A full 23 years before Paris Is Burning, NYC-based documentarian Frank Simon took a deep dive into the world of drag-queen beauty contests, emerging with The Queen, a remarkable piece of cinéma vérité journalism. The film, which premiered at Cannes in 1968 and has scarcely been seen since, was generously restored in 4K by Kino Lorber in cooperation with the Harry Ransom Center of the University of Texas. It opens at the Laemmle Glendale on Friday and runs for a week.
The 68-minute documentary, shot in coarse-grained 16mm, centers on the 1967 Miss All-America Camp Beauty Pageant, a competition staged in New York’s Town Hall and juried by some of the biggest cult personalities of the day. Andy Warhol, Larry Rivers, and Terry Southern can be glimpsed in the audience. Jack Doroshow (alias “Sabrina”) served as the mistress of ceremonies and is the film’s dominant voice.
In addition to being an absorbing piece of “cinema direct” in the mode of Wiseman and the Maysles brothers, The Queen is a rare document of how queer people saw themselves in 1968. For instance, all of the interviewees identify as men, balk at the idea of a sex change operation, and are touchingly candid and self-aware about their need to perform. Above all, they are acutely aware that they are actors whose costumed appearances enhance and give meaning to their lives.
“All drag queens want is love,” Sabrina explains matter of factly in the film. “And they try to get that love by being sexy and beautiful.”
As director and camera operator, Simon—admirably detached—avoids moralizing and editorializing on a subculture that was still emerging in the rapidly transmogrifying 1960s. He does not seek to sentimentalize his subjects. There is not only joy and camaraderie among this group of social outsiders, but anger and jealousy as well.
Nothing dewy-eyed permeates the startling scene in which a queen mercilessly throws shade at the crowned winner of the pageant, claiming that the contest was rigged. (The author of this memorable tirade, Crystal LaBeija, would go on to form one of the houses featured in Paris Is Burning.)
Simon doesn’t attempt to explain what makes these people tick, nor does he expand the scope of the project beyond the situation at hand. It is, finally, a record of an event, not a movement. Kino’s restoration and re-release gives viewers a chance to rediscover this piece of alternative history fifty years after it first swaggered across the silver screen.
Laemmle Glendale, 206 N. Maryland Ave., Glendale, Fri., July 26, various showtimes; $9-$12. (310) 478-3826, laemmle.com.