Gender illusionists have long found their homes in the entertainment industry. From Japan's Noh theatre (where men perform both male and female roles) to the Elizabethan Renaissance theatre (where, because women were forbidden by law to perform onstage, female roles were usually played by 13- to 19-year-old boys), drag has been a constant source of entertainment.
- In 2004, a Christmas production of Sandy Wilson's beloved pantomime, Aladdin, featured Sir Ian McKellan as Widow Twankey.
- Brian Bedford recently finished an extended Broadway run as Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest.
- Hollywood stars like Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, Dustin Hoffman, Robin Williams, Milton Berle, Harvey Korman, Nathan Lane, Eddie Murphy, John Travolta and Tyler Perry have all appeared in drag.
- A film adaptation of Varla Jean and the Mushroomheads recently had its world premiere at the Provincetown International Film Festival.
- When one considers the careers of performers like Alexis Arquette, Charles Busch, Candy Darling, Nong Thoom, Charles Pierce, Craig Russell and Pieter Dirk-Uys, it becomes obvious that these actors have found a way to put their talents and sexual orientation to good use. Whether one thinks about a professional comedian like Eddie Izzard or a political activist like Sylvia Rivera (who was a founding member of New York's Gay Liberation Front, Gay Activists Alliance, and Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries), these people don't hesitate to use makeup and clothing to challenge the status quo.
Although most people know the lyrics to Jerry Herman's song, "I Am What I Am" from La Cage aux Folles, they often forget that, with the following lyrics, the exact same song is used as the show's opening number for Les Cagelles:
"We are what we are and what we are is an illusion.
We love how it feels putting on heels, causing confusion.
We face life though it's sometimes sweet and sometimes bitter;
Face life, with a little guts and lots of glitter.
Look under our frocks: Girdles and jocks,
Proving we are what we are!
We are what we are -- half a brassiere, half a suspender.
Half real and half fluff, you'll find it tough guessing our gender.
So, just (whistling) if we please you that's the way to show us.
Just (whistling) 'cause you'll love us once you get to know us.
Look under our glitz: muscles and tits,
Proving we are what we are!"
Some performers in recent generations have chosen not to limit their cross dressing to the stage. Whether one considers such personalities as Donna Sachet, Dame Edna, or The Lady Bunny, each of these actors has done a splendid job of creating a brand for audience consumption.
Two smashing new gay movie musicals burst off the screen with the kind of androgynous appeal and in-your-face performances reminiscent of that great Australian drag spectacle, 1994's Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.
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Written by Shiri Artzi and directed by Eytan Fox (The Bubble, Walk on Water, Yossi & Jagger), Mary Lou is the story of a young gay Israeli man whose happiness is shattered in the middle of his 10th birthday party when his mother, Miriam Levi (Maya Dagan), abandons her family. As a young boy, Meir had worshipped his mother (who in turn worshipped the music of Israeli rock star, Svika Pick).
Through thick and thin, as children and adults, Meir (Ido Rosenberg), and his best friend, Shuli (Dana Frider), followed in Miriam's footsteps by expressing all of their emotions through the lyrics of songs written by Svika Pick. Although the two never imagined that anything or anyone could possibly come between them, all it took was the arrival of the handsome Gabi (Alon Levi) on campus to turn their lives upside down and inside out.
While Meir's father, David (Shmuel Vilozni), tries to cope with the humiliation of his wife's unexplained departure, Meir's fertile imagination conjures up a variety of scenarios in which his mother always leaves to become a backup singer for her idol. Unwilling to accept abandonment as a reality, Meir has always wondered how, when, and where he might be reunited with his mother.
Determined to ask Svika Pick (who is one of the judges on Israeli Idol) what he knows about Miriam's whereabouts, Meir manages to steal his way backstage during auditions while a new friend, Uri (Yedidia Vital), creates a distraction with his guitar. Although Meir doesn't get the answers he had hoped for, Uri invites him to come watch him perform that evening.
As Meir soon learns, Uri's stage name is Miss Sunshine, Although rejected by the talent scouts at Israeli Idol, he is one of the stars of The Holy Wigs, a drag troupe consisting of Tziona Patriot (Yuval Edelman), Talula Bonet (Tal Kallai), Kiara Duple (Lior Cohen), and Gallina Port des Bras (Gil Naveh). After bringing Meir home from the performance, Uri arranges for him to become one of the show's backstage dressers.
One night, when Uri fails to show up on time, Meir is forced to go on in his place. In the ensuing months, Meir learns a great deal about himself while performing in drag with his newly-adopted gay family and trying to track down clues about Miriam. Meanwhile, Uri falls for Shlomi (Angel Bonanni), an abusive closeted taxi driver and Shuli's romance with Gabi falls apart. When Gabi, who is just about as butch as an Israeli soldier can be, shows up at the nightclub in search of Shuli, he and Meir meet for the first time since humiliating each other at their graduation party.
Much to Meir's surprise, Gabi shows a mild curiosity about wigs and makeup. After he spends the night, Meir falls deeply in love. Several weeks later, after Tziona has convinced his new star to pour all of his anguish about his mysterious mother into his art, Meir triumphs onstage and ends up sharing his bed with the exhausted Shuli and Gabi. Left alone the following morning, he learns that tragedy has struck.
The Holy Wigs attend the funeral of a fallen sister
Bereft, bothered, and bewildered, he returns home to see his father who, in a breathtaking plot twist, reveals what happened to Miriam (audiences may be shocked by the film's ending). What holds Mary Lou together (in addition to Svika Pick's music) is an astonishingly strong performance by Ido Rosenberg. Whether serving as the film's dark-haired narrator or living and working as a bottle blond drag queen, Rosenberg's Meir is such a sensitive and dynamic character that he quickly captures the audience's heart.
