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The History of Drag Movies — And Why Hollywood Owes Us Big-Time

Priscilla Queen of the Desert Guy Pearce, Hugo Weaving, Terence Stamp

Hugo Weaving, Terence Stamp & Guy Pearce in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert

Throughout the years, drag has popped up in camp movies, cult films, and large-scale Hollywood flicks, since it’s so reliable as a titillating, eye catching entertainment. But there haven’t been enough major films about the subject itself, especially when you consider the enduring popularity of drag queens and their singular mix of glamour, bitchiness, and optimism.

Some of the funniest comedies ever made use drag as a device, but they generally focus on straight characters hiding out and living a lie, not gays being out and fabulous. In Billy Wilder’s hilarious Some Like It Hot (1959), two musicians who’ve witnessed gangland slayings go into hiding as part of an all-girl band, leading to all sorts of complications and mayhem. In the banner year of 1982, Tootsie had Dustin Hoffman as a frustrated actor who finds success by pretending to be a woman, while Victor/Victoria starred Julie Andrews as a gal in 1930s Paris who becomes a big hit by doing a sort of reverse Tootsie and pretending to be a man, albeit one in drag. Sexual and gender roles are deftly examined in these films, and many amusing and/or insightful moments emerge, but again, it’s generally about heteros finding fulfillment by playing around with drag as a hideout, not gay men who are committed to every bugle bead by means of unapologetic performance art.

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A high watermark came in the mid 1990s, when the Australian film The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert had two drag queens and a transsexual on a road trip that mixed lipsynch, banter, and heart as the box office ka-chinged. Finally, a film that was actually about drag queens and trans people! Yes, the whole thing seemed designed for the kitsch-obsessed mass market in the way it packaged drag into a formula tale of wit and acceptance, but it did strike a chord and was quickly followed by the U.S. answer film, To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar (1995), with Patrick Swayze, Wesley Snipes, and John Leguizamo rouging it up for laughs and pathos. The year after that, The Birdcage was a gussied-up smash that adapted La Cage aux Folles into a message comedy with Nathan Lane and Robin Williams, and suddenly it was a banner era for drag queens on celluloid. (1999’s Flawless wasn’t nearly as successful, but let’s skip over that one, thank you. “Well, nobody’s perfect,” to quote the final line of Some Like It Hot.)

There have also been men playing women, as in 2007’s Hairspray, not to mention the groundbreakingly hilarious John Waters oeuvre that came before it (and yes, I’m well aware of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and other fabulous cult items through the years. Frank N. Furter’s comfortable way with “sweet transvestite” half drag changed lives forever.)

But mostly, movieland has dropped the (drag) ball. Drag has been treated as a passing fancy and a quickie novelty shtick, not the eternal force that it’s proven to be in nightlife and on TV. We don’t get probing looks at the life of drag performers—the subject is used more for set decoration or for age-old mistaken identity hijinks. It was used for drama too, when Gwyneth Paltrow’s Shakespeare in Love character did a reverse Tootsie and had to don male garb to get an acting part. And four years ago, Glenn Close won acclaim for starring in Albert Nobbs, about an Irish woman getting a butler job by pretending to be a man. Though the film admirably commented on 19th Century realities in the workplace, again it was the old living-a-lie trope that’s hardly at the root of most exercises in drag queening. We were basically being given the familiar Mrs. Doubtfire/Yentl routine, predicated on 24-hour dissembling rather than fabulous making believe come showtime. Hey, moviemakers: Drag generally springs out of pure will and imagination, not a desire to drop off the face of the earth in the wrong clothing.

It seems like better attention has been paid to transsexual characters — Transamerica and Dallas Buyers Club got Academy attention for their trans characterizations, and this year we’ll have The New Girlfriend and The Danish Girl — but let’s not make this a contest. Let’s just rally around Hollywood and ask it to zhoosh up some guys as dolls and vice versa, and to make the result funny, pithy, warm, wacky, and trenchant, that’s all. Fortunately, an animated film is already picking up some of the slack. (In Minions, a man is seen wearing a replica of Scarlet Overkill’s dress, along with a pert moustache. It almost makes up for the flaming gay hairdresser, Fabrice, who’s thrown out the window, Braveheart-style — though Scarlet hates everyone, I guess.) And judging from Magic Mike’s onscreen revelation that he has an inner drag queen, it’s clearly just a matter of time before she comes out.

