|Craig Russell in Outrageous!
Long before RuPaul or Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, when drag on film was the domain of straight actors wearing bad wigs for cheap laughs, there was the 1977 Canadian Outrageous!
Directed by the unknown Richard Benner and starring an all-Canadian cast working on a shoestring budget, Outrageous! defied the odds to become an international hit, and one of the first widely distributed gay-themed films in North America.
The loosely autobiographical film follows Robin Turner (played by Canadian female impersonator Craig Russell), a Toronto hairstylist who finds he has an outrageous talent for drag. From Bette Davis to Judy Garland, Robin’s specialty is impersonating movie starlets from the Golden Age of film.
After being fired from his hair salon gig for openly performing in drag, he packs up his wigs and eyeliner and moves to New York with dreams of becoming a star. Things get complicated when long-time friend, now escaped mental patient, Liza Connors (Hollis McLaren) starts rooming with him.
Groundbreaking for its open portrayal of drag culture, the film inspired actor Harvey Fierstein (himself a female impersonator at the time) not to give up on a performance career, and The Kids in the Hall’s Scott Thompson to come out as gay.
The story was inspired by Canadian writer Margaret Gibson’s 1976 short story Making It. Gibson, who struggled with mental illness, roomed with Russell in the early 1970s and based the work on her experiences with him.
After scrounging up barely enough funds to start shooting, having to pump some of their personal finances into the $167,000 project, producers clashed with Benner. He wanted a purely auteur film; they wanted commercial appeal. What we got was something equal parts authentic and entertaining. It was dangerous and conventional all at once, allowing the film to find huge appeal beyond its niche subject matter.
Russell won Best Actor at the 1978 Berlin International Festival for his role in Outrageous! and has the rare distinction of winning both Best Actor and Best Actress at the Virgin Islands Film Festival.
A sequel was made, again directed by Benner and starring Russell, 10 years later. It failed to find an audience. A musical version was also produced for stage in 2000.
You can watch Outrageous! in full on YouTube here:http://youtu.be/sq3KlxwV4_8