for Miss All-America Camp Beauty.  Sabrina also served as the film’s wry and engaging narrator, and as the pageant’s emcee, dressed in drag which made her look much older than her years and in a style she called “bar mitzvah mother”.

Most of The Queen is filmed in a fly on the wall style, giving glimpses of the preparations for the pageant.  The most interesting scenes are of leisurely conversations in the hotel rooms, when the contestants talk about their relationships, how they have been treated by their families and by draft boards, and whether or not they would consider gender reassignment surgery.

The topic of gender reassignment raises one of the challenges in talking about The Queen in 2020.  This film was made when gender reassignment was still very rare.  The first male-to-female gender reassignment surgery in the U.S. had been done only the year before, at John Hopkins.  The question of how many of these men are gay and how many are trans women is a complicated one that neither I, nor the film, seem ready to answer.  As for pronouns in The Queen, they are fluid.  Sabrina refers to the contestants as “guys”, but both male and female pronouns are used.  The film’s credits identify Flawless Sabrina as Jack Doroshow, her name assigned at birth, but I am using the name by which she was known for much of her life, and the pronouns that accompanied her identity as a trans woman. 

I watched The Queen twice:  the first time about a month ago, and the second time yesterday, in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests around the country.  The first time I was struck by the easy camaraderie among most of the contestants.  Although they are competitors, many of them are clearly already friends, and help each other with everything from makeup to taping up their chests to create cleavage.  I was also caught up in the drama around a young entrant, Richard (known on stage as Harlow).  Richard is a wisp-thin man barely out of his teens with delicate features and a blonde pixie cut.  Even out of drag he reminded me of Edie Sedgewick or Mia Farrow.  On stage, his look is more casual than the other contestants – no false nails, no earrings, falls applied haphazardly.  And yet Richard is, as one of the pageant  crew remarks, a “natural beauty wonder”.  Other contestants can’t help but be jealous of the ease with which he wins over the audience.  We see people leap to their feet as Harlow (Richard), wearing a sullen expression, glides down the aisle on pageant night.  And Harlow wins, which struck me as both a tribute to Richard’s natural good looks and also the changing tides of beauty in the late ‘60s.

But when I watched The Queen yesterday, I saw much more in the film.  Whether Frank Simon or Flawless Sabrina understood what they were documenting is beside the point:  their movie is a testimony to the racial divide in the drag community 50 years ago.  There are a number of black contestants in the pageant, but Simon is disinterested in them until the The Queen nears its end.  That easy camaraderie I saw on the first viewing?  It’s almost entirely among the white contestants. Black contestants are largely omitted from the scenes of hotel room conversations and pageant prep.  It is only when a black runner-up leaves the stage before Harlow is crowned that any of the black contestants are more than faces in the crowd.  That runner-up, who we next see raging that the fix was in before the pageant even started, is Crystal  LaBeija, a regal queen in a towering wig and glittering jewels.  She gives what, in black gay culture, was called a “read”:  she insults everything about Harlow – hair, gown, makeup – although seeing Harlow standing to the side she seems to feel a tiny bit of concern for her and interjects, “Don’t bother her, it’s not her fault.” 

Turning to Harlow she adds, “You’re beautiful and you’re young and you deserve to have the best in life, but you didn’t deserve this.”  It’s a high drama moment that reality TV shows can only dream of crafting, and it was real and spontaneous.  But it wasn’t just a jealous runner-up losing gracelessly.  It was a black drag queen who had finally had it with the racism in the drag world, which pressured black women to lighten their skin.  Crystal LaBeija had won Miss Manhattan, a major achievement, and in losing Nationals to a queen who had made only a glancing effort at the theatrical glamour of the drag world, Crystal saw a system stacked against her and other black and brown queens.  And so she abandoned that world and created her own.  Working with another black drag queen, LaBeija hosted a ball for black queens only in 1972, the first annual House of LaBeija Ball.  Those who watched Paris is Burning or who watch Pose now will recognize that “House of -” language, which became common in the world of black drag culture, with “drag families” being formed.  Crystal LaBeija reigned as the Mother of The House of LaBeija until her death in 1982.

As for Flawless Sabrina, she left the pageant scene after The Queen.  She worked in Hollywood for a while, consulting on films with gay themes; then went into porn; then moved to New York and became a mentor – a Mother in her own right – to young queer club kids.  Sabrina died in 2017, well into the age of Drag Race and Laverne Cox appearing on the cover of Time.  In The Queen we see Flawless Sabrina and Crystal LaBeija before the world was ready to embrace gay and trans culture, but already royalty and mothers of the movement.

Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray release is packed with special features. These include audio commentary, a post-screening Q & A featuring Flawless Sabrina, an interview with the film’s producer, footage of the pageant after-party (offering a glimpse at the celebrities who surrounded drag culture and the police harassment the queens couldn’t avoid), and trailers. Perhaps most interesting is a short 1967 documentary about drag and trans culture called Queen of Hearts. While The Queen treats its subjects as fully human and not curiosities, Queen of Hearts comes from a much more prurient angle. Four gay or trans women in drag are interviewed about the most personal topics, in an objectifying and dehumanizing way. Watching it stirred up both anger at those who created this spectacle and pain for the subjects. It’s an uncomfortable reminder of where we were 50 years ago. Let’s not go back there.