10 great drag films

As our John Waters season rollicks into London, with some of Divine’s greatest moments getting the full treatment, we remember some of the best films featuring men and women in drag.

Pink Flamingos (1972)

Fans of highbrow, look away now, as John Waters, ‘The Pope of Trash’, is coming to BFI Southbank for a complete retrospective, with the man himself introducing many of the screenings. He has also curated a mini-season called Teabaggin’ in the Kitchen Sink: My Favourite British Films, including Derek Jarman’s Blue (1993), Freddie Francis’s loopy Joan Crawford starrer Trog (1970) and Joseph Losey’s 1968 Boom, which Waters calls “a film so beautiful and awful there is only one word to describe it: perfect. If you don’t like this film, I hate you.”

All of Waters’ collaborations with Divine are being shown, from the well-known trashy classics to rarely screened early underground curios, such as Roman Candles (1966) and Eat Your Make-up (1968). Divine was a revolutionary drag performer, who elevated the form from female impersonation into something much more interesting and challenging. Although best known for his ferocious performances in Pink Flamingos (1972) and Female Trouble (1974), Divine also used his drag to send up the victimised heroines of Hollywood melodrama in Polyester (1981), drab portrayals of female working-class drudgery in Hairspray (1988) and, most provocatively, real-life tragedy, such as The Diane Linkletter Story (1970), filmed immediately after the subject had killed herself.

Divine is just one of many interesting takes on drag in the cinema. From the silent era, it has been a comic staple, with pretty much every male comic star of note donning a frock for laughs. Like Divine, many British stars played exaggerated women rather than men in drag for comic effect, from the sublime (Alastair Sim in the St Trinian’s films) to the dreadful (Arthur Lucan, who played the title character in over a dozen Old Mother Riley features). The cinema tradition continues with Mrs. Brown’s Boys D’Movie (2014), a spin-off from the wildly successful TV series. Even reality TV has got in on the act, with RuPaul’s Drag Race having recently finished its seventh season.

As for women dressing in male clothes, the 1930s proved to be a golden era – as well as the three films listed below, Greta Garbo gave one of her best performances as Queen Christina (1933), who pretends to be male to get more freedom, and German actor Elisabeth Bergner took on the role of the cross-dressing Rosalind in As You Like It (1936). Although drag was usually the territory of men in the Carry On films, Juliet Mills donned male attire in Carry On Jack (1963), while Nia Vardalos and Toni Collette had a ball pretending to be drag queens in Connie and Carla (2004).

Many very good films have been left off the list. Funeral Parade of Roses (1969) is a fascinating, outrageous tragedy featuring stars from the Tokyo underground gay scene; Craig Russell gave some uncanny female celebrity impersonations in Outrageous! (1977); and La Cage aux folles (1978), later remade as The Birdcage (1996), is a laugh riot. The Queen (1968) and Wigstock: The Movie (1995), meanwhile, offer great records of drag performers from yesteryear.

Viktor und Viktoria (1933)

Director: Reinhold Schünzel

Viktor und Viktoria (1933)

Like Charlie’s Aunt, Viktor und Viktoria is a drag tale that has been remade in several countries, most famously in the underrated First a Girl (1935) and the overrated Victor/Victoria (1982). In the original German version, Renate Müller stars as Viktoria, a down-on-her-luck showgirl who befriends a female impersonator and fills in for him one night when he is sick. The show is a smash, and Viktoria finds herself in the position of being a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman – who, to add to the fun, falls in love with a man (Anton Walbrook), who thinks she is a man.

The film was made at the tail-end of the Weimar Republic, before the Nazi party came to power and production of such risqué films was halted. Like Jessie Matthews and Julie Andrews, who played the role in the UK and USA versions, Müller never really looks like a man, but she gives an utterly charming performance, and is great in the comedy set pieces where ‘Viktor’ must publicly indulge in the masculine activities of smoking cigars, drinking liquor and getting a shave at the barber. She died four years later in mysterious circumstances.

Sylvia Scarlett (1935)

Director: George Cukor

Sylvia Scarlett (1935)

A box-office flop that temporarily led to Katharine Hepburn being dubbed “box-office poison”, this strange but hugely enjoyable comedy-drama stars her as the daughter of an embezzler (Edmund Gwenn). She disguises herself as a boy to avoid detection from the police and the two form a team with Cary Grant’s con artist. Hepburn, looking stunning as a boy, gives one of her best performances, alternately funny as the often rather clueless hero and tragic when her father succumbs to insanity.

