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Queen (1968), The
Drag competitions may be a staple on basic cable these days, but The Queen offers a snapshot of an era when such a thought would've been inconceivable. The landmark documentary premiered in theaters almost exactly a year before Stonewall. Homosexuality was considered a treatable psychological aberration, and cross-dressing remained a felony offense throughout much of the nation. Parties and events such as the pageant chronicled here would routinely be raided by the cops, and so little as wearing eyeliner could be cause for arrest. Among the reasons cited for The Queen's X rating is that a Black contestant dared to hug the pageant's white victor, which is rather in-step with the furor that resulted that same Spring when Petula Clark casually touched Harry Belafonte's arm on national television. Even the documentary's use of "shit" and "fuck" had little precedent in cinema at the time.
The 1967 Miss All-America Camp Beauty Contest was a competition, of course – bringing together the victors of dozens of pageants that Jack DoroshowFlawless Sabrina had put on throughout the country, and replete with a point system and a good many rules to abide by – but that's hardly the focal point of The Queen. It doesn't showcase a select few of the pageant's contestants, confining them to roles for us as the audience to cheer on or jeer: the wide-eyed innocent, the cynical veteran, and on and on. We're not on pins and needles about who will be crowned the victor, and, by and large, none of the contestants are clawing at anyone else's throats to seize the throne. Hell, the pageant itself only gets about twenty minutes of screentime.
The Queen's focus is instead in the camaraderie so often on display leading up to the contest: the comfort found in the freedom of being who they are, the fellowship of being among others like them, and being celebrated rather than condemned. The queens don't transform into their more outwardly fabulous selves on their own; the contestants help and support one another, building each other up rather than tearing down the competition. And this is all the more powerful, given The Queen's vérité approach. There are no talking head interviews or narration spelling things out for a curious cis-het audience. And its most arresting moments stem from that fly-on-the-wall approach, having nothing to do with the pageant itself.
Several contestants lounging on beds in a hotel room discuss their very different experiences as gay men among their families and communities, their reactions to the prospect of transitioning to another gender, and – given that the contest is taking place near the height of the Vietnam War – facing the draft board as generally overt homosexuals, despite the profound interest of some in serving in the military. Another powerful sequence begins in complete silence, as the contestants apply their makeup, put on their eyelashes, and fill out their busts, only for sirens to slowly begin wailing in the background. The police aren't there for them, no, but it's a reminder of the ever-present concern that they could be.
Also very much of note is how many pivotal figures in the community appear throughout the film, among them Flawless Sabrina, Rachel Harlow, Crystal LaBeija (whose oft-quoted fury we witness here at racial discrimination within the drag community would prompt her to later found House of LaBeija), Mario Montez, and, briefly, International Chrysis. Hell, Andy Warhol and future IntelliVision pitchman George Plimpton too!
In an era when gay men and drag queens were sneered at as perverts or deviants – a sideshow curiosity to gawk or laugh at, on the rare occasions they were portrayed on-screen – The Queen simply presents them as people. The Queen's objective, observational tack proves wonderfully compelling, and I can't help but imagine how impactful the film must've been upon its release: for those in the community to have long last seen themselves truly represented on the big screen, and for straight viewers to have some of their prejudices challenged. And, for that, The Queen is a more remarkable film than I'll ever truly know.
But even for someone like myself who was raised in an era when perceptions had already begun to shift, is a boring, straight white guy, and doesn't have the figure to pull off a gown, there's still so much here to appreciate. Kino Classics has certainly lavished The Queen with a special edition to match. Beyond the extensive collaborative effort behind its new 4K remaster, some three and a half hours of extras have been assembled for this collection, including outtake reels that run nearly as long as the documentary itself, a number of interviews, short films also starring the since-departed Flawless Sabrina, and a vintage exploitation-doc about trans women. DVD Talk Collector Series.
Lovingly remastered in 4K from the original 16mm negatives, The Queen is a knockout.
The clarity and detail so often on display are striking, and its palette is nicely saturated without coming across as overcranked or artificially gaudy. The sheen of grain you'd expect from a 16mm documentary is ably shouldered by the disc's AVC encode. There's a good bit of speckling, scratches, and assorted wear, sure, and maybe focus isn't always as much of a thing as you might like:
...but I can't say that any of that meaningfully detracted from the overall experience. I'm thrilled with both this restoration and its presentation on Blu-ray, and I can't begin to recommend Kino Classics' release highly enough.
The Queen and its three and a half hours of extras arrive on a BD-50 disc, and this presentation has been pillarboxed to preserve the film's native aspect ratio of 1.33:1.
Presented in 16-bit, two-channel mono, The Queen's LPCM soundtrack very much hits the marks I'd hoped to hear. The fidelity of the interviews doesn't exactly belie the age of this half-century-and-then-some-year-old documentary, but most every last syllable from the participants is readily discerned, at least when they're not all talking over one another. Light pops and crackles lurk in the background but never prove terribly intrusive. There's something compellingly pure and untainted about the uncompressed audio, and I'm certainly not left with anything to grouse or groan about.
Also along for the ride are a commentary track and a set of English (SDH) subtitles.
- Audio Commentary: Zackary Drucker and Diana Tourjée – who together founded the Flawless Sabrina Archive – brilliantly place The Queen in its historical context, in an era when New York's drag scene was controlled by the mob, cross-dressing was a felony offense (with Doroshow reportedly arrested more than a hundred times), and advertising events like this would've been at best dangerous and at worst illegal. Drucker and Tourjée also discuss the segregation between gay men and trans women at the time, Doroshow's legendary apartment, Bobby Kennedy conveying on official Senate stationary his regrets about being unable to attend, and how a gunshot to the back put an end to Doroshow's promotions. They have no shortage of insight to offer regarding the documentary itself, such as delving into the lives and careers of so many of those shown on-screen as well as its vérité approach setting The Queen apart from virtually every other contemporaneous documentary about the community.
