The Queen: A 1960s drag time-capsule

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Not to be confused with the 2006 movie, fans of RuPaul’s Drag Race can get a history lesson by watching this documentary.

Look back to 1967 New York City with Frank Simon’s cinéma vérité documentary, “The Queen.” From the behind the scenes dress-up to getting fitted at a local costume design house, the documentary illustrates the intricacies of drag in the 1960s – both the glamorous and terrifying elements. With cameos from Andy Warhol and Edie Segwick, it becomes clear how influential these drag trailblazers are, and both their beauty and jealousy is captured in this film.

The documentary is centered around a group of drag queens preparing for the Miss All-America Camp Beauty Pageant, an elite drag pageant. Having flown in from across the U.S., the queens crowd into LGBTQ+ safe hotels, organized by local allies. The behind the scenes footage of practicing dance routines and figuring out logistics – like sourcing bundles of hair – are all on display, as everything from gathering supplies to traveling to and from locations needs to be done incognito. 

The film is an aesthetic treat, as it is shot entirely on film and showcases the New York grit of the ‘60s. One of the best shots in the film is shown during the pageant when the competing queens are lined up in an underground, dark hallway before their performances, each fixing their outfits and hair. While the queens are confined to their rooms or the theater where they practice, each scene is full of one flawless dress or wig after another. A favorite moment is when the queens begin comparing gowns, trying on everything from homemade pink chiffon capes with ostrich feathers to floor-length white fur coats. 

One of the most surprising parts of the film is the quality of the drag. Each of the queens look like the perfect ‘60s pinterest mood board, particularly the main queen, Sabrina. Taking inspiration from ‘60s models like Twiggy, Peggy Moffitt’s mod look and the grace and class of Brigitte Bardot and Jean Shrimpton, Sabrina has it all. This sparks both jealousy and admiration among other queens, particularly from a competitor. However, each queen shows their support for each other, which is refreshing amongst a diverse group. They discuss the concept of beauty at length, along with “passing” as feminine in public and being an “NBW,” or a natural beauty wonder, particularly during a tense moment when Sabrina realizes she doesn’t have any hair extensions for the pageant. Overall, each look is jaw-dropping, as the queens wear an array of unique evening gowns and swimsuits during the competition.

Running at just over an hour, the film is set in ‘60s real-time but well worth the watch. The social commentary from each of the queens is outstanding and shows great depth. Many parallels can be drawn between “The Queen” and “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” especially as the discussions about transgender and drag identity are quite similar despite the documentary being more than 50 years old. This pre-Stonewall documentary will easily be one of the most interesting and stunning history lessons about drag queens you’ll ever receive. 

[Available to watch on Netflix]

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