It is 1967 and a New York City drag contest, the national finals in fact, are fast approaching for a celebrity-studded gala occasion which will pronounce one of these competitors the most beautiful queen of the night. Leading this is Flawless Sabrina, by day Jack Doroshow, but his alter ego has organised this celebration for men like him who really enjoy dressing up to the nines in ballgowns, perfectly coiffed wigs, enough makeup to choke a horse and jewellery - so much jewellery. The participants assemble in a nearby hotel to rehearse and discuss their motivations with the filmmakers of this documentary, and Sabrina hopes the evening will go without a hitch...
Well, it did and it didn't, as you will see when you watch this fly on the wall record of a subculture that was not exactly part of the female impersonators of vaudeville as was, yet not quite evolved into the gay and trans scene's belief in empowerment through dressing up either. If nothing else, it illustrated how even a movement we consider was a stable one throughout its many trials and tribulations was nothing but: you can envisage many in the community now cringing at the pettiness and proclamations of their forebears, but these folks were aiming to be just as comfortable in their skin, no matter how they were reacted to by those not in on their lifestyles, ignorant or not.
The Queen, which is not to be confused with the Helen Mirren Oscar-winner of the early twenty-first century, was painfully low budget, and director Frank Simon (an associate of Roman Polanski at the time) did not lend proceedings anything like the swish and style they really deserved, making the whole occasion look pretty cheap and tawdry were it not for the dedication this group had. Let us not forget they were pre-Stonewall riots gay men, and suffered a lack of understanding in the wider world that you would think would create a camaraderie, yet as the film drew on we perceived, fairly blatantly, that there was just as much backbiting and envy in this community as anywhere else.
Simon managed to capture some genuinely interesting candid moments, such as when the subject of the draft into the Vietnam War arises - as homosexuals were not allowed in the Army, these specimens have been excused their duty, though oddly some of them wished to fight for their country regardless, they simply were not allowed thanks to their sexuality. We do hear some of their gay relatives and boyfriends have been drafted, suggesting there was no real enforcement of these rules with anything like logic. Also intriguing is when the subject of transsexuals comes up: they all say they are happy being male and have no wish to undergo the operation to change gender, which is ironic in the case of "Richard" whose stage name is Rachel Harlow, for she really did undergo the process.
Indeed, she became a minor celebrity over the next few years, not only because of her nightclub, but because she had an affair with Grace Kelly's brother, which caused a scandal: he was married with children, but his career in politics was derailed by his association with a trans woman in a way you would hope society was more enlightened about now, but it does make you wonder if this is so. As for the big event, we do glimpse stars like Andy Warhol, Edie Sedgewick, Terry Southern and Jerry Lieber, though the most famous drag act Mario Montez (fluffing his lines) is probably the main draw for the audience, but Simon ensured it was the contestants who were the focus. It is curious to see their various attempts to feminise themselves, some are gawky, others are doughy even under the slap, and many would not pass muster in a beauty contest now, but the act of getting up on stage is one of bravery, nonetheless. That this ends on a note of bitterness you feel guilty at laughing at was not the note of unity you expect would fly today, but The Queen was like a time tunnel, instructive despite its primitive presentation.