Why ‘The Queen’ Documentary Is an Essential Queer Time Capsule
With the spotlight on the Stonewall uprising’s 50th anniversary this month, several treasured landmark LGBTQ documentaries have been restored and are being re-released for a limited time in theaters, including Jennie Livingston’s Paris Is Burning and the era-defining Before Stonewall. But among the gifts to be cherished from this renewed focus is Frank Simon’s 1968 film The Queen. It remains obscure to most, but now with a 4K restoration produced by Bret Wood of Kino Lorber — building on work done by UCLA Film & Television Archive, Outfest UCLA Legacy Project and the Harry Ransom Center — the film is being re-released on June 28th, so that it may be embraced by an entirely new generation.
Chronicling the 1967 Miss All-America Camp Beauty Contest that took place at New York City’s Town Hall, The Queen begins with Jack Doroshow — otherwise known as Flawless Sabrina, Mother Flawless, or simply “the Queen” — as the brow-tweezing matron who shaves before putting on his makeup and tries to encourage his parents to attend the big event. Meanwhile, grainy, 16mm fly-on-the-wall footage captures all the awkward angles and intimate details (a close-up of a foot here, a bulge of fat plumped into a faux boob there) as contestants prepare to hit the stage. The doc made a big splash when it premiered at Cannes, the same year that student protests in France shut the fest down. Then on June 18, 1968 — nearly one year to the week before the Stonewall rebellion — The New York Times published a review of The Queen while it was playing at the Kips Bay Theater in Manhattan.
“The drag queens are, of course, perfectly aware that they are not women, and even their mannerisms — the flatted vowels, the relaxed wrist, the gait of the homosexual who wants it known — are not female imitations at all, but parodies,” the reviewer states, before further editorializing, “They may be absolutely miserable (like others) in their private lives, but in their costumed appearances they enrich the landscape enormously.”
In an age when RuPaul’s Drag Race is a mainstream hit and drag queens can launch major careers, it seems impossible to imagine the context in which The Queen hit theaters a few decades ago, when cross-dressing was a felony in most of America and people who operated in these fringes were considered “deviants.”
“You could be arrested, if a cop was in the mood, for just having eyeliner [on],” Harvey Fierstein recently told Rolling Stone when describing his years of performing in drag in the early Seventies. And Doroshow, who ran the national pageant circuit in the Sixties, had been arrested for that crime over a 100 times by his count.
“I spent a lot of my life being angry. I was furious about getting those felonies. I was hauled off to jail, given fines,” Doroshow told Out magazine in 2015. “More often than not [in my travels], I was driven to the county line and told never to come back. They blamed me for bringing ‘all those perverts’ to town.”
In addition to watching Sabrina act as a mentoring mother hen, the film follows queens from all corners of America, learning how to cluck and preen as they vie for the crown. We see quick cuts to Andy Warhol in the audience as a judge (you wonder if one of his Superstars might wander into a shot at any moment); authors George Plimpton and Terry Southern drop by for cameos. Then all hell breaks loose when the contestant — and future “House of LaBeija” founder — Crystal LaBeija is announced as third runner up (fourth place) and leaves the stage in a huff.
Simon’s camera descends into the bowels of the theater and tracks down the angry contestant. “This is why all the true beauties didn’t come,” LaBeija says in protest. “They told me, Sabrina, that you had it fixed for [fellow contestant] Harlow. Everyone knew that you had it fixed for Harlow for weeks and weeks.”
It’s that pivotal scene that’s inspired many to latch on to The Queen as a cult favorite and caused it to creep into popular consciousness. Frank Ocean sampled LaBeija’s voice in “Ambience 001,” part of his 2016 album/film Endless: “Because you’re beautiful and you’re young; you deserve to have the best in life,” we hear her voice ring out. And during the “Snatch Game” episode of Season 3 of RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars, drag queen Aja defied expectations by wearing a luscious black wig, oversized hoop earrings and a white feather boa to transform into LaBeija.
But I keep finding myself drawn to the poignant scenes captured in the crummy Times Square hotel bedroom before the competition. Three of the semi-nude contestants sprawl out on two twin beds as they discuss boyfriends and sex and dodging the draft. We’re suddenly reminded of the Vietnam War and how these semi-anonymous individuals fit into this fulcrum of American history.
“Wouldn’t this be a helluva mess if the draft board were to call us down right now for a physical?” says a chubby contestant with a high-pitched Southern accent that sounds like he could be Truman Capote’s close cousin.
“This is what I’m wearing to the draft board,” the slender friend replies, twirling in a white nightgown with feather lapels.
“Why haven’t you been drafted? Did you tell them you were homosexual?”
“No, they told me!”
They then turn to talking about gender and whether they’d want to transition through medical means. We hear them fumble with language as they try to grasp at something complex that feels just out of reach.
“But really and truly, would you like to be a true girl? To have that sex change if you had the money or could get it for free?”
“Well, I have enough money to go through the sex change, and I live only 30 miles from John Hopkins, but it’s the last thing that I would want. I know that I’ve been a drag queen, have been a drag queen for a long time, been gay for a long time, but I certainly do not want to be a girl, even if I could have a baby.”
During this moment, scenes of other contestants rehearsing out of drag are spliced in, with a sly smirk from Harlow, the Edie Sedgwick doppelgänger that walk away with the crown.
Simon’s movie is short (just over an hour), but it’s extraordinary because it captures so much, doubling as a time capsule of a generation’s innocence and fashion-forward sophistication. You can tell why it functioned as a template for many future gender nonconforming people looking for some sort of pre-internet guide through the confusing maze of sexuality and gender.
And due to the racism endemic to the drag pageant scene, Crystal LaBeija eventually left the culture preserved in the doc behind and became a “Legendary Mother” in the ballroom scene; she died in 1982 from liver failure. Doroshow continued to persevere and mentor generations of future queens. (He died at age 78 in 2017.) After the film’s release, Rachel Harlow had gender confirmation surgery and returned to Philadelphia, where she still lives in seclusion.
“Without Jack Doroshow, our Flawless Sabrina, my friend and mentor, The Queen would not exist,” she tells Rolling Stone via email. “Because of his absolute dedication to the art of drag, he championed a whole generation of us who were, until that time, silenced by intolerance and shame, and delivered us from the darkness into the light.”
As young queer people continue to discover their identities and evolve new language, Harlow hopes that people continue to appreciate it for creating a framework for others. “I can’t help but feel that many of the trans and drag stories that are coming to light now, spring in some way from The Queen,” she explains. “Certainly my life would have been entirely different without it, and the audiences who reach out to me to this day [are] grateful to have felt seen and celebrated.”