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Review: ‘The Queen,’ a frank and funny observation of drag life in 1960s New York

‘The Queen’
A scene from the documentary “The Queen.”
(Kino Lorber)

Before “Paris Is Burning” there was “The Queen,” Frank Simon’s frank and funny observation of drag life in 1960s New York, which follows the events of the 1967 Miss All-American Camp Beauty Pageant. Kino Lorber has released a new 4K restoration of the film from the original camera negative that is as flawless as our hostess herself, the legendary drag queen Flawless Sabrina, seen here at only 24 years old, fully self-possessed as “Mother” to her flock of aspiring beauty queens.

This documentary is the blueprint for the representation of drag we know today, including “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and its behind-the-scenes companion show, “Untucked.” We witness these shy young men in sweaters drop their guard to become giggling comrades and, ultimately, preening divas over the course of pageant prep. In between rehearsals, they discuss their lives, from facing the draft board, to their small hometowns, with a fascinating frankness.

“The Queen” has gained cult status for a wild blow-up during the last five minutes of the film, when third runner-up Miss Crystal LaBejia, one of the great grand dames of the legendary House of LaBejia, throws a fit after the crowning of a young, Twiggy-esque Miss Harlow, declaring that her “makeup is terrible, darling.” It’s one of those moments where we get to see the real deal, nothing polished and poised. It’s the spark of a true legend. But as Sabrina declares at the opening of the pageant, “Every one of these contestants before they come out here is a winner,” which “The Queen” makes absolutely clear.

‘The Queen’
Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 6 minutes

Playing: Starts July 26, Laemmle Glendale

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