Craig Russell | Image Credits: Getty Images

Welcome back to our queer film retrospective, “A Gay Old Time.” In this week’s column, we revisit the 1977 comedy Outrageous!, one of the first mainstream films to focus on a drag performer.

Drag is perhaps one of the oldest performance acts in history. From gender-bending characters in Shakespearean play to impersonation numbers in vaudeville acts, all the way to Lip Syncs For Your Life on primetime television, it’s been one of the most consistent presences in entertainment.

Although its visibility has obviously become more evident and varied with the years—far more common in alternative and independent circuits—drag has been portrayed on screen in one form or another for almost as long as the medium has existed.

Some films like Some Like It Hot (1959), Victor/ Victoria (1982), and Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) used drag as a pivotal plot point of mistaken or acquired identity, and eventually queens became protagonists themselves, like in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994), To Wong Foo (1995), and Kinky Boots (2005). It may have started as a comedy tool or acting resource, but drag has gradually made its way into mainstream cinema, showcasing the expanding identity and world of the art form. It’s been a slow but steady change.

However, well before that shift came the rare movie that against all odds made its way out of art house obscurity and into the mainstream (or as mainstream as it could get in the ’70s). This week we’ll be taking a look back at one of those rarities; the 1977 Canadian movie Outrageous!, which was one of the first-ever queer-themed movies to get a wide theatrical release in North America.

The Set-Up

Outrageous! follows the story of a disillusioned hairdresser in Toronto named Robin Turner (Craig Russell), who is lacking excitement and “razzle-dazzle” in his life. One day, his childhood friend Liza (Hollis McLaren) escapes from a mental hospital where she’s been recovering from a schizophrenic breakdown, and moves in with him.

With Liza’s help (and her sewing skills), Robin discovers that what he has really longed for was to take his impersonation skills and turn them into a full drag act. He slowly gains prominence in the local bar scene, until he takes his act on the road all the way to New York City. 

Drag In The Spotlight

Image Credit: ‘Outrageous!,’ The Samuel Goldwyn Company

To be honest, Outrageous! is far from a perfect film. It is awkwardly paced, the performances are uneven, it has a depiction of mental health that is tricky at best and offensive and misinformed at worst, and the storylines between Robin and Liza feel so disjointed it often feels like two different movies happening at the same time. But it is, at its heart, a movie that shamelessly celebrates the art of doing drag.

It’s not a movie that features drag queens as mere comedic sidekicks, or has characters doing drag to trick other people or as part of a comedy routine. It is a movie about the joy, nuanced technique, and emotional fulfillment that drag plays not only in a person’s life, but within the entire queer community.

Local Girl

Image Credit: ‘Outrageous!,’ The Samuel Goldwyn Company

The movie opens with Robin watching a drag queen perform in a neighborhood bar. It’s not a flashy performance. It’s not RuPaul coming down the ceiling on a swing in To Wong Foo. It’s not splits and death drops. It’s simply a queen in a frumpy dress and cheap wig doing an imitation act (which any fan of drag will tell you is often some of the best drag out there).

From then on, its depiction of drag remains as something small-scale and local. As something that is not flashy, but personal. As something layered and nuanced that resonates mostly to the queer community, for only them to decipher and enjoy—almost like a private joke. Even as Robin gains some fame, he never tries to become a worldwide superstar, or incorporate flashiness into the act. He just wants to entertain.

Snatch Game

A big part of it comes from the fact that Robin’s act hinges on astonishingly accurate and funny celebrity impersonations. The act that gets him discovered and eventually takes him on the road to New York, is a medley of imitations that would take the win at any Snatch Game: Bette Davis, Tallulah Bankhead, Barbra Streisand, Carol Channing, Marlene Dietrich, Ethel Merman, Ella Fitzgerald, Pearl Bailey, Bette Midler, Judy Garland… Robin can do them all, and do them well.

He can tap into the mannerisms that make each of those divas distinguishable, and makes a show out of them. He (and by extension the movie) understands the appeal of such specific gestures, and how they resonate deeply and singularly with a crowded room of gay men.

Outrageous! also knows and respects how fundamental this type of drag is for the queer community. For Robin, it’s a matter of wanting to continue to exist. He puts everything on the line to make this happen: his jobs, his friends, his reputation. Drag is an extension of his persona; he often carries these imitations into parties and gatherings. The movie knows that drag does not end when he takes off the wig and stops putting on an accent.

Cinema Herstory

Image Credit: ‘Outrageous!,’ The Samuel Goldwyn Company

Although it was one of the first movies with a mainstream release, the cultural imprint of Outrageous! was not the biggest. Few people know about it, and even fewer know that it had a sequel, Too Outrageous!, that came out a decade later (and that we might be covering very soon here).

Its depiction of gay life—and the role of drag inside it—felt out of time then and in many ways still does now, a time when the focus has rightly turned into taking the art into bigger platforms. But it’s nice to remember that drag often shines the brightest not in the tallest, sparkliest stage, but in the dark corners of a dive bar, during a midnight show, where all that is needed to make a crowd get on its feet is good lip sync skills, an ultra specific cultural reference, and an outrageous attitude.

Outrageous! is available to stream via Kanopy and Tubi.

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