'Superstar in a Housedress'

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Jackie Curtis (1947-85) is best remembered as an Andy Warhol superstar. But he resisted all labels in his personal and professional lives, insisting that he was Jackie Curtis before and after Warhol, and that was why he survived — until he succumbed to the drugs that both fueled and consumed him.

That he was much more than a performer is made abundantly clear in his friend Craig B. Highberger's wide-ranging documentary, "Superstar in a Housedress." A poet and a playwright, Curtis skewered sexuality in gleeful travesties, paying homage to such camp icons as Maria Montez, Joan Crawford and Barbara Stanwyck.

Lily Tomlin, who narrates the film, and La Mama theater's Ellen Stewart, who produced many Curtis plays, are among the 30 friends and colleagues who appear in the documentary, which contains comprehensive archival material, not only from such Warhol productions directed by Paul Morrissey as "Flesh" and "Women in Revolt" but also from many of Curtis' plays, which bore campy titles like "Miss Nefertiti Regrets" and "Vain Victory." In surveying Curtis' life and work, Highberger evokes not only Warhol's era but also the artistic world's outer edges, so rich in creativity and so steeped in excess, that flourished during the Vietnam War years and later reverberated through mainstream society.

There are revealing, affectionate observations from Morrissey and fellow Warhol superstars Holly Woodlawn and Joe Dallesandro, as well as valuable insights from writer and art historian Laura de Coppet and performance artist Penny Arcade, both of whom were close friends of Curtis'. Ellen Stewart speaks movingly of Curtis' craving to be recognized as a writer, not merely a celebrity. The film is full of flamboyant personalities, and they all contribute to the impression that Highberger above all wants to pay tribute to Curtis' brave determination to discover and express his ever-changing identity at all costs.

Curtis was "at the nexus of the sexual revolution, gay liberation and feminism," Tomlin observes. While Curtis was hardly the first to create hilarious travesties about Hollywood, he brought to them, in Tomlin's words, a sense of "the absurdity of the culture," along with a scabrous wit, skill and style as a performer and a flair for costumes and makeup. Beyond this, and perhaps even more important, Curtis was a pioneer gender-bender. Moving in and out of drag both onstage and off, Curtis made his life and art a constant expression of sexual fluidity years before the term was coined.

The men in his family were Marines and the women taxi dancers, with the grandmother who raised him becoming the proprietor of a Lower East Side bar. Of Sicilian and Swedish descent, Curtis was born John Holder, and he grew to be tall, slender and hairy-chested, with features delicate enough that he could seem either a handsome man or a glamorous woman.

A copious user of heroin, speed and alcohol, Curtis wrote much of his work under the influence, and this film inevitably suggests that his creative and destructive impulses were probably inseparable. Harvey Fierstein, who played Curtis' mother in his play "Americkan Cleopatra," observes that while he thought Curtis' lifestyle was "killing his art," Curtis himself thought of it as a package deal.

Only when substance abuse threatened his work did Curtis start to struggle with his addictions, for without being able to create, he felt worthless. Curtis clearly had many friends who cared deeply for him, putting up with his often bizarre and reckless behavior, but Highberger's film reveals no lovers at all. Arcade says that Curtis was actually "hardly sexual."

In the last weeks of his life Curtis, tiring of being Jackie, adopted a new male identity, calling himself Shannon Montgomery. He died of a heroin overdose because a fellow user was more intent on introducing him to heterosexual sex than on calling 911. Everything in "Superstar in a Housedress" suggests that it's an irony Jackie Curtis would have appreciated.

'Superstar in a Housedress'

MPAA rating: Unrated

Times guidelines: Adult themes, languages, drugs.

An Abramorama Entertainment release. Writer-producer-director-cinematographer-editor Craig B. Highberger. Executive producer Andrew LaBarbera. Narrator Lily Tomlin. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.Exclusively at the Fairfax Cinemas, Beverly Boulevard at Fairfax Avenue. (323) 655-4010.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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