Robin Williams’s Undervalued Restraint in The Birdcage (1996)

Usually, when we praise comedians for their acting, it’s when they Get Serious in a dramatic role. When Melissa McCarthy goes dark for a Can You Ever Forgive Me? or Bill Murray dulls down his irreverence for a Lost in Translation, it almost feels like a cynical Oscars play – because those are the roles that get prestige-circle accolades. Robin Williams’s career is an excellent sample of this pattern, since the hyperactive goofballery of his comedy and the reserved vulnerability of his dramatic performances are at such drastically opposed extremes. Williams’s dramatic turns in grounded, sober films like Dead Poets Society & Good Will Hunting are paradoxically showy in their restraint, considering how starkly different they are from the frantic, coke-rattled mania of his comedic sidekick roles and his on-stage stand-up routines. His awards attention for those more somber, restrained performances practically register as a child getting a lollipop for good behavior.

If we’re going out of our way to highlight Williams’s finest roles as the ones where he’s most restrained, there is at least one frantic screwball comedy that belongs in the conversation: 1996’s The Birdcage. A collaboration between comedy legends Nichols & May (as director & screenwriter, respectively), an early credit for overachieving cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, and a remake of a popular French farce, The Birdcage has enough built-in prestige to appear Respectable in a way that other Robin Williams comedies like Mrs. Doubtfire & Death to Smoochy do not. More to the point, it’s a performance that explicitly asks Williams to tone it down and keep his flamboyance under wraps for the sake of the plot – a self-inflicted restraint that you can practically see is eating him alive as the rest of the world around him gets exponentially zanier. The Birdcage might just be the one movie where Robin Williams is the best-behaved adult in the room, and much of its humor derives from the fact that he so badly wants not to be.

The Birdcage is a traditional screwball comedy about a tense, disastrous dinner party in which a gay couple (Robin Williams & Nathan Lane) hide their true personalities from the straight Conservative parents (Gene Hackman & Dianne Wiest) of their child’s fiancée (Calista Flockhart). Ironically, Williams is cast as The Straight Man in this comedic set-up, a proud but accommodating nightclub owner who’s willing to tone down his eccentricities to appease his monstrous asshole of a son. His main job is to sweat & fret as the deception unravels from every direction. Meanwhile, other comedic performers are set loose to go as over-the-top as they please: Lane as a drag queen doing Barbara Bush schtick; Hackman as a cartoon exaggeration of Republican Party cruelty (one that’s only become closer to the truth in the past couple decades); Hank Azaria as a hot-to-trot houseboy; etc. It’s a rare instance where Williams sets aside his usual “Look at me! Look at me!” manic comedy to merely react to the buffoonery that surrounds him, and that silent frustration elevates every other performance handily.

There is one isolated moment in The Birdcage where Robin Williams is set loose to do his usual hyperactive child routine. In a scene where he’s choreographing a stage number for his drag club, he excitedly shouts the directions “You do Fosse, Fosse, Fosse! You do Martha Graham, Martha Graham, Martha Graham! […] Madonna, Madonna, Madonna!” while acting out each impersonation in pantomime. It’s a brief moment where his manic stand-up persona (later repurposed for the eccentric sidekicks he voiced in kids’ movies like Aladdin & Happy Feet) is allowed to invade the screen. For the rest of the runtime, he’s asked to keep that flamboyance in check, and the act of bottling it up is visibly crushing him in a consistently hilarious way. If Robin Williams’s acting chops are mostly going to be remembered & lauded in roles where he exercises a toned-down restraint that contrasts his over-the-top comedies, I think it’s worth singling out The Birdcage as a performance where we can see that self-discipline being practiced in real time. If nothing else, it’s a lot more fun to watch than snoozers like Good Will Hunting or What Dreams May Come.

-Brandon Ledet

Mucho Mucho Amor (2020)

I can’t be the only American philistine who wasn’t aware of Walter Mercado before he was lovingly parodied by drag queen Alexis Mateo on the most recent season of Drag Race All Stars. That’s why the timing of the Netflix Original documentary Mucho Mucho Amor mere weeks after that episode aired was such a beautiful, unexpected gift. A sexually ambiguous television astrologer with a love for modeling extravagant capes, Mercado fits snugly within the parameters of drag artistry, making Mateo’s signal boost of his legacy a perfect use of Drag Race‘s annual, wildly uneven “Snatch Game” segment. Even without a previous awareness of Mercado’s public persona, Mateo’s impersonation and costuming made Mercado immediately comparable to other enigmatic public figures who’ve skirted the edges of drag pageantry – mainly in pop music (Little Richard, Elton John, Liberace) and in pro wrestling (Gorgeous George, Goldust, Cassandro el Exótico). A breezy pop-doc arriving to provide the details of Mercado’s particular place within that familiar pop culture paradigm so soon after I had first discovered his existence was a pure delight. On a more superficial note, so was getting a closer look at his closet full of fabulous capes.