Shuli, Meir, and Gabriel spend the night together
Strong support comes from Ze'ev Revach as Jack, Tchiya Danon as Sarah Hajbi, and Svika Pick, who makes a cameo appearance. Mary Lou (which receives its American premiere at San Francisco's Castro Theatre from September 17-21) is definite cause for celebration.
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Written by Glenn Gaylord and directed by Sheldon Larry, Leave It On The Floor is one of the most successfully realized contemporary movie musicals. Originally inspired by the underground ballroom scene depicted in 1990's documentary, Paris is Burning, Larry's movie musical is set in South Los Angeles. In the film, a drag queen named Christina Allure is played by Lady Red Couture (who stands 6'7" without heels).
The plot is like a modern day equivalent to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Bradley Darnell Lyle (Ephraim Sykes) is a black teenager with an abusive mother (Metra Dee). When Brad tells Deondra that he's gay, she throws him out of their home and leaves him to fend for himself. While at a convenience store, he makes eye contact with an androgynous figure named Carter (Andre Myers). Each promptly picks the other's pocket.
Three of the male dancers in Leave It On The Floor
Carter, however, is a member of the House of Eminence, which is ruled by Queef Latina (Miss Barbie-Q). Among her charges are Princess Eminence (Phillip Evelyn), and Duke Eminence (Cameron Koa). A former champion of the drag ball scene, Queef Latina is waiting for her man, Caldwell Jones (Demarkes Dogan) to be released from prison. She is in no mood for Princess to get the hots for a cute young thing like Brad. Nor does she need an extra mouth to feed or another "child" to care for.
Phillip Evelyn as Princess Eminence
Although this film was made on a small budget, Sheldon Larry smartly called on his current and former students from USC's School of Cinematic Arts for help. As he explains:
"No studio or large production company would ever have invested in a ballroom musical! Leave It on the Floor has been made in a fleet-footed, penny-pinching partnership. What we have accomplished is nothing short of miraculous. Where there is a passion to make a film, there is now -- with today's technologies and bullheaded commitment -- truly a way."
One of the film's finest assets is its musical score by Kimberly Burse. Songs such as "Loser's List," "Black Love," and "My Lament" will have a strong appeal to young audiences. Set in a bowling alley, a production number entitled "Knock Them Mothaf*kk**'s Down" bursts with the kind of angry energy that shocked Broadway theatergoers when West Side Story opened in 1957.
A hot moment in the bowling alley during "Knock The Motherf**ka's Down"
In his production notes, the filmmaker stresses that:
"It was all-important to create the world with as much truth and celebration as we could. With names like House of Garcon, House of Chanel, House of Allure, these kids compete for trophies and sometimes money at monthly galas, each one sponsored by a different house. With a different theme and sometimes more than 50 categories, these events are rowdy, energetic, sexually-charged entertainments which rarely get started before 2 am. In dance, too, these kids are on the cutting edge. They battle with free-style improvisation using moves that are a cross between hip-hop, break dancing, Brazilian capoeira and a knife fight. Fights sometimes do break out as well. At one ball I attended, proceedings ended prematurely when a house member actually pulled a gun. A contestant had been 'chopped' (eliminated). He didn't like a judge's decision, and so he threw himself across the judges' table. House members started fighting rival house members, a gun came out and the police flew in!""
Dancers on the runway in Leave It On The Floor
Leave It On The Floor unflinchingly addresses the phenomenon of gay kids who have been thrown out of their family's homes and managed to find their way into an alternate family structure. As they enter houses such as House of Chanel, Allure, Glamazonians, Xtravaganza, Klein, and Mizrahi, their music, costume and fashion design, choreography and newly-coined language go on to become the new/now/next of tomorrow's popular culture. The fantastic costume designs worn by Lady Gaga often are inspired by outfits seen in the ball scene.
There's plenty of beefcake on display in Leave It On The Floor
In a poignant scene in 2008's Departures, a Japanese mortician gently asks a grieving father whether he wants the body of his transsexual son to be made up as a man or as a woman. In Leave It On The Floor, the funeral of Eppie Durall (James Alsop), who has been killed in an automobile accident, turns into a showdown between a young man's blood relations and the members of the House of Eminence in a fierce production number entitled "His Name Is Shawn." As the filmmaker explains:
"Once invited to join a house, kids renounce their surname and take on their house name. Brad meets the motley members of Eminence house. They use the family terms like 'parent,' 'mother,' 'son,' 'daughter,' and 'sister' to describe the powerful relationships they have built together. Eminence House is run by 'Mama' Queef Latina, a 30-something powerhouse who once had legendary status as a category winner. Queef, like her real-life counterparts, rules the house with love and authority: scolding, counseling, and watching out for the welfare of her children. In our film, Eminence House is actually bricks and mortar. The clan occupies a rundown rental house in a marginal neighborhood where the 'outcasts, freaks, and the temporarily displaced' of the group share dormitory bedrooms housing as many as five. The house exists as a safe environment where the members socialize, help each other with family or job issues, counsel each other on crushes, health, and sex, plan the balls, and prepare their costumes or choreography for the monthly events."
Roxy Wood is one of the glam house mothers in Leave It On The Floor
If you're the kind of person who thinks you might not enjoy a film about drag queens, house music, and underground ball scenes, throw your inhibitions out the window. Leave It On The Floor demands to be seen for Frank Gatson, Jr.'s high energy choreography, its fabulous costume designs, and Kimberly Burse's kickass score. The winning combination of Sheldon Larry's direction and Tom Camarda's cinematography will blow your socks off. Here's the trailer:
To read more of George Heymont go to My Cultural Landscape