PRINT May 2004


Superstar in a Housedress: The Life and Legend of Jackie Curtis

JACKIE CURTIS made brilliant entrances, and although he sometimes overstayed his welcome, his final exit, in 1985 at age thirty-eight, came much too soon. Heroin, to paraphrase Lou Reed, was the death of him. Craig Highberger’s documentary portrait, Superstar in a Housedress: The Life and Legend of Jackie Curtis, which opens at New York’s Film Forum this month, takes its title from one of Curtis’s wryly class-conscious self-descriptions. The film would be a pedestrian affair if not for the vivacity of its subject, whose multiple incarnations—both on and off stage and screen—are evoked through photographs; reminiscences of friends, admirers, and colleagues; and most poignantly, bits of faded film and video recordings of plays performed at La MaMa E.T.C. and other, more fly-by-night downtown venues. Highberger also secured sequences from Paul Morrissey’s 1971 Women in Revolt (a vehicle for the Warhol Factory’s reigning drag queens: Curtis, Candy Darling, and Holly Woodlawn) but, sadly, nothing from Dusan Makavejev’s X-rated art-house release of the same year, W.R.—Mysteries of the Organism, where Curtis—red wig tousled Suzy Parker style, blue glitter ringing his eyes, and calf-length basic black dress skimming a speed-freak-thin six-foot-two-inch body—makes an indelible impression as he strolls Forty-second Street, sharing ice cream cones with his sometime fiancé, Factory denizen and Max’s Kansas City waiter Eric Emerson.

Curtis prefigured in his life and art (they were emphatically inseparable) what would become a premise of cultural studies in the ’80s and ’90s—that gender is always masquerade, whether one cross-dresses or not. Drag queens were the subversives of the ’60s underground art world—in the films of Warhol and Jack Smith and the theater of John Vaccaro and Charles Ludlum. They were on the front lines of the 1969 Stonewall revolt (a fact that, later, the gay-liberation movement was loath to admit), and gay balls had been part of Harlem’s subculture for decades before Madonna recorded “Vogue.” What made Curtis exceptional was that he acted out his drag fantasies every day and night of the week, sometimes as a man, sometimes as a woman.

“In 1968, Jackie lived as a woman twenty-four hours a day. She sort of became Marisa Berenson,” says Michael Musto, cribbing from his 1986 Village Voice profile of Curtis. “In 1972, she/he returned to facial hair. . . . And in 1985, Jackie looked back on that era and told me: ‘I’d say, “I’m tired of being Jackie Curtis,” and someone would say, “But you have to be. We need Jackie Curtis.” But it was a chore and I was already turning my auto-suggestive possession into a reincarnation of James Dean. I wanted to play James Dean, so I became him.’” Curtis would have appreciated the multiple layers of quotation. The interior quote was his specialty.

Born John Holder Jr., Curtis grew up in the East Village when the neighborhood—as performance artist Penny Arcade, one of the film’s most articulate “talking heads,” emphasizes—was basically a slum. He lived with his grandmother Slugger Ann in an apartment above her namesake Second Avenue bar. In 1965, at age seventeen, he made his La MaMa debut, playing Nefertiti’s brother in Tom Eyen’s Miss Nefertiti Regrets. (Bette Midler played the title role.) Inspired by the experience, encouraged by La MaMa founder Ellen Stewart, and fueled by amphetamine and alcohol, he wrote a series of plays, giving himself juicy roles—both male and female—that showed off his way with a torch song or a show tune. Heaven Grand in Amber Orbit, Vain Victory, Americka Cleopatra: The titles are doorways to delirium. Audiences flocked to the Vain Victory open rehearsals, which stretched out for six months. On May 26, 1971, the official opening night, the police raided the dressing room looking for drugs while Upper East Side celebrities fought for seats in the tiny theater.

Evocative though they are, the brief clips of Vain Victory and Cabaret in the Sky (Curtis and Woodlawn’s hilarious, heart-wrenching 1974 songfest) don’t quite capture the intensity and surprise in Curtis’s performances. He was a quick-change artist who could, in the blink of an eye, switch between abandoning himself to a fantasy and sending up his own abandon. You could say he combined the methods of Stanislavsky and Brecht in that he incarnated his characters and commented on them at the same time. The sophistication of this approach comes through most clearly in the clip of Curtis reading his poem “B-Girls” (published in the 1979 Poets Encyclopedia). Curtis is dressed for the part of a B-girl as Barbara Stanwyck might have played her—blond pageboy wig, dangling ciggie, martini in hand—but the poem is written in the third person. He is both inside the character and observing her from a distance. One always had the sense, except when drugs and alcohol made him delusional, that behind the masquerade, there was some core of Curtis running the show. That’s what gave him his mystery—who was that person?—and also made him a class act, in more ways than one. No matter what mask he wore and how great was his adoration of glamour, Curtis stayed loyal to his working-class roots. It was the place from which he spoke, literally (the Lower East Side was in his voice) and figuratively. As Lynne Tillman, who is not in the film, wrote in her 1998 novel No Lease on Life, “It’s a small world, someone said to Jackie Curtis. Not if you have to clean it, Jackie Curtis answered.”

Amy Taubin is a contributing editor of Film Comment and Sight and Sound.

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