Last night, Fox aired its psuedo-live version of The Rocky Horror Picture Show to tepid reviews. In Fox's defense, people who love Rocky Horror probably weren't going to love this millennial-friendly reboot, Tim Curry cameo or none. For true devotees, there's a ritual involved in watching the 1975 film, and nowhere is that ritual exhibited in a more pure form than at the Nuart Theatre on Santa Monica Boulevard.
Since 1987, the Nuart has hosted midnight screenings of Rock Horror every Saturday, replete with audience participation and a house shadow cast, Sins O’ the Flesh, to pantomime the film, a nocturnal tradition that began a decade earlier. Initially a box-office failure, Rocky's kitschy display of then-aspiring talent — it's hard to imagine that Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon and Meatloaf were basically nobodies — quickly found a second life when New York’s Waverly Theater relaunched it as a midnight movie. By Halloween of 1976, fans began dressing as their favorite characters and yelling counterpoint dialogue at the screen, evolving the film flop into a zeitgeisty, interactive extravaganza.
“It's one thing to watch something on a 2-D screen, but to have it surrounding you is a complete experience. It breathes actual life into [the saying] 'Don't dream it, be it,'” says Nina Minnelli, a cast member of the Sins O’ the Flesh shadow troupe, referencing a ballad sung by her character, Dr. Frank N. Furter.
For those initiated in the rites of Rocky, the festivities begin well before the projector even flicks on. Once the clock strikes midnight, first-time participants, aka Virgins, are summoned up to the theater’s proscenium, where they are symbolically deflowered via simulated group sex. Then, after the minors are dismissed back to their seats, the remaining Virgins compete over who can best vocalize an orgasm as a fictional character. The two winners are finagled by a team of SOTF volunteers into a somewhat acrobatic pseudo-coital position, kickstarting the overt sexual tone of the evening.
Throughout the screening, audience members respond to cues that have been honed over 40 years of experimentation. Every mention of the prim-and-proper ingenue Janet is countered with a cry of “Slut!” from the audience. Her overcompensatingly masculine fiancée, Brad, evokes the expletive “Asshole!”
Insults aren't the only things hurled by viewers. At certain points in the movie, participants will toss physical objects into the air. For example, when Frank N. Furter’s rival Dr. Scott smashes through a wall, rolls of toilet paper are launched up and backward, as to not accidentally damage the screen.
Since the audience and its knowledge of the counter dialogue differs from screening to screening, each Saturday yields a unique experience.
“Not only is it something everyone should experience at least once in their lifetime, it's home for those who feel they do not fit in anywhere else,” Minnelli explains. “So many people aren't the type to go to clubs or bars — this show provides a safe, fun place for people to make friends and socialize.”
This is especially true for L.A.’s LGBT youth. With its camp sensibility and celebration of alternative sexuality, Rocky Horror has long provided a sanctuary for queer teenagers, especially those who don’t easily fit into the cookie-cutter mold of the archetypal TigerHeat twink. In fact, Minnelli herself was one of these fringe misfits who found solace in the eccentricities of Rocky Horror.
“I saw my first showing of RHPS during Halloween when I was 14,” Minnelli recalls. “I was not the typical teenager, and sought ways to feel at home in my own element. The show had such a fun, welcoming feeling. Being a performer at heart, I joined the cast a year after seeing it live for the first time.”
Not only did Sins O' the Flesh provide the shadow diva with a sense of community but it also opened up a new world of opportunity.
Minnelli says, “The amazing things we've gotten to do together as a cast is incredible, from being on Dave Navarro's webcast, to interrupting a City Hall council meeting with “The Time Warp” in front of Tim Curry.” Yesterday morning, they were on Good Day L.A. to pump up the reboot.
“The original film has been a huge part of people's lives,” Minnelli says, weighing in on the remake in advance of its premiere. “It has helped so many people in the LGBTQ community know that they can be who they are, and there's nothing wrong with it. And many others find a sense of family and community when they may not be able to in other aspects of their lives. With more current celebrities, Rocky can reach a larger and newer audience, and help even more.”
The casting of one of these current celebs, the openly trans Orange Is the New Black star Laverne Cox, as Frank N. Furter has been both lauded and criticized. The Advocate’s Dawn Ennis defended the choice as “a response to criticism leveled against the Hollywood industry for what's been dubbed ‘transface’ — a term that, as The Advocate has reported, conjures the culturally taboo practice of ‘blackface’ — in which a cisgender actor will ‘take’ a role from a transgender actor.”
Conversely, Ennis warns in the same article, “Casting a transgender woman in the role of a man who dresses in women’s clothes for a sexual thrill may be problematic for Rocky Horror purists as well as some trans activists.”
Minnelli, for one, welcomed this progressive casting decision. Perhaps that's not surprising coming from someone who lives by the mantra “Don't dream it, be it.” Maybe Hollywood should take cues from Rocky Horror more often.