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    The Queen Returns: Rerelease Recounts an Historic 1968 Camp Beauty Pageant

    By Gary Kramer–

    The Queen, opening August 2 at the Landmark Opera Plaza and Shattuck Cinemas, is a fantastic time capsule from 1968. This documentary, directed by Frank Simon, depicts the 1967 Nationals, a drag queen beauty contest staged in New York City. The observational film immerses viewers in this fabulous world as contestants sashay on stage and off in ball gowns and big hair, in sparkly frocks, or in tight-fitting bathing suits.

    The Queen opens with Jack (aka Sabrina), a 24-year-old organizer who doesn’t compete. He talks about the respect drag performers seek, and deserve. The film shrewdly stays within the insular world that it presents. Viewers pick up who the guys are as scenes depict them getting instructions about the contest—how to discard items of clothing, the point system, etc.—as well as in their small, crowded hotel rooms. As the men unpack their wigs, gowns and shoes, it is hard not to imagine them as women. They talk about how to conceal their beards, and camp it up among one another.

    What emerges, and why Simon’s film is so compelling more than 50 years after it was made, is the camaraderie that exists between these guys. It’s inspiring to hear these young men talk freely about their attitudes about being gay and doing drag. One man describes his relief at being accepted by his parents, although another says his mother won’t speak about it.

    They also talk about not wanting a sex change; that while they are feminine, and like doing drag, they have no intention of becoming a woman through surgery. One man explains that his lover wants a guy and not a girl, which makes his penchant for drag tricky. Arguably, the most interesting discussion is one about the draft board. While several men were excused from duty because they were gay, one contestant recounts writing a letter to the president expressing his wish to serve. It is intriguing to hear their thoughts and opinions as they practice, primp and ready themselves for the contest.

    The Queen does feature a few scenes of the guys performing prior to the competition. There are some rehearsals for the show involving a kick line and a musical number. One contestant, while dressed as a man, belts out a glorious song in his hotel room—to the enjoyment of his roommates. There are other moments of campiness, but rarely any cattiness. The biggest tiff that occurs prior to the competition involves one contestant having issues with a wig.

    As the pageant nears, the guys shave, do their nails, put on their bras and shadow their cleavage. Simon is not looking to reveal tricks of the drag queen trade, but, rather, to emphasize the work these men do to make themselves look so beautiful. It’s hypnotic to watch, because the subjects are so unselfconscious.

    Simon’s film is crudely made. The camera goes in and out of focus a few times—as most “fly on the wall” documentaries do—and there are scenes that are not always flattering to the subjects. But the authenticity of the film is charming. The Queen captures moments, from a contestant teasing his wig, to another guy putting on a collared robe to answer the door, which show these men as they truly are. The magic of the film is that it never judges its subjects; it celebrates them in all of their glory.

    The last third of the film depicts the contest itself. The competitors are shown backstage drinking, smoking and otherwise getting ready for the show. There is a palpable sense of tension as the program starts. Once it does, The Queen provides snippets of the bathing suit portion of the show as well as a scene where one contestant, who didn’t participate in the swimsuit competition, gets an opportunity to strut across the stage.

    However, much of the focus is on the five finalists. The excitement builds as one contestant is named “The Queen” and is given a tiara to wear and represent. If the identity of the winner is not unexpected, what transpires after the announcement is. One of the also-rans, Crystal LeBeija, sounds off on the contest, challenging the intention and the outcome. How this ugly situation is presented may prompt viewers to question their loyalties and interest in the pageant. It is a shrewd end to a film that is mostly a positive portrayal of the close-knit community.

    The Queen certainly deserves to be seen, perhaps even more so given the recent Stonewall milestone. This documentary is a fascinating piece of history, captured in a style that is very much of—and ahead of—its time.

    © 2019 Gary M. Kramer

    Gary M. Kramer is the author of “Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews,” and the co-editor of “Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.” Follow him on Twitter @garymkramer