SUPERSTAR IN A HOUSEDRESSNR
It's the many talking heads--some famous today or well-known in certain hip pop-culture corners--who steal the thunder from documentary subject Jackie Curtis in filmmaker Craig B. Highberger's workmanlike Superstar in a Housedress. That's hardly Highberger's or Curtis' fault: The cross-dressing diva--who was a scene-making writer, performer and total character in New York's downtown subversive art scene when Andy Warhol reigned--was rarely captured in footage of actual performance. Thus, Superstar, while embracing some grainy material of a yapping, preening Curtis at work in gender-teasing cabaret or theatre, relies largely on the words and reminiscences of colleagues and friends.
We learn that Curtis was a lower-middle-class kid from the East Village who sought in his late teens to escape a lousy background by getting famous. Best remembered as a drag performer like pals Candy Darling and Holly Woodlawn, he went back and forth between female and male phases, although it was Jackie as female that sparked. He was fixated on celebrity, on Hollywood of the '30s and '40s and, in an infrequent embrace of his true biology, on James Dean.
As friends and colleagues tell it, Curtis was the brainiest of the Curtis/Darling/Woodlawn diva troika. He was also a rascal who mooched. And he was a creative machine given to handwritten diaries of play notations and sketches. And given his line of work, inclinations, clique and the time capsule he landed in, Curtis was an alcoholic and drug addict. Whether veering toward the female or male, Curtis was, apparently, mainly asexual, a paradox given the circumstances of his death.
Among the many providing testimony are comedian Lily Tomlin, who also supplies some narration, close friend and performance artist Penny Arcade, photographer Jack Mitchell, journalist/raconteur Michael Musto, fringe director John Vaccaro, Warhol director Paul Morrissey, La MaMa founder Ellen Stewart, and scenemaker/author Laura de Coppet, who allows she was legendary art dealer Leo Castelli's lover.
From all the commentary, there are plenty of mixed signals: Tomlin brands Curtis "a natural satirist" and Holly Woodlawn, sharing an amusing escapade she had with Candy Darling and Curtis, brands him a shoplifter. Of course, Superstar is an evocation of the naughty, pre-AIDS '70s and early '80s, when nice just didn't cut it and "trashy" was the highest compliment.
Also on hand for some Curtis insight is Tony winner Harvey Fierstein, whose theatrical roots sprang from Curtis' Americka Cleopatra and who claims that Curtis "was always stealing other people's makeup." Also showing up at Highberger's tell-a-thon is two-time Oscar nominee Sylvia Miles, again proving there's nary a hip scene she's missed. The film's talking heads were among those in Curtis' intimate circle, which his oddball fame expanded into a wider circle of fans happy to storm the traditional barricades of sexuality, behavior and popular art.
Whether the Curtis persona and its vivid evocation of an era as presented in Superstar can cross over to an even wider circle remains to be seen, given that gay has gone mainstream, La Cage aux Folles has gone classic, and Dame Edna is about to make her second Broadway splash. Happily, New York's Film Forum, which is launching this entertaining and fine-looking doc, is giving new life to this colorful character who, dead at 38, showed too little respect for his own life.