Why the Hollywood drag queen reigns supreme
I recall my first entry on this fabulous film blog. Feeling bored and blue, I shared with you the wisdom that in this state, only a movie of desperate, camp immensity – filled with sparkles, sequins and tinged with wonderful regret – could lift me out. Once again, I feel this lethargic rut. Another cold and wet winter (after a largely absent summer) is on its way, and what we need is some affordable escapism. And this time, it won’t be the Showgirls of Vegas that will aid us in our quest. This calls for a full-on visual attack, provided by the glorious drag queens of the silver screen.
The Drag Queen Movie is fairly self explanatory. Put your male protagonist in a wig with a mic, et voila. Of course, every subgenre has its conventions to abide. A tale of Queendom is almost always a tale of self discovery, whether it be Hedwig coming to terms with his angry inch, or the straight and narrow getting a wake up call by exposure to their sheer fabulousness of Patrick Swayze and his gang in To Wong Fu, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar. The transmorphic nature of the stock characters is of course asking for a comedy of errors. There is most always a man who falls in love with a man thinking he’s a woman, or a straight guy who freaks out when he falls for the woman who’s pretending to be in drag.
There is often a token hilarious Hispanic Queen. The Birdcage has Agador, To Wong Fu… has Chi-Chi, and Connie and Carla has ‘and cream‘ (her partner being peaches). An immortal gay icon often acts as a guardian angel of guidance. When mimicked on stage, she will (more often than not) take the form of Misses Minelli and Streisand. Or she will be a studio era actress who provides the inspirational backbone; such as, of course, Julie Newmar or in the case of Connie and Carla, Debbie Reynolds. Often, these icons will enact a surreal cameo at the opportune moment to fill our hero(in)es with their final vote of confidence. All of these elements blend together to create a melting pot of hilarity that you cannot help but fall in love with. There is a reason Some Like it Hot regularly gets lauded as the greatest comedy of all time, after all.
In a way it is strange; drag joy is the kind of show you’d expect to be reserved for the stage. Musical theatre is wild by nature, the stage is the natura; habitat of any true Queen – how could it possible translate to the screen? But there is a certain magic she transports to the box. Rarely if ever will your own bedroom tingle with the sparkle of a drag act. She transports us from the comfort of our duvets to a night of glamour in a nightclub of fantasy. The West End translation of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert has been faulted for living in the gross shadow of its cinematic original. And The Birdcage is known for being that rarity in cinema; a Hollywood remake that far surpasses its source material, in this case the French stage show La Cage Aux Folles.
It’s not just escapism, it’s not just fancy dress – this sumptuous, knowing, deeply hypnotic brand of excess is merciless; stamping on mediocrity with a 5 inch heel, and beating the psyche into euphoric submission. Cabaret is fun, but it’s even more fun when you’re watching Toni Collette do it as a woman dressed as a man dressed as a woman. It’s impossible not to smile when you see prolific actors don the size 13 stilettos and enact a role that’s a polar opposite from the degree of severity they‘re known for: Is that Agent Smith wearing a dress? Holy shit – Is that Blade in a wig?!
It may be raining outside, but in this dazzling alley of cinema, life’s never a drag.