We’re living in a world of Drag Race, when the art form of drag has rules that are arbitrary. However, generations ago, drag, specifically, pageant drag, had specific rules that appointed and ‘objective’ judges had to measure them by. “Five points for talk, five for swimsuit, five for gown, five for makeup and hairdo, and ten for beauty”. That’s Flawless Sabrina, the organizer of the 1967 Miss All-American Camp Beauty Pageant, telling the contestants the criteria breakdown. An underrated line, sure. But it also hints at the logistical nightmares that comes with organizing one of these early pageants. It also points out the flaws in judging these contestants by their beauty, an archaic idea we LGBT celebrate.
I don’t necessarily have the feminist perspective on how cis gay men appropriate beauty pageants in a drag context. But for the most part, as I see it, Frank Simon’s The Queen show this pageant in a positive light. It shows the spark of curiosity that cis gay men have with female bodies and femininity, blurring gender lines. One of the contestants and Sabrina’s protegee, Harlow, wonders why the ‘titties’ in the dress are lower than hers. Harlow, who is young during this time, displays drag as an act of discovery, learning their body through someone else’s. The movie eventually chooses her as a secondary subject, a choice that Simon makes that will bring mixed results.
The Queen has some similarities and differences with that other film with the same name, one about Elizabeth II. The big difference, of course, is that Elizabeth can shuttle from places while these contestants must stay in dingy hotels. What both do similarly is unmask their subjects, to show how much work they do to be publicly perfect. This doc doesn’t show the contestants’ separate journey from these dingy hotels to the New York City’s Town Hall. But it lets us feel these difficulties, as these queens rehearse many numbers to entertain their judges and the audience. The camera closes up on Harlow and the other queens who may or may not get the choreography right.
The contestants might be having fun despite having to modify their bodies to pass as women on the stage. The only unfortunate thing here is that this early doc is less interesting for the most of its second half. It focuses more on backstage action than it does on the main stage, which the live audience only experiences. Its other decision to narrow its focus on Harlow instead of naming the other queens has some negative consequences. Harlow wins, causing the ire of Crystal Labeija, who walks away from the stage, causing Sabrina to call her ‘temperamental’. I would have loved to have more focus on that walkout but at least it was an iconic moment.
Hot Docs Cinema screens The Queen on July 28 at noon. This is part of Drag Brunch and a Movie featuring Fontaine. Here’s hoping for more of that series. For advanced tickets go to https://boxoffice.hotdocs.ca/