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The multi-talented gender-blur diva Jackie Curtis was too down-to-earth to qualify as a sacred monster, but Dusan Makavejev—who directed the performer in W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism—would later remark that he was “in a kind of permanent awe before Jackie, as religious people might feel in the face of Jesus.” That’s one way to characterize Curtis’s sassy, wisecracking persona.
Years in the making, Craig Highberger’s Superstar in a Housedress is a fabulously fond and entertaining tribute to the quick-witted Lower East Side kid, the son of a taxi dancer and a marine, who grew up above his grandmother’s Second Avenue saloon and reinvented himself as a superstar well before he met Andy Warhol. Although inevitably bracketed with fellow Warhol drag queens and Women in Revolt co-stars Candy Darling and Holly Woodlawn, Curtis promoted a funkier style—thrift-store dresses with padded shoulders, but not falsies—that was more the idea of drag than drag itself. As Voice fashion columnist Blair Sobol wrote nearly 30 years ago, “Jackie came before Bette Midler with the ’40s feeling of a Rita redhead, the Joan Crawford flaming mouth, and the Ann Sheridan padded shoulders. Jackie taught me how to put glitter on my eyelids and how to wear torn pantyhose with style.” Curtis was also over six feet tall and built like a linebacker.
As befits a showbiz biopic (complete with tragic heroin overdose), the mode is more anecdotal than analytical—although fellow artistes Penny Arcade and John Vaccaro do provide pithy explications of the Curtis aesthetic. Superstar in a Housedress features much excellent footage of Curtis in performance both at Café LaMaMa and on The David Susskind Show. The large supporting cast includes some stellar talking heads, including Harvey Fierstein, Joe Franklin, Michael Musto, and Lily Tomlin. Unfortunately, Robert De Niro—who made his Off-Off-Broadway debut playing a dozen different roles in Curtis’s 1968 extravaganza Glamour, Glory, and Gold—seems not to have been available for reminiscing.