RuPaul

TICK, TUCK, BOOM

Do you want further proof of the throbbing drag boom sweeping our nation like a fabulous fungus? Well, I can remember a time when there were 10 or 15 solid drag performers in New York City, and that seemed like a throng. But that’s just pocket change compared to the vast array of tawdry tuckers on parade today. At the reopened bar Boots & Saddle alone, no fewer than 24 drag queens are listed in their weekly lineup of events! It’s a veritable army of men in women’s clothes, shaking their fake titties while lipsynching to Mariah Carey standards. On the roster, there’s Pattaya Hart, Ari Kiki, Flippe Kikee, Svetlana Stoli, M’Lady Uppercrust, Prada G. Major…and 18 more! And that’s just at one bar!

I like B&S’s new location, by the way. It has a lively house-party feeling to it, and though it’s weird that the lights are so bright—especially considering the fact that most of the people there are in hiding, lol—your eyes adjust, and all those sequins would have brightened the room anyway.

Meanwhile, which recent RuPaul’s Drag Race runner up that I previously butted heads with missed a Pride event supposedly because she hit her head, though some insiders have been buzzing otherwise? In fact, some of the other girls claim that this person doesn’t always show up, period. Whatever the case, I’ll give her this much: She’s a pretty girl—and guy too. And that’s important!

But let me plug up the praise and dabble in just one pesky prediction for the drag future: New York personality Bob the Drag Queen will get on the next season of RuPaul’s Drag Race and she will win. As for those who counter, “But you’re the one who famously predicted that Madonna was going nowhere,” let me reply, “I still say I was right.”

Marga Gomez

Photo by Gareth Gooch

PLAID IS THE NEW BLACK

Lesbian camp classics get skewered and souffled in Marga Gomez’s POUND, the centerpiece of Dixon Place’s Hot! Festival, in which the award winning writer/performer portrays herself as a celibate celesbian raising her “little hands” in fists at a lifetime of Hollywood stereotypes, while also fisting a woman’s “vaginal portal” to the sky. Presenting this show as an acted-out screenplay, Gomez bravely wears a red plaid flannel shirt as she takes us through the awful lesbian representation in movies like The Fox (“Tree to the pussy”), The Children’s Hour (in which Shirley MacLaine’s character kills herself because the rumors were true), Notes on a Scandal (which bothers Gomez not because Judi Dench’s character is an extortionist, but because she’s so incompetent at it), and Basic Instinct (which Gomez actually liked because “It’s good for people to be a little scared of lesbians. Nobody fucked with lesbians in 1992!”) But she admits that we’ve come a long way as to representation in the media, seeing as “Lesbians can lead long, happy lives—in prison.”

The friskily inventive Gomez alternates these vignettes with tales of her own sex acts (or lack thereof), thrilled to be called a womanizer because people at least think she’s getting laid a lot. Tying the two threads together doesn’t totally come off and the show loses some energy when Gomez confronts each of the lesbian screen divas and tries to free the stereotypes, but there’s tons of rich material here, pulled off with hilarity and insight. POUND is worth its weight in lesbian gold. Gomez is a protean talent who delivers as tirelessly as the gals in Bound.

Turning their own tricks, the loquacious Penn & his silent yet knowing sidekick Teller return in Penn & Teller On Broadway, a mixture of greatest hits and Las Vegas highlights from the cerebral pair who teamed up 40 years ago and have lasted way longer than Shirley MacLaine and Audrey Hepburn. The show is a mixed bag which takes us back to magic basics (the old “pull a rabbit out of a hat” routine), but which also demystifies such standards. (The “saw the lady in half” trick is uncovered, though we then realize we’ve been had all over again.) There’s lots of audience participation—which always makes me nervous, for various reasons—but this leads to felicitous results when an audience member’s cell phone ends up inside a tilapia fish that’s taped inside a box under someone else’s seat. And there’s drag, too, in the form of a cow done up as a pygmy elephant. They blithely make her disappear — and hopefully she’ll resurface in the movies! 

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