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Truth and Fiction: Hollywood on Drag Queens
By David DeNicolo
Washington Post Service
Drag isn't pretty. Uproarious, grotesque, savage, saintly, terrifyingly
gorgeous, mind-endingly glamorous, yes. But pretty? No. A drag queen's
ultimate compliment to one of her sisters best sums up the whole enterprise:
"She is fierce." Drag queens are often credited with starting the 1969
Stonewall riots, the Boston Tea Party of the modem gay rights movement.
Along comes the king of Hollywood ,sentimentality, Steven Spielberg, whose
production company, Amblin, makes a movie called "To Wong Foo, Thanks for
Everything, Julie Newmar," which opens in the United States Friday. Wesley
Snipes, John Leguizamo and Patrick Swayze play three New York drag queens
who set out for Los Angeles in a yellow Cadillac convertible, carrying a
photo of camp icon Julie Newmar as a talisman. High jinks ensue. Lessons of
tolerance are learned (drag queens are people, too). Small-minded bad guys
are humiliated, and a dust-speck Midwestern town is liberated from its gray
existence by three big gals with style to spare.
The popular appeal of cross-dressing is not new. According to Nan
Richardson's introduction to the book "Drag Diaries," it was seen in
classical Greek theater, Elizabethan performance, the balls of the Belle
Epoque, Native American rituals, the English music hall and American
minstrel shows. Then there are the scores of Hollywood stars who wedged
their way into dresses (usually to get either the girl or a laugh). Jack
Benny, Bob Hope, Jerry Lewis, Cary Grant, Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis, Rodney
Dangerfield, Flip Wilson, Marlon Brando, Dustin Hoffman, Robin Williams and
Johnny Depp have given it a whirl. And let us not neglect that movie
favorite, the drag psycho-killer, wielding a butcher knife, wearing a
tattered housecoat and fright wig, keeping Momma on ice in the basement.
Who can forget the pretty boys and hutch girls who peopled the various
Warhol scenes of the '60s and '70s? There was David Bowie's genderbender
phase, and the Kinks' haunting Lola, who, every high school boy and girl of
the era will recall, "walks like a woman and talks like a man."
In the late '80s, the influential fashion photographer Steven Meisel (as in
those yanked Calvin Klein ads) began producing photo spreads for magazines
such as Interview and Italian Vogue in which the models Christy, Linda,
Naomi - looked like drag queens and drag queens looked like models. It was,
in fashion lingo, heaven, genius. It was so major.
Before long, drag was all over the fashion world. The queens needed the
runway and the runway needed the queens. Jennie Livingston's 1991
documentary, "Paris Is Burning," chronicled the lives of the black and
Hispanic men who formed "houses" to compete in the elaborate drag balls of
Harlem. The movie was a huge hit among fashionistas - who thoroughly missed
its angry core, the blights of poverty and racism and violence in the
tinsely shadow world it depicted - and popularized vogueing, or the aping of
models' gestures in drag competition. There was Wigstock mania (the annual
Labor Day drag festival in Lower Manhattan), RuPaul videos in heavy rotation
on MTV, the cable TV show "Party Talk," featuring drag characters such as
Linda Simpson and the Lady Bunny. Parties were seasoned with drag queens
(either hired for the evening or just there for the free food or drink or
Eventually, even movie people noticed a trend. What is new in the recent
movie portrayals of drag, such as 1994's "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen
of the Desert," the plot of which is remarkably similar to "To Wong Foo," is
the acknowledgment that in real life there is a person underneath the drag
persona, and that person is homosexual and, in all likelihood, a swell guy.
But, in "To Wong Foo" at least, something is missing.
"We know that it is homosexual excitement that is powering drag," says the
historian Anne Hollander, author of "Seeing Through Clothes" "The charge of
this is immediately felt by both sexes as a sexual charge that is
immediately recognizable as a homosexual charge. It is so marvelous. But it
makes many people nervous."
Apparently it made the collaborators on "To Wong Foo" very nervous. For
though the movie itself accurately defines a drag queen as "a gay man [who]
has too much fashion sense for one gender," that charge Hollander speaks of
is absent, removed. This is accomplished partly by the calculated use of
three openly straight actors in the leads.
"To Wong Foo's" queens are the most desexed, sanitized gays this side of
"Philadelphia." And the chief reason for this is the suffocating treacle of
the script. Screenwriter Douglas Carter Beane told Out magazine: "What
Steven Spielberg saw in my script was the idea of people coming together,
embracing each other - the outsiders coming in. The movie was also
accessible because these were ladies. I didn't want them to be low."
One of the most important lessons in this lesson-laden movie concerns the
character Chi Chi's realization that, to become a true drag queen, according
to Vida Boheme's rules, she must give up any hope of a physical relationship
with the town boy who doesn't seem to know that she is a he. The two never
kiss. They don't so much as dance together. Chi Chi (Leguizamo) sacrifices
her boy to a "real" woman and joins the ranks of neutered homosexuals. Chi
Chi is congratulated by Miss Boheme (Swayze) for having the sense to "abide
by the rules of love."
Rules of love? Would that be the "Drag queens don't deserve to make out with
handsome young men from Nebraska" rule?
There is a driving need in "To Wong Foo', to see drag queens as just like
you and me in the very respects that they are most emphatically not just
like you and me. In one scene, Stockard Channing, who plays a battered but
spunky housewife, puts on a flowing red number and declares to a buffoonish
bigot lawman, "I am a drag queen." This is supposed to be an emotionally
sweeping moment about human commonality and freedom but it is simply absurd.
But the sanitization doesn't stop there. This is a Spielberg production. Not
content with making the gay men into maiden aunts who, after all, might
indulge in a little slap and tickle on the side, the movie proposes that the
drag queens are actually special, otherworldly creatures. Near the end of.
the movie, Channing says to her new-found friend Vida Boheme: "I don't think
of you as a man. I don't think of you as a woman. I think of you as an
angel." An angel. And what do angels lack most significantly? Carnality. In
a 1984 interview with the Village Voice, James Baldwin, discussing his own
homosexuality, identified homophobia as "a terror of the flesh. It's really
a terror of being able to be touched."
Through all its well-meaning posturing, "To Wong Foo" contains that terror.
By removing the reality of the sexualized body, by making the sexuality of
its three gay characters invisible, unknowable, unshowable, unthinkable, and
by doing so with straight actors, for heaven's sake, "To Wong Foo" only
reinforces the prejudices it seeks to dispel.