It almost seems like a willful ignorance on my part to not have heard of Walter Mercado until now (or to have forgotten him from fuzzy childhood TV broadcasts), considering that he was a celebrity of note for four decades: 1969 – 2007. After a brief career as a suave telenovela star, Mercado quickly rose to fame in Puerto Rico (and, not too soon after, internationally) for his gently flamboyant horoscope readings, wherein he would dress like a drag mystic and assure each astrology sign that peace, love, and positive changes were heading their way. In a rare candid moment of Mucho Mucho Amor, Mercado explains that the costuming, wizardly hand motions, and mystical sets from these horoscope & tarot readings were merely “Stupid Stuff” that he would use to help get his message of love & positive thinking in front of as wide of an audience as possible. He’s not wrong. That Stupid Stuff is his schtick’s main attraction, and the driving force that puts audiences under his spell. He’s much more guarded during the rest of the doc, though, making sure to not reveal too much about his age, sexuality, gender identity, or personal vendettas against former colleagues who ransacked his television fame for easy cash-outs. Mercado strives to present a kayfabe version of himself in Mucho Mucho Amor that floats freely between any strict definitions of identity, so that he is more the spirit of pure all-posi love than he is a corporeal human being, and the doc does its best to oblige him as much as possible.

I get the sense that this documentary was originally intended to be a career revival for Mercado. Unfortunately, it proved to be more of a memorial service than anything, since Mercado did not survive long enough to see its completion. It’s very fitting to his all-posi messaging to have such a sunshiny posthumous documentary about his career’s upward trajectory, though, and it thankfully gives the film something else to fixate on besides the “What Happened?” true-crime investigation of the mysterious legal troubles that derailed his career. It also helps the film that Mercado was virtually omni-present on television for decades, reading daily horoscopes to his mesmerized fans, so that there is a glorious wealth of retro footage to mine for visual fodder. The ways Mucho Mucho Amor fills the time between those vintage clips of Mercado doing his thing achieve varying levels of success. The staged reenactments of 1980s households and the out-of-nowhere Lin-Manuel Miranda vanity tour that interrupt the flow of the narrative are a little distracting, but other gambles like the animated tarot card chapter breaks and the glimpses into Mercado’s contemporary home life work beautifully. Most importantly, the film allows Mercado himself to have the final word on his own persona & legacy in a lengthy series of interviews, so that the whole thing plays more like a document of a fascinating art project than a real human being, which works perfectly for the subject at hand.

Since I didn’t know much of anything about the subject going in, Mucho Mucho Amor could have just been 90 minutes of Walter Mercado modeling extravagant capes and I would have been just as pleased with the result. Actually, looking back, I’m not sure that it wasn’t just 90 minutes of Walter Mercado modeling capes, and I’m convinced its portraiture photo shoots deserve to be converted into a coffee table look book. It was wonderful getting to know this enigmatic astrologer mystic in such an intimate, loving way so soon after discovering his existence, and the movie mostly does a great job of showcasing what made him fabulous without getting in his way with its own theatricality.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #105 of The Swampflix Podcast: Mondo Trasho (1969) & Bootleg Drag

Welcome to Episode #105 of The Swampflix Podcast!  For this episode, Britnee & Brandon meet over Skype to discuss three dirt-cheap, no-budget films starring drag queens, starting with John Waters’s debut feature Mondo Trasho (1969).   Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloud, Spotify, iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

– Brandon Ledet & Britnee Lombas

Krewe Divine 2020

In 2017, a few members of the Swampflix crew decided to finally grow up and get serious about Mardi Gras. We collectively shed our annual personal crises about what themes to include in our Fat Tuesday costuming by pooling our resources to pray at the altar of a single cinematic deity: Divine. Arguably the greatest drag queen of all time, Divine was the frequent collaborator & long-time muse of one of our favorite filmmakers, John Waters. Her influence on the pop culture landscape extends far beyond the Pope of Trash’s Dreamlanders era, however, emanating to as far-reaching places as the San Franciscan performers The Cockettes, the punkification of disco, RuPaul’s Drag Race, and Disney’s The Little Mermaid. Our intent was to honor the Queen of Filth in all her fabulously fucked-up glory by maintaining a new Mardi Gras tradition in Krewe Divine, a costuming krewe meant to masquerade in the French Quarter on every Fat Tuesday into perpetuity.

