ENTERTAINMENT

This 1968 Film Showcased Drag Queens Decades Before RuPaul

Frank Simon’s "The Queen" debuted at a time when gender nonconformity was taboo. A newly restored version hits theaters this month.

When “The Queen” was released in 1968, few could have expected Frank Simon’s seminal documentary about the drag contestants of the Miss All-American Camp Beauty Pageant to be a harbinger. 

In recent years, mainstream audiences have embraced drag culture ― thanks to “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and, of course, countless theater artists and YouTube personalities. At the time of its debut, however, “The Queen” examined the “closed society of queer culture of the time ― closed as a means of defense against harassment or arrest,” Kino Lorber’s Bret Wood, who oversaw and produced the film’s restoration, told HuffPost. 

A restored version of “The Queen” hits New York’s IFC Center Friday in honor of Pride Month and the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising, considered the symbolic start of the LGBTQ rights movement. (National screenings will follow, too.) HuffPost got a sneak peek at the revamped film via the clip above, in which legendary queen Crystal LaBeija exhibits a steely self-confidence that may surprise those familiar with the era’s social and political stance on the LGBTQ community.

A restored version of the 1968 documentary "The Queen" hits theaters in New York Friday, with national rerelease dates to fol
A restored version of the 1968 documentary "The Queen" hits theaters in New York Friday, with national rerelease dates to follow.

Wood sees the film as an “example of the cinéma vérité documentary style of the 1960s” as well as a testimony to those who were “leading the charge right before Stonewall, when it was still a criminal act to be in drag.” 

“It’s a sobering reminder that 50 years ago, the general population was threatened by drag culture,” Wood said. Still, he believes viewers will be most impressed by the “timeless” cultural elements ― “a sense of humor, a mode of camp theatricality” ― that they’ll recognize as being present in modern drag.

When “The Queen” first debuted at the 1968 Cannes Film Festival, it received an enthusiastic response from audiences — but it was slapped with an X-rating.

“The Queen” has been screened infrequently since its 1968 debut — which is why Kino Lorber’s Bre
“The Queen” has been screened infrequently since its 1968 debut — which is why Kino Lorber’s Bret Wood is glad to present it to a modern audience.

At the time of its release, The New York Times praised the film as “an extraordinary documentary,” while Roger Ebert of The Chicago Sun-Times called it “gutsy, funny, pathetic” and “very moving.” 

In spite of those raves, “The Queen” has been screened infrequently since 1968 and, as such, is rarely given its due ― all the more reason Wood is glad to present it to a modern audience. 

Ultimately, he hopes the film serves as a reminder that “social change does not always occur through protest or negotiation, but through the expression of a point of view or identity that is not yet socially acceptable.” 

“One revolutionary thing about ‘The Queen’ is that it is unapologetic and does not attempt to curry favor with any viewers who may be uncomfortable with the idea of queer culture,” Wood said. “Are some of the performers cranking up their behavior because a camera is present? I’m sure they are, but since exaggeration and theatricality are key ingredients of drag culture, it’s entirely appropriate.” 

Check out the trailer below for “The Queen,” which hits New York’s IFC Center on Friday. 

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