Way before RuPaul’s Drag Race, the 1968 documentary The Queen chronicled the Miss All-America Camp Beauty Pageant at Town Hall, where tensions flared as high as the hair and the contestants swapped makeup tips and life stories en route to the crowning. But unlike today’s drag stars, the pre-Stonewall gals went for fantasy, femininity, and realness, not clowny antics and performance art. They longed to rise out of their downtrodden status via Hollywood glamour, genteelly parading around in tasteful swimsuits and gowns as a queen desolately crooned “Am I Blue?” (“I’m just a woman/A lonely woman…”).
It’s all very poignant, except that the Frank Simon–directed film’s fly-on-the-wall glimpses — which will be seen in Film Society of Lincoln Center’s “An Early Clue to the New Direction: Queer Cinema Before Stonewall” series on May 1 — happen to capture bolts of rebellious pride along with the undercurrent of Sixties oppression. There’s an abundance of humor, camaraderie, and self-esteem on parade. One queen admits that he’s out and beloved in his hometown, even by the preachers; a drag patriot wants to trade a sequin gun for a military one and prophetically coos, “Maybe one day they’ll see things right and I’ll get in.”
These gals generally come off less anguished than the black and Hispanic drag and trans stars of the voguing doc Paris Is Burning 28 years later, which makes The Queen all the more eye-opening. But the impressionistic film leads to a fiery finish when Miss Harlow — a blithe Philadelphia beauty with a mission — breezily captures the crown while Crystal LaBeija, the Latina Manhattanite who came in fourth, blows a fabulous fit that the whole thing was fixed in favor of the white girl, screeching, “I’m beautiful! I know I’m beautiful!” Organizing the pageant, and emceeing it in old-lady drag, Philadelphia-born Jack Doroshow (a/k/a Flawless Sabrina) is the one who has to smooth the ruffled feathers, assuring Crystal that the judges’ decision was utterly legit.
In an interview last month, Doroshow, now 76, said that Crystal’s blowup was a familiar routine because “It was a difficult time to be a queen, and maybe her drama was part of the action.” He refused to denigrate Crystal (who since has passed), noting that she went on to be a community organizer by forming the House of LaBeija and providing a home and an outlet for LGBT teens. As for the wispy Harlow, Doroshow said she had wonderful family support and may have been more accepted than others because of her beauty. (Harlow is trans and today lives in New Jersey with her sister.)
All of The Queen‘s cast, Doroshow agreed, seem startlingly comfortable with themselves, especially if you’re expecting this film to provide a snapshot of age-old self-loathing. “It was difficult to do it back in those days,” he said, “but they were courageous enough to want to be their own person. The people I find to be the monsters are the closet queens,” he added, pointedly.
Doroshow had approached Andy Warhol about producing a film of the pageant, but the pop artist felt a better choice would be the more above-ground Lewis Allen (Fahrenheit 451, Lord of the Flies), who agreed to produce what became a culty gem. Warhol is spotted in the film as a blasé-looking judge, and Warhol star Mario Montez also appears, performing the ultimate Hollywood beauty queen anthem, “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.”
Said Doroshow, “There was no sexual content, but the movie came on the market as triple X rated. It wasn’t until twenty years after The Queen was made that I got it into the New York Public Library, because of the rating.” In ’68, the film opened in a handful of big cities like San Francisco and New York (at the Kips Bay theater), but Doroshow said kids would travel to other cities to see it, for fear of being spotted going into the theater in their hometown.
After making the movie, Doroshow got involved with the distribution, did PR, and became an expert on the history of homosexuality and Hollywood. In the 1990s, he resurrected his bespectacled drag character at the meatpacking district haunt Club Mother. Today, he works on archives, a memoir, and Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
“The mid-Sixties was a magical moment in American history, filled with political upheaval,” he remembered. “The country was young demographically, so the draft — sending all those kids to the killing fields — caused America to start questioning the status quo. Once that happened, black and gay rights became part of the inquisitive collective.”
The Queen is a priceless document of this transitional moment. As Doroshow put it, “Kermit says it’s not easy being green. Well, being a queen is flawless.”
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