“The Queen”: The Documentary That Went Behind the Scenes of a Drag Pageant Years Before “Paris Is Burning”
When I first saw “Paris Is Burning,” the 1990 documentary about drag-ball culture in New York City, I noted that each ball was well organized and carefully managed, a veritable drag bureaucracy, but that the work of organizing the events was not shown onscreen. I didn’t know at the time that another documentary already existed that went behind the scenes of a major New York drag competition and detailed the administrative elements and behind-the-scenes politics that are inseparable from the contestants’ public performance. That extraordinary movie, “The Queen,” directed by Frank Simon, centered on the Miss All-America Camp Beauty Pageant, held at New York’s Town Hall, in early 1967. The film was released in 1968 but has been shown only rarely in theatres since then, and it’s being rereleased this Friday at the IFC Center in a new restoration (which, I hope, heralds a forthcoming home-video and streaming release).
No less than a documentary by Frederick Wiseman (who hadn’t yet premièred his first movie when Simon was filming), “The Queen” reveals character through process, presenting personal revelations by observing quasi-public activities such as organizational meetings, rehearsals, a visit to a costume supplier, and the backstage management of the pageant. But there is also something intensely private and dangerously intimate to Simon’s filming. At the time, both drag and homosexual relations were illegal in New York State. In “Queens at Heart,” a remarkable, anonymously made short film from 1967 that was rediscovered by the filmmaker and historian Jenni Olson, and that will screen with “The Queen,” an interviewer declares that four trans women whom he introduces as “contestants in a recent beauty contest” are using pseudonyms on camera because “right now each one of them is breaking the law.” In making his documentary, Simon is filming the participants committing and confessing what at that time were criminal acts; they display their confidence in him, and also their defiant sense of shared purpose, in their poignant confessions and indelible testimonies about the lives of gay men in the time before Stonewall.
“The Queen” is centered on the work of the pageant’s impresario and m.c., who calls herself Sabrina. (She’s the film’s narrator, and is credited by her given name, Jack Doroshow; she died in 2017.) Sabrina is a businessperson who runs drag pageants throughout the country, and the commercial side of this pageant is evident: compared to the freewheeling artistry on view in “Paris Is Burning,” it is as formal and sedate as a network-television beauty pageant. (A poster shows that the pageant is even a benefit for the Muscular Dystrophy Association of America.) Sabrina, who describes her stage persona as a “bar-mitzvah-mother thing,” is the manager, choreographer, and director, working in private with the participants on the details of their routines and then rehearsing them onstage. She meets the artists and the staff in her apartment, on Seventy-third Street, and then struggles to find a hotel to house them all; she describes the shows as “conventions” for drag queens, occasions where the social and the professional overlap.
It’s in hotel rooms, before the makeup and costuming for the pageant, that a group of contestants discuss some of the crucial matters that they confront in their lives outside the pageants. The subjects include relations with family members and neighbors, relations with lovers, the possibility of gender-reassignment surgery, and the threat of the draft. (The Vietnam War had begun.) Speaking of their appearances before draft boards, the queens cite a series of absurd interactions with officials that inevitably led to their being ruled ineligible for the military—yet one participant subsequently wrote to the President to request the chance to serve and, she says, received a response. “They couldn’t help me in the Army as of yet, but maybe one day they’ll see things right and I could get in,” she says.
One of the contestants, a young friend of Sabrina’s from her home town of Philadelphia whom contestants call Richard and who performs as Harlow, is a relative newcomer—and an overnight success, having won the first pageant that she entered. In the hotel, Harlow, something of a self-aware diva, is quietly but firmly in the midst of a meltdown because a platinum-blond wig has gone missing. (Ever organized, Sabrina’s staff attends to the matter.) Now Harlow is competing in the New York pageant, and her presence sparks resentment on the part of veteran competitors—in particular, that of the pageant’s prime celebrity, Crystal LaBeija, who would go on to found the drag family House of LaBeija, in 1972. During the course of the pageant, this rivalry between the newcomer and the veteran bursts out into the open.
“The Queen” doesn’t explicitly address the racial politics of queerness, the distinction between the black-run ball scene in Harlem that’s seen in “Paris Is Burning” and the staid pageantry of the ball in midtown. But these issues are evident in the contrast between the glorious theatrical grandeur of Crystal and the alluring near-neutrality of Harlow. Their opposing styles are suggestive of another division—the one between theatre and cinema. Harlow has the manner and power and the name of a movie star, holding the camera with an elusive presence; stagecraft is secondary. Crystal—who says that she has been dubious about the quasi-corporate pageant from the start—ultimately leaves the stage before the show is over, and then accuses Sabrina of fixing the results with the judges (a group that includes Andy Warhol). Sabrina denies doing so, but Crystal nonetheless asserts that another queen refused to participate in the pageant and advised her against doing so because of the belief that they wouldn’t win—the implication being that, as black performers in a pageant run by white organizers, they didn’t have a chance.
“The Queen” shows how—despite legal sanctions against homosexuals—the practice of the pageant was deeply integrated into the city’s administrative, legal, and economic order. From the police officer who calmly maintains order backstage to the hotels and other businesses that profit from the pageant’s presence to Town Hall itself, which is rented out to the production, the pageant suggests an official tolerance of queer life that was in fact unofficial, tenuous, and ultimately illusory. In a remarkable 2015 Vice article about Sabrina, Hugh Gray discusses outtakes from “The Queen” showing that the pageant’s after-party was on the verge of being raided by the police (who were fended off by Edie Sedgwick, another of the jurors.) In “The Queen,” the institutional politics of the pageant evoke a vision of gradual change; but it was the exceptional, spontaneous, and confrontational actions at Stonewall, two years later, that sparked a revolution.