Our initial krewe was a small group of Swampflix contributors: site co-founders Brandon Ledet & Britnee Lombas, regular contributor CC Chapman, and repeat podcast guest Virginia Ruth. We were later joined by local drag performer Ce Ce V DeMenthe, who frequently pays tribute to Divine in her performances. There’s no telling how Krewe Divine will expand or evolve from here as we do our best to honor the Queen of Filth in the future, but for now, enjoy some pictures from our 2020 excursion, our fourth year in operation as Swampflix’s official Mardi Gras krewe:

Eat shit!
❤ Krewe Divine ❤

Drag Queen Confidence vs. Drag Queen Protagonists

Drag has been having something of A Moment in recent years. Thanks largely to the visibility of RuPaul’s Drag Race on television, the sheer amount & variety of drag entertainment has practically exploded this decade. Just watching the pageant drag traditions of New Orleans alone mutate into fresher, weirder art in recent years has been bewildering in scale. In general, I don’t know if it’s so much that drag has fundamentally changed as an artform (at least not since the NYC Club Kids days of the 80s & 90s) so much as that society has changed around it. An increased social awareness of the nature & fabrication of gender has been a major cultural shift in the 2010s and it’s no surprise to me that an artform built on gender performance & gender subversion has increased in popularity along with it. I don’t know that this cultural change has been properly represented in our cinema yet, though, at least not through the eyes of drag queen protagonists. If anything, most of my all-time-favorite drag movies arrived in the 1990s: Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Too Wong Foo, Vegas in Space, etc. Drag movies in the decades since have seemingly focused less on the drag queens themselves, but rather on how their performance & exaggeration of gender inspires confidence in cis, hetero protagonists who use them as sources of personal inspo.

The foremost example of the Drag Queen Confidence movie I can think of was something I first discovered as a Broadway musical performance during a television broadcast of The Macy’s Day Parade (the one time of year I listen to showtunes). The 2005 Drag Confidence melodrama Kinky Boots has somehow gradually transformed from a middling Sundance Festival novelty to a beloved stage musical over the last decade, making it one of the more significant drag cinema success stories of recent years. In the film, Chiwetel Ejiofor plays a London drag queen whose need for large, sturdy high-fashion heels saves a struggling shoe factory that’s threatening to go bankrupt. Facing the inevitable truth that traditional cobbler labor is a dying art, Joel Edgerton serves as our protagonist in this drag-adjacent story – a man who must save his (shoe fetishist) father’s struggling factory by pivoting to designing “kinky boots” for beefy drag queens. Ejiofor’s drag queen side character, Lola (presumably named after the Kinks song, right?), isn’t portrayed as trans, but never appears out of makeup—even offstage—because women’s clothes give him confidence. His fearlessness in entering the small-town North England factory while dressed to the nines even inspires confidence in the straight-cis-white-male protagonist to be his own man and forge his own path outside everyone’s expectations of him. Kinky Boots is a fun movie, especially in Ejiofor’s plethora of cabaret performances of drag standards like Marlene Dietrich & Eartha Kitt. There’s also some extremely satisfying montage footage of shoes being assembled on an old-fashioned assembly line that could be repurposed as one of those viral video supercuts of perfectly functioning machinery. When you boil its story down to its basic parts, though, it’s a movie that somehow combines “white savior” (in Edgerton rescuing Lola from back alley harassment & dangerously flimsy footwear) & “magical negro” (in Lola saving Edgerton’s factory & personal life for no gain of his own) tropes into one efficiently iffy package.

