In ‘The Queen,’ Rivals Pour Their Hearts Out

The human comedy struts the boards in “The Queen,” Frank Simon’s 1968 documentary of the Miss All-American Camp Beauty Pageant — a small movie with a big heart that is being revived at the IFC Center in a new 4K digital restoration.

Female impersonation was illegal in New York when “The Queen” was made, except onstage. (Ridiculous theater was in its glory days.) The pageant, a brainchild of the promoter Jack Doroshow, was held in Manhattan in 1967 and advertised as “a satirical happening.”

Mr. Doroshow, then in his mid-20s and an organizer of many previous such shows, plays a fond, if acerbic, materfamilias both offstage and on, under the name Flawless Sabrina. Resplendently coifed, wearing drag she describes as a “bar mitzvah mother thing,” Sabrina bears a slight resemblance to Joan Rivers and exhibits a showbiz savvy to match, riffing on the difficulty of finding a hotel “hip enough” to house her contestants. (It turns out to be a Times Square fleabag.)

Directed and partly shot by Frank Simon, “The Queen” is a credible exercise in Maysles Brothers-style cinéma vérité focused on subjects who clearly enjoy being on camera. Answering questions posed by two of the pageant’s judges, the writer Terry Southern and the painter Larry Rivers, the contestants openly discuss past beauty shows, their families, their interest (or lack thereof) in transitioning to women, and, relevant to the moment, their draft status.

Their solidarity is impressive up until the pageant’s final moments. One of the few manifestations of diva temperament is a sulky demand for an “emergency wig” by Miss Harlow, an 18-year-old native of Philadelphia and the eventual winner, doted on by the camera and Sabrina. There is reason to wonder if the fix is in, which is exactly what the second runner-up, Miss Crystal, claims, seizing the drama queen crown with a splendid tantrum.

Released by Grove Press in June 1968, “The Queen” played well at the Kips Bay Theater and went to the Cannes International Film Festival. Reviewing the film for The New York Times, Renata Adler was enthusiastic about the film, which she said “shows us another America,” but she was also a bit patronizing: “It is good to watch for about an hour these colorful human beings whose entire self-image is a put-on.” Andrew Sarris, the critic for the presumably less square Village Voice, was simply patronizing: “The drag-queen contestants are eminently likable in curiously peripheral ways.”

Talented too, I’d say: One of them belts out a witty version of “Honey Bun,” the cross-dressing showstopper from “South Pacific.” Best of all, the underground superstar Mario Montez, introduced with the honorific “Mister,” drops by to perform a slightly mangled version of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.” Endearingly disheveled, he serves as reminder that all the contestants are self-created works of art.

Also on the bill, “Queens at Heart” is a mid-1960s relic, subjecting four people in various stages of gender transition to a pseudo-sociological interrogation. Much is made of their double lives — something mirrored by the 22-minute movie itself, at once an exploitation film and an educational one, with a tone variously prurient, dismissive and nonjudgmental.

The Queen

IFC Center, 323 Sixth Avenue, Manhattan; 212-924-7771,

Rewind is an occasional column covering revived, restored and rediscovered movies playing in New York’s repertory theaters.

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