Back when Frank Simon had decided to take his 16 mm camera to document the contestants of the 1967 Miss All-America Camp Beauty Pageant in New York, the greater world hadn’t been aware of the presence or culture of drag queens, and homosexuality was still considered a psychological abnormality. The Stonewall Riots, which had kicked off the LGBT political movement, hadn’t even happened.
So just by essence of its existence, Simon’s ensuing documentary The Queen was quite a revolutionary feat. Simon never interrogates or poses questions to the subjects onscreen, but they engage the viewer with anecdotes and small talk as they primp and prepare, rehearse and change into their dramatically gorgeous and over-the-top personas.
I discussed this film briefly for my ongoing Sweet Streams column a few months back, when the film was available in full on Youtube (it isn’t anymore— sad!). But this weekend, The Queen finally gets its due in a limited engagement wide theatrical release, with its only OC-based screening at the Frida Cinema. Receiving a brand-spanking new 4K restoration courtesy of the film distribution house Kino Lorber in cooperation with the University of Texas’ Harry Ransom Center, more audiences will be able to enjoy this enduring classic on the big screen.
And even if you’re a viewer who is inured to seeing the glamorous pageantry of RuPaul’s Drag Race or have seen Paris Is Burning a million times, The Queen is fully deserving of your adoration and respect. Especially once you consider iconic queen and gay icon/activist Flawless Sabrina is featured in the doc as the organizer of the Pageant. More memorable, still, is the tirade thrown by mother of the House of LaBeija, Crystal LaBeija, when she discovers that the crown is awarded to contestant Harlow. As entertaining and hilarious as Crystal’s fury is— albeit richly flamboyant, especially the way she yells, “I’ll SUE the BITCH!”— it briefly underlines the racial disparity in the drag community at the time. Harlow, who was white, was given the crown despite bringing, as Crystal views it, underwhelming looks and attire.
Plenty of other unique and entertaining soundbites come from the subjects of The Queen, and if you’re a drag fan who hasn’t seen it, then it behooves you to correct that wrong to live up to your drag fan cred. Head to thefridacinema.org for showtimes and information, and dig in to this gloriously campy showcase with aplomb.
Aimee Murillo is calendar editor and frequently covers film and previously contributed to the OCW’s long-running fashion column, Trendzilla. Don’t ask her what her favorite movie is unless you want to hear her lengthy defense of Showgirls.