2½ stars (out of 4)
In the movies, stardom can be ephemeral. So, of course, can superstardom--especially as the term applies to that flashy, trashy, sometimes doom-ridden constellation of Manhattan sex symbols and instant celebrities who clustered around Andy Warhol in the '60s. One of the most talented and doom-ridden of them all, transvestite actress-playwright Jackie Curtis is smartly, tartly profiled in "Superstar in a Housedress" at the Facets Cinematheque. It's an engrossing peek at an era that now seems as meteoric, crazy and distant as the Roaring Twenties.
Jackie, born John Curtis Holder in 1950 on New York's Lower East Side, was a more unlikely cross-dresser than his chums, confreres and fellow Warhol demigods Holly Woodlawn (Harold Ajzenberg) and Candy Darling (James Slattery), all three of whom act (up) together in Warhol and Paul Morrissey's 1972 "Women in Revolt." Woodlawn was fragile and Darling was glamorous. But Curtis, a 6 foot 2 hunk with, as people keep saying here, the "build of a linebacker," really had to overcome natural endowments to be a believable woman.
Which he did. His imaginary creation was a tough-talking babe in torn, shredded and often filthy stockings and dresses. As a guy, in fellow Warhol prodigy Lou Reed's words, Jackie "thought he was James Dean for a day." But as a gal, with his large frame and a five o'clock shadow peeking through his makeup, he had to evoke femininity through sheer acting talent. The movie shows he had quite a bit, ill-recorded, neglected, but not forgotten.
A lot of Curtis' old pals, acquaintances, admirers, fellow actors and ex-druggies recall him here; it's a demi-monde gallery that includes Morrissey, Woodlawn, Michael Musto, La Mama founder Ellen Stewart, writer Laura de Coppett, Sylvia Miles, Lily Tomlin (who also narrates) and that old scene-stealer Harvey Fierstein--who steals a bit of this movie too. Missing, understandably, is Robert De Niro, who made his stage debut in a Curtis play, "Glamour, Glory and Gold."
Directed by Craig B. Highberger, another veteran of that scene, "Superstar" is not particularly well-filmed. It's another collection of talking heads, with tantalizing glimpses of Curtis (who died in 1985 of a heroin overdose) in sparing archival footage. But these talking heads are an amusing crew, and the movie itself an amusing trip back to an era when superstars could be seen on the subways.
"Superstar in a Housedress"
Plays Fri.-Thu. at Facets Cinematheque, 1517 W. Fullerton Ave. Call 773-281-4114 or visit www.facets.org/cinematheque. No MPAA rating; adult (frank discussions of sexuality and drugs). Running time: 1:35.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times