This wonderful sllce of LGBTQ from 1968 perfectly captures the world on NY Drag when the height of their existence was simply winning a Beauty Pageant. Thankfully this debut documentary by filmmaker Frank Simon has been lovingly restored this year as part of the Stonewall 50 Celebrations.
It is a piece of cinema verite filmed on handheld cameras as a group of 20+ year old gay men assemble in a hotel to sign up for the 1967 Nationals. They end up rooming together in a hotel that not only has 28 rooms available, but is hip enough to let it be filled with all these drag queens.
There is a wonderful sense of camaraderie amongst them all as they share stories about how they came out to the world. They know each other by their drag names, and when asked what their names were before, they all have the same answer, that there was no before. Most of them avoided the Draft for military service because of their sexuality, with one of them hilariously recounting he didn’t have to tell the Recruiting Officers he was gay, as they told him.
The contest is run by 24 year old Jack known as Sabrina who was fully of self importance, When he discovered that young straight-off-the-bus newbie Richard, who was his new protege, had no wig, he insisted that they pull out all stops to help. This leads to a rather wonderful scene where someone is on the phone and very dramatically insisting that this was truly a matter of life and death.
They are essentially a group of very keen amateurs so they all go along with the plan trying to look professional with its rehearsed choreography at the Town Hall. They all have different versions of the same look which is not too dissimilar to a young Long Island matron going to a wedding or dance. You can see rather than use too much imagination they are passing off as women that they know and all wearing piled up bouffant wigs. There is one with dark eye make-up too who was obviously a major fan of Dusty Springfield.
The uniformity is carried through on stage too with everyone having to wear the same basic black for the swimsuit round, and follow the very strict rules that Jack insists on.
The contest runs smoothly enough and even though all the contestants are tense they are still helping each other. However that all dramatically changes when Sabrina’s protege Richard is declared the winner, and one of the Runner Ups was having none of it.
Who knows if it was all fixed or not, but the final melodramatics shattered the illusion that the documentary had been promoting, that these were indeed nicer gentler times.