The documentary Superstar in a Housedress adheres to a format that's already becoming a cliché at the Downtown Media Arts Center: A deceased maven of the New York underground is remembered by his/her surviving cohorts while vintage photos and film clips provide a refresher course in his/her artistic accomplishments. Sadly, director Craig Highberger's film also shares the scattershot approach to biography that marred prior D.MAC docs Haack, Maestro and How to Draw a Bunny. Lurching forward (and sometimes sideways) through an incomplete chronology that relies heavily on anecdotes, the movie fails to fully explain just where its subject, Jackie Curtis, came from and what drove him or her (or whatever) to become one of Andy Warhol's most fabulous discoveries.
On the bright side, it's pretty darn entertaining to hear how everybody around Curtis became enraptured (or so they say) by this vintage iconoclast's take-on-the-world postures. Too tied to both male and female self-images to be considered a pure transvestite (Curtis, we learn, shrank from the designation "drag queen"), the nonetheless frequently cross-dressed artist appears to be beloved far more for what s/he did than what s/he was. As a poet and playwright, Curtis is said to have been remarkably fecund, a trait only partially attributable to his/ her voracious consumption of speed. Appearing in slaphappy stage comedies and films alongside fellow Warhol superstars like Holly Woodlawn and Candy Darling, Curtis hashed out a performance style and persona that made her/him the toast of NYC at a time when flower power was giving way to glitter.
This s/he accomplished despite being blessed with a linebacker's body that made any attempt at female impersonation a stretch at best. The humorous potential of 20th-century gender confusion is one of the leitmotifs of this frequently funny film. Deathless WOR-TV talk-show host Joe Franklin remembers having Curtis and Darling on his program as a happy couple and being utterly unaware that the latter was technically a man.
Franklin is one of a slew of contemporaries interviewed, including Warhol actor Joe Dallesandro and writer/director Paul Morrissey. And Village Voice columnist Michael Musto shows up to prove once more that you can become a household name without ever actually doing anything; being around people who do things is good enough.
Yet with so much eyewitness intelligence to exploit, the movie sometimes seems less than reliable. Interviewee Leee Black Childers is identified on the screen as the "manager" of David Bowie and Iggy Pop; in reality, he was merely on the staff of the MainMan managerial firm that handled both artists. That sort of gaffe inevitably casts a veil of suspicion over everything that follows it, but the main reason that the undeniably fun Superstar in a Housedress falls short of must-see status is that it imparts little sense of the exceptional. In the retelling (and despite having rejected the title) Curtis doesn't seem that different from any typical drag queen: We hear over and over again that s/he took a lot of drugs and did uproariously outrageous things. Only Curtis' reportedly lax attitude toward personal hygiene busts the behavioral stereotype. And while the unearthed onstage footage is quite a find in historical terms, the plays themselves don't look anywhere near as amusing as everyone consulted (including fellow performer Harvey Fierstein) remembers them to be. Viewed through the blasé lens of hindsight, yesterday's Superstar looks about as subversive as today's American Idol.
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