It would be the first of four films in which Hepburn and Grant starred together, although here he is a dubious mentor rather than a love interest. Although Hepburn’s drag is a plot device rather than motivated by sexuality, she and Dennie Moore unexpectedly share an on-the-lips kiss. Bizarrely, it is in the opening scene, in which Hepburn appears at her most feminine with long plaits and a billowing dress, that the character is least convincing.

Yiddle with His Fiddle (1936)

Directors: Joseph Green and Jan Nowina-Przybylski

Yiddle with His Fiddle (1936)

Five decades before Barbra Streisand donned male garb and earned a best director Golden Globe for Yentl (1983), American star Molly Picon starred as Itke, a musician who disguises herself as a boy (‘Yidl’) for safety and travels around the Polish countryside with her father. As is so often the way with female characters who disguise themselves as men, she soon falls for a guy – a fellow musician – who is bemused by Yidl’s traditionally feminine behaviour. Can Itke reveal the truth, win his love and wind up with a lucrative singing contract in the US?

It’s a poignant classic of Yiddish cinema. Picon bursts with charisma as the occasionally rather brattish hero, and the songs are terrific. Most valuable are the shots of shtetl life, shot in Kazimierz Dolny with real locals. In just a few years, these Jewish communities would be destroyed forever.

Some Like It Hot (1959)

Director: Billy Wilder

Some Like It Hot (1959)

An obvious inclusion, but few classic comedies remain as fresh and funny as this Billy Wilder farce, starring Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis as men who, after witnessing an assassination, don drag and join a women’s jazz band to hide out from murderous gangsters. They encounter Marilyn Monroe’s Sugar, a jaded singer who’s sick of getting “the fuzzy end of the lollipop” in life. Curtis swaps drag for a sailor suit and a Cary Grant impression to woo Monroe, who falls for his charms, but the real love story is going on elsewhere.

Jack Lemmon’s Daphne attracts the affections of a millionaire (Joe E. Brown) and reluctantly consents to a date to keep up the charade, only to have the time of his life being wined, dined and romanced, and accepts his marriage proposal (albeit, Lemmon protests, for financial gain). This leads to the famous final scene, where Brown effortlessly nails one of the best last lines in cinema history. Like nobody, the film is perfect.

An Actor’s Revenge (1963)

Director: Kon Ichikawa

An Actor’s Revenge (1963)

Kazuo Hasegawa takes on two roles in Kon Ichikawa’s beautiful, operatic tale. He plays Yukinojō, an actor in a Kabuki troupe who has become an onnagata, a male actor who specialises in female roles, who exacts a terrible revenge on the three men responsible for the deaths of his parents when he was a child. He also plays a Robin Hood-esque robber, whose sardonic commentary lightens the drama. The opening credits proudly trumpet that this was Hasegawa’s 300th role.

Hasegawa is magnificent in both roles. Yukinojō is a complex character, who moves from inscrutability to despair to firm resolve to – in a genuinely chilling scene where he takes on the guise of his father’s ghost – furious rage. The theme of disguise pervades throughout – Yukinojō continues to wear women’s clothing and traditionally feminine mannerisms off-stage, adding another layer of enigma to the character. It’s one of the best films by a director who had previously made the Oscar-nominated The Burmese Harp (1956) and the disturbing Conflagration (1958).

Goodbye Gemini (1970)

Director: Alan Gibson

Goodbye Gemini (1970)

The most politically incorrect film on this list is also one of the most interesting. The drag queen characters appear only briefly – kicking their heels at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, and lustfully pawing the antihero – but as symbols of depravity and deviance, they represent the mood of the film. The main plotline follows two adult twins, played by Judy Geeson and Martin Potter, who start their joyous life in London by deliberately hospitalising their dour landlady. Things get more creepy as it becomes clear the brother has sexual urges towards his sister.

Halfway through the film, the brother, high on weed, has a sexual encounter with two drag queens (Ricky Renée and Barry Scott, both scene stars of the day), although whether it’s rape or consensual is unclear in the film. A blackmail attempt adds to his gay panic, and soon a killing takes place. Wild and weird, Goodbye Gemini is a fascinating curio that offers an eccentric and ambiguous look at London’s gay life at the end of the swinging 60s.

