Williams' cinematic aquacades have held a powerful place in the canon of camp since their release, not least because of the influence of her willing accomplice, legendary choreographer Busby Berkeley. Their few numbers together (two in Million Dollar Mermaid) created an unforgettable image of the larger-than-life, absurdly cheery postwar gal, a Rosie the Riveter with water wings. The film itself is an enjoyably lachrymose melodrama based on the life of Annette Kellerman, who survived childhood polio to become a world-renowned swimmer. And while the movie proper is a respectful biography, Berkeley undermines it by dolling up the apparently agreeable Williams (she called him a "genius") in aluminum tiaras and gold lamé bodysuits and foregrounding her to some of the decade's nuttiest mise en scène. On the flip side, Williams almost died during one of these routines thanks to a spell of vertigo (the alcoholic Berkeley ran off to drink his lunch while she nearly drowned). But the smile that apparently got her through such moments must have been real; her juicy autobiography, also called Million Dollar Mermaid (1999), reveals a woman who's surprisingly grounded and droll. If the book is any indication -- she giddily recounts Jeff Chandler's transvestism, Victor Mature's sexual prowess, Joan Crawford' s dementia, and her own experience with LSD, for chrissakes -- Williams' live appearance, presumably in a dress this time, promises to be one of the wilder evenings at this year's festival.
"A Tribute to Esther Williams" takes place Saturday, April 22, at 6:30 p.m. at the Castro. Admission is $10-12.