Queen of Camp

A low-rent documentary celebrates drag hero Jackie Curtis

Ever heard of Jackie Curtis? It's a familiar name, ringing vaguely of stardom (Jackie Kennedy? Tony Curtis?), but it belongs to nobody so famous. "Jackie Curtis" was the pseudonym of John Holder, a drag queen compatriot of Candy Darling, Holly Woodlawn, and Andy Warhol who rocked the counterculture with his outlandish refusal to be ordinary. Superstar in a Housedress, a documentary written and directed by Craig Highberger, calls on 30 of Curtis' many friends and associates (including Lily Tomlin and Harvey Fierstein) to celebrate his short and spectacular life.

It's not a great film, but it has a good subject -- a writer, actor, gender transgressor, and break-the-rules performance artist who served as the brains behind countless avant-garde plays of the '60s and '70s and whose surviving friends, featured here in interviews, are as vibrant and entertaining as he seems to have been. In fact, Superstar is nothing if not a parade of outré queens and divas, raconteurs all, whose anecdotes are punctuated with self-dramatization and hilarious one-liners.

Never has a documentary featured so many testimonials from bed, or at least from a reclining position. And rarely is it the case that the homes of the interviewees are as interesting as the stories the people tell. But for these performers, all the world's a stage -- especially the living room. In particular, Alexis del Lago (like so many of the interviewees, "Artist and Star") has re-created the belle époque in her apartment. Helpfully, she tours the space as she gives the interview, for which she has dressed in gold lamé.

"I am not a boy, not a girl. I am not gay, not 
straight ... I'm just me, Jackie."
Jack Mitchell
"I am not a boy, not a girl. I am not gay, not straight ... I'm just me, Jackie."

Curtis, on the other hand, preferred to look like trash. "Jackie was always safety-pinned together," one admirer remembers. And indeed, he reveled in tearing designer dresses to shreds, thrashing at his stockings, and wearing whatever get-up he had assembled for so many days running that it stank like something rotten. (Once, when his wig melted into a puddle on a backstage light, he wore it anyway.) His glamour was decidedly downtown; he pioneered a kind of gutter beauty totally new for his time but that, he predicted, would one day become popular (as it has). Additionally, Curtis was first in body glitter.

Also, he was androgynous. Unlike the über-feminine Candy Darling, who was constantly mistaken for a woman, Curtis never tried to pass. He never used falsies; he often wore drag without shaving his face or legs. The sexual power of his performance came not from any attempt to hide his maleness but from an assertion of his inherent sexuality, unattached to any gender. More than once in the film, he is quoted as saying, "I am not a boy, not a girl. I am not gay, not straight. I'm not a drag queen, not a transsexual ... I'm just me, Jackie."

Curtis resisted more than labels. He also eschewed any kind of consistent or predictable behavior. After living as a woman for an entire year, he went through a James Dean phase, dressing in macho male drag and mimicking the heartthrob's chin-tucking gestures. This from a man who had earlier summoned all of the necessary drama, self-pity, and down-at-the-heels rage required to belt out a showstopper such as "The Fucking-A Douche Bag Blues."

That number was one of many Curtis performed at several avant-garde theaters, including Playhouse of the Ridiculous and La MaMa Experimental Theatre, both of which were kind to Jackie and his cohort. Largely because Curtis did so much speed, his output as a playwright was copious, and most of his shows saw performance soon after they were written. Critics seem to have met the campy productions with unease, calling them inconsistent and bizarre, but the houses were packed. Several interviewees glow with pride as they recall having turned away a senator's wife on opening night.

Superstar has low-rent production values, including an abrupt beginning, an overly fast pace, choppy transitions, and a lot of low-resolution footage. All of these, of course, suit the aesthetics of the film's subject, but it's hard not to wish for at least a few crystal-clear shots of Curtis in drag, or Curtis onstage, doing his Joan Crawford thing. To its credit, Superstar features plenty of never-before-seen footage as well as the photography of Jack Mitchell, who emulated the fashion photography of 1930s Hollywood with black-and-white glamour shots.

Like many artists of his ilk, Curtis fell prey to both alcohol and drugs, and the latter did him in. While in the company of a deluded woman who wished (in vain) to be his lover, Curtis ODed; rather than call an ambulance, his companion decided it was a good time for sex. ("It was Jackie's first time having sex with a woman," actor Paul Ambrose laments, "and it killed him.") It's sad that Curtis died so young (he was 38) and so unnecessarily, and his friends clearly miss him. But there is something about Curtis' story that fails to connect, an emotional gap that makes it hard to care quite as much as we should. Perhaps it's that Curtis never seems to have loved another person nearly so much as he loved either himself or his drugs. Whatever it is, the movie falls flat because of it.

 
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