Frank Simon, The Queen, 1968, color, sound, 68 minutes.


A MAN AND A WOMAN: The words—the title of Claude Lelouch’s smash 1966 French melodrama—appositely appear on the marquee of Manhattan’s Paris Theatre on West Fifty-Eighth Street, just above the bottle-blond head of effete Richard, one of the key figures in Frank Simon’s documentary The Queen (1968). This riveting chronicle of a 1967 drag competition makes Lelouch’s hopelessly het movie seem all the more démodé for the fixed categories in its name.

In his essential, haut-homo compendium Screening the Sexes (1972), urbane arbiter Parker Tyler praised Simon’s film for its “quite unconscious dignity”; one of the more remarkable aspects of this pre-Stonewall document is, in fact, its eschewal of homophobic sensationalism in favor of nonjudgmental curiosity. The organizer and emcee of the pageant, and the occasional voice-over narrator, is Jack Doroshow, alias Sabrina, who says of his female alter ego: “I’m twenty-four years old, but in drag, I come on like 110. . . . Like a bar-mitzvah-mother thing.” Indeed, the contest itself, held at the highly reputable Town Hall, is about as risqué as a junior high homecoming dance, as depilated men in Ronettes-esque bouffant wigs and thick maquillage show off matronly floor-length dresses to the musical accompaniment of a tuxedoed combo. Violating the decorum is Mario Montez, providing a bit of intermission entertainment and introduced by Sabrina as “a hell of a nice guy”: Sporting a ratty wig and five-o’clock shadow, Warhol’s first drag-queen superstar (Andy is seen fleetingly in the audience) sings “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” horribly off-key, botching the show tune’s platonic as plutonic.

The discrepancy between Montez’s signature guileless performance style and the exhaustingly rehearsed movements of the contestants (“Try to center your chorus line,” instructs Jack, who also barks specific rules about the proper removal of a duster) points to the different ways of “doing” drag—as varied in its possibilities as its practitioners are. The most absorbing moments of The Queen happen not onstage but off it, particularly when the camera lingers in the run-down hotel rooms where the out-of-town contestants (Miss Washington State, Miss Chicago, etc.) are bunking. Here, dressed primarily in LBJ-era standard duds—trim button-down shirts and chinos—they nonchalantly discuss, in a range of regional accents, draft boards, boyfriends, and levels of tolerance back home (“Everybody in that town knew I was gay ever since I was five years old”).

Tyler described The Queen as “all about transvestites and their search for an honest public and private image”; although the word transvestites chafes today, his assessment still strikes me as the perfect précis of Simon’s film. For some, that search included considering gender reassignment, then wholeheartedly rejecting it: “I certainly do not want to become a girl, even if I could have a baby,” avers the contestant from Maryland. Others later accepted it; the abovementioned Richard, aka Harlow, aka Miss Philadelphia, would undergo the procedure in 1972. Harlow, crowned the pageant winner, is read furiously by Crystal LaBeija, one of a handful of black competitors, indignant at placing as third runner-up. Ten years after her loss at Town Hall, Crystal would transform ball culture in Harlem by initiating the “House of ” nomenclature, the taxonomy that structures The Queen’s direct descendant, Paris Is Burning (1990), and that epitomizes the concept of “public image.”

Melissa Anderson

The Queen, which concludes Queer/Art/Film’s “Summer of Drag” series, screens at the IFC Center on Monday, August 11.