Polyester (1981)

Director: John Waters

Polyester (1981)

Although not as grotesque as when playing the filthiest woman in the world in Pink Flamingos nor as outrageous as her role as the cha cha heels-loving monster Dawn Davenport in Female Trouble, Divine gives one of his best performances as downtrodden housewife Francine Fishpaw in Polyester (1981), who is offered the chance to escape her miserable homelife when the dashing Todd Tomorrow (Tab Hunter) enters her life. Although it was given a R-rating rather than the X-certificate John Waters films usually sport, there is still plenty to offend (sample line: “I’m gonna get an abortion and I can’t wait!”)

Rather than grotesquerie, most of the laughs here come from its loving satire of 1950s melodramas, notably the work of Douglas Sirk, with lashings of overripe dialogue and overblown characterisation. For the first time, Waters managed to coax a major Hollywood star to one of his films, with Tab Hunter having a high old time as the love interest. Sadly it’s also the last time the wonderful Edith Massey would act for Waters – one review said of her performance: “It’s not clear whether she deserves an Oscar or a 24-hour nurse.” And if that’s not enough, it was presented in ‘Odorama’ – scratch and sniff cards allowed audiences to enjoy the scents of gasoline, glue and, inevitably, a fart.

Tootsie (1982)

Director: Sydney Pollack

Tootsie (1982)

This riotous comedy, about Michael, an actor (Dustin Hoffman) who pretends to be a woman called Dorothy to win a prime role on daytime TV, was recently voted the best film of all time in a Time Out poll voted for by actors. I’ve never quite shared the love many have towards this comedy. Some of the scenes of gay panic, notably when Jessica Lange’s Julie believes that Dorothy has lesbian feelings towards her, date the film unpleasantly. And why does Michael want Julie anyway, when Teri Garr’s Sandy is much more fun (how Lange beat Garr to the best supporting actress Oscar remains a mystery).

But so much of it is laugh-out-loud funny, it still deserves its classic status. Hoffman’s wicked comic timing, especially in the soap opera scenes, is at its zenith, and there are marvellous comic turns from Garr, George Gaynes and Bill Murray. Its indictment of everyday sexism, as Dorothy is subjected to groping and patronising endearments (“I have a name: it’s Dorothy. It’s not Tootsie or Toots or Sweetie or Honey or Doll”) is as relevant as ever, although it’s a shame that, in Tootsie, it takes a man rather than woman to make the point.

Paris Is Burning (1990)

Director: Jennie Livingston

Paris Is Burning (1990)

This remarkable, moving documentary captures the New York ball subculture, where LGBT people stomp or dance in costume for trophies and crowd approval. Much more than a simple drag pageant, the events play with notions of gender and social class, and were performed and viewed by working-class black and Latino gay men and trans women. The film was enormously influential, and famously documented the athletic pose-performance of ‘voguing’, soon magpied by Madonna in one of her most famous songs. Key phrases from it have been passed down into popular culture through RuPaul’s Drag Race, with phrases such as ‘reading’, ‘shade’ and ‘drag mother’ reaching new audiences.

Accusations of cultural appropriation have plagued the film, but Jennie Livingston’s documentary, a key work from the New Queer Cinema movement, remains funny, sad and deeply moving 25 years on. Many of the main participants died young from AIDS-related illnesses, while one of the most likeable and witty subjects, Venus Xtravaganza, was murdered during filming. Paris Is Burning is a wonderful tribute to them all.

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994)

Director: Stephan Elliott

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994)

Another familiar favourite, this Aussie comedy features three actors best known for uber-masculine roles – Terence Stamp, Hugo Weaving and Guy Pearce – as drag queens on a journey across the Australian outback. Stamp plays a grieving trans woman, Weaving a gay man hoping to connect with his son after years apart, and Pearce as an overconfident and often obnoxious upstart. Their journey is soundtracked by Abba, and the script is packed with quotable oneliners. Films don’t get much camper.

The portrayal of a female Filipino woman as a mean-spirited sex worker leans too far into racist stereotype, but despite its political incorrectness and bawdiness of spirit, the film’s confrontation of homophobia is powerfully handled, from Pearce’s character narrowly avoiding being beaten up to his fitting response to some anti-gay graffiti, which he simply paints bright pink. The amazing costumes won an Oscar, and the film spawned a successful stage musical.

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