- Trailers (4 min.; HD): There are two trailers here – one dating back to The Queen's original run more than fifty years ago and a second promoting Kino Lorber's re-release.
- Outtakes (42 min.; SD): The Queen's outtakes are divided into three distinct chunks, each of which is presented without sound. Clocking in at nearly half an hour, the first reel features more of Doroshow getting Sabrina ready to come out and play, a lengthier look at rehearsals, more of the contestants trying on and showing off their gowns, additional preparation in a hotel room, and quite a bit of unseen footage of the pageant's winner on her throne receiving congratulations. This is followed by eleven minutes of the after-party we hear mentioned in The Queen's final moments but never actually get to see in the documentary proper. Along with all the dancing and partying is a raid by the cops, which is broken up by Edie Sedgwick (!). The outtakes draw to a close with four minutes of a photo shoot with Harlow modeling alongside Peggy Moffitt.
- After-party Outtakes with Jack Doroshow (8 min.; SD): Excerpts from the after-party outtakes mentioned above are viewed again, this time with a brief introduction and running commentary by Jack Doroshow. By and large, he's mostly just pointing out folks who were in attendance and telling the occasional story about them, such as Elliot Einhorn who would go on to win the lottery in Philly.
- Queens at Heart (22 min.; HD): "A searching look into the lives of four men who live and dress like women... Can medical science help them? See it all! Uncut!"
Produced at roughly the same time as The Queen, this documentary short is predominantly a series of one-on-one conversations with several trans women. There really isn't a consistent tone – exploitative, accusatory, sympathetic – with interviewer Jay Martin's approach falling somewhere between a stiff local newscaster and court room interrogation. Interspersed throughout are staged reenactions of their daily lives when they're obligated to present as male.
And yet it's undeniably compelling, thanks to how real these four women are, whether it's speaking about a forced interview with a psychiatrist following a draft board meeting or the pervasive reality of suicide in the trans community. The four of them speak candidly and frankly about gender confirmation surgery, hormone treatments and the impact they've had on their ability to pass as males at work, the double lives they've lead with their families, when they each first became aware that they were different, and whether or not they've had relationships with women. Despite being worlds removed from the vérité of The Queen, this short is still a fascinating complement, especially given its pronounced emphasis on gender dysphoria and the prospect of transitioning.
- Flawless Sabrina: Icon/Muse (16 min.; HD): The first of two shorts by filmmaker Michelle Handelman is a remembrance and celebration of Jack Doroshow / Flawless Sabrina: a legacy that extends beyond drag, his ability to push further and disarm uncomfortable situations without diminishing what made them difficult in the first place, and his brazen, unapologetic sexuality leading to an entire museum show being shut down. And neither is this short timid, given how much of the septuagenarian's fully nude body we see or his delight in playing with a buttplug as part of Dorian, a Cinematic Perfume. It also serves as a making-of piece of sorts for Irma Vep, The Last Breath, discussing the bond between performers Zackary Drucker and Doroshow, the passing on of intergenerational queer legacies, and how bittersweet it is to watch this meditation on death following Doroshow's passing.
- Irma Vep: The Last Breath (36 min.; HD): And Michelle Handelman's film is presented in full here as well. Produced a century after Musidora starred as Irma Vep in Les vampires, Zackary Drucker reinterprets the title role, speaking to an unseen therapist while clad in a catsuit befitting this accomplice to a thief. Much of Drucker's dialogue – about, say, vampires being poorly suited to relationships and the fetishization of women as objects – is improvised. Flawless Sabrina is an arresting presence throughout the short – perched in a glass coffin and struggling to breathe, unaided – but isn't heard until its final moments, singing in French. I'm not sure my tastes are sufficiently adventurous to fully appreciate Irma Vep, but I do stand in awe of its performances and remarkable visual eye.
- The Queen: Then and Now (8 min.; SD): Following a screening of The Queen, Jack Doroshow is joined by Zackary Drucker and Joe E. Jeffries for a Q&A. Among the topics of conversation are Doroshow's matriarchal position, Ladybird Johnson disowning a pageant ostensibly raising money to battle muscular dystrophy, the well-justified fear that contestants had at being exposed, the film's wildly successful nine month run at Kips Bay, and some of the then-shocking moments likely to go unnoticed by audiences today.
- Interview with Producer Si Litvinoff (11 min.; SD): The former attorney speaks about abandoning law to become a Big Movie Producer, and before his name flashed in the credits in A Clockwork Orange, Walkabout, and The Man Who Fell to Earth, he co-produced The Queen. Litvinoff speaks about how he become involved with the documentary, crewing up, financing, arranging for his partner Terry Southern and some his former clients to act as judges for the pageant, its box office success and critical reception, and how securing music rights sent The Queen careening over its $50,000 budget.
Also included is a compelling, insightful, and exceptionally well-researched set of liner notes penned by Joe E. Jeffreys. And The Queen is an all-region release, so wherever you happen to be the world over, feel free to import away!
The Final Word
Groundbreaking in ways I could never hope to fully appreciate, entertaining, and wildly influential, The Queen is a landmark piece of LGBTQ+ history, and Kino Classics has taken great care to ensure that its long-anticipated arrival on-disc proves to be well worth the wait. DVD Talk Collector Series.