Men and women in drag. It's a cinematic institution dating back to the origins of Hollywood. Nearly all the top stars have shared in the pastime at one point in their careers, and the practice, while faintly controversial, has become a staple of the industry. "Ladies or Gentlemen" documents the pop culture history of cross-dressing on film, avoiding a collegiate atmosphere of determined research and painstaking example to have a little fun with the subject. It burns through top screen hits and memorable appearances to showcase the titans of the drag world and how they've shaped an unlikely entertainment subculture.
While only 53 minutes long, "Ladies or Gentlemen" packs much information in its tiny running time. Narrated with joyful vocal reach by RuPaul, the documentary liberally bounces around, spotlighting the highlights of drag cinema. The examples are obvious, but proper: "Some Like It Hot," "Tootsie," "Mrs. Doubtfire," "The Birdcage," "Hairspray," and "White Chicks." Wait, "White Chicks?" Well, perhaps director Kevin Burns inches over the line of sophistication with that choice, but the intention is clear, even if the Wayans Brothers fail to earn a spot among the classics of drag cinema.
Personalities such as Michael Musto, John Landis, Tim Curry, Tony Curtis, and John Waters (who explores the life of his finest leading lady, Divine) lend their voice to the discussion of the genre, gamely recalling the comedic highlights and taboo nature of the films presented. Their input isn't always thunderously enlightening, but the men add a sense of joy to the documentary, energetically confronting their good-hearted confusion and expressing an affinity for such broad acts of gender mystery.
It's not just the man-to-woman transformation that's open for debate, but the female-to-male leap as well, as found in pictures such as "Shakespeare in Love," "Boys Don't Cry," and "She's the Man." Wait, "She's the Man?" I assume some of these examples were based solely on clip availability. Still, the flipped perspective is welcome. Better is a detour into cross-dressing as a gateway to murderous deviancy, seen in thrillers like "Dressed to Kill," "Silence of the Lambs," and the granddaddy of lethal drag cinema, "Psycho." It's a subject worthy of disgust and deeper psychological consideration.
The anamorphic widescreen presentation (1.78:1 aspect ratio) on "Ladies or Gentlemen" is working with a host of differing source materials, yet holds a clear, detail image that keeps the bright displays of fractured femininity appealing. A modest documentary produced for television, this DVD doesn't hold much of a visual punch, but it offers minimal fuss.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 sound mix on the DVD keeps to an unfussy auditory experience. Delivering its audio kick in the front channels, "Ladies or Gentlemen" offers a basic dishing of interview clarity and scoring selections. Much like the visuals, it's not much, but it suits the project.
English SDH subtitles are included.
"Ladies or Gentlemen" attempts to peel away the lipstick layers by bringing in experts such a Camille Paglia to articulate the profundity of the phenomenon. The weight helps, but it's no match for the pageantry, and by the time the documentary closes with an overview of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," it's clear that drag cinema is perhaps best recognized not as a tool of perpetual personal unrest, but one of freewheeling sexual identity that blurs the gender line in wonderfully intriguing, entertaining ways.