The 2018 Netflix film Dumplin’ is even more egregious in sidelining its drag queen inspo characters as afterthoughts without inner lives of their own. In the film, Patti Cake$‘s Danielle MacDonald stars as the nonplussed, plus-sized daughter of a small-town beauty queen played by Jennifer Aniston – Miss Teen 1991. Sick of quietly suffering fatphobic microaggressions in her mom’s beauty pageant social orbit and fueled by the defiant spirit of her favorite pop diva—Dolly Parton—she enters the local pageant as a vaguely defined political protest, one that dredges up a lot of personal insecurities with her own body & personality. Where does she find the confidence to follow through on this attention-grabbing political protest? At the local drag bar, of course, where a gaggle of nameless queens devoid of inner lives (including Drag Race‘s own veteran “glamor toad” Ginger Minj) teach her how to strut in heels and perform traditional femininity with pride. Dumplin’ is a cute, harmless movie that reimagines Drop Dead Gorgeous as a wholesome melodrama about the value of friendship & self-worth. If nothing else, it’s near impossible to not fall for the charms of its feel-good Dollyisms like “It’s hard being a diamond in a rhinestone world.” However, its drag queen characters are essentially props & cheerleaders that only pop in to teach our down-on-her-luck protagonist how to be a self-assured, glamorous woman. They have no wants, needs, or crises of their own. The exist only to serve her story and seemingly disappear into vapor as soon as their offscreen.

Curiously, my favorite Drag Queen Confidence movie of recent decades is the one with the most viciously negative reviews. The 2004 slapstick farce Connie & Carla effectively ruined the career of My Big Fat Greek Wedding creator Nia Vardalos, who cashed in on her surprise megahit to make a deeply silly buddy comedy opposite Toni Colette (who wouldn’t?). A cross between Sister Act & Victor Victoria, the movie follows two tragically mediocre cabaret performers with an airport lounge act who hide from the mafia by posing as dive bar drag queens, until their act becomes so popular that their cover is blown. Connie & Carla has the broad humor of a decade-stale mid90s studio comedy and its “Cis women drag queens?!?!” premise has become eyerollingly outdated in the last decade (I’ve been to several shows with all-lady queens in the past year alone). Still, I found it to be a total hoot. Toni Collette is especially fun to watch (duh) in the movie’s frequent, elaborate cabaret routines – doing increasingly blue material with the “male” privilege drag affords her and lighting up the screen with a drag version of Jesus (as a woman dressed as a man dressed as a woman dressed as a man, a total gender meltdown). The movie often trips over its own feet politically—both in its eagerness to forgive homophobia and in its plastic surgery-shaming version of body positivity—but as far as Drag Queen Confidence movies go, it’s the most resoundingly successful film of this batch. It does right by its drag queen characters. Not only do the queens who help Connie & Carla learn to be confident women have their own lives & conflicts offscreen & on, but Connie & Carla themselves become actual, legitimate drag queens by the film’s end – not just beneficiaries of the artform’s confidence boost.

As much as I was tickled by Connie & Carla as a broad slapstick farce, even that enjoyment was small consolation for the general lack of quality drag cinema at large in recent years. If there are still great drag queen movies being made post 1990s (or at least post Hedwig in 2001), it’s all work that’s being done in the documentary sphere: The Sons of Tennessee Williams, The Gospel of Eureka, Drag Becomes Him, Gracefully, etc. The occasional, miniscule movies like Hurricane Bianca, Alaska is a Drag, and Holiday Heart that actually have drag queen protagonists aren’t cutting it; their limited resources don’t give them a fighting chance. If a drag-themed movie is being put together with a proper, professional budget, it’s far more likely that the queens will only pop in as quirky side characters – a dash of whimsical flavor and a selfless confidence boost to the hetero protagonists. They’re a road stop on Lady Gaga’s path to being born a star or Channing Tatum’s path to rediscovering his stripper mojo. They’re rarely, if ever, the stars themselves in professional-grade narrative cinema anymore, which is a total shame. Drag has become much more popular & varied since the 1990s, but the scope of actual drag queen movies paradoxically appears to be shrinking.

-Brandon Ledet

Gracefully (2019)

My entire familiarity with gender performance as entertainment has been centered on American (or at least Western) drag tradition until recently, which was even further limited to the arena of Southern pageant drag until just a few years ago. As the influence of avant-garde Club Kids artistry is rapidly spreading on the “mainstream” drag stage, the definition of what drag is and what drag can be is changing. For instance, it was impossible to watch the glammed-up luchadores of the recent documentary Cassandro, the Exotico! and not think of how that tradition was an extension of drag artistry, not just a mutation of Mexican pro wrestling culture. Similarly, you’ll never hear the word “drag” uttered in the documentary Gracefully, but it’s clear that the unnamed Iranian female impersonator the film profiles is clearly performing a non-American variation on the artform. He performs purely as a dancer when exhibiting his art, sidestepping the lip-syncing traditions of drag as we know it. There’s also drastically different cultural history to how his own artform came to be, which means you’ll never hear the word “queer’ or “gay” uttered in the film either; they’re just not part of his background. And yet, the D.I.Y. glam artistry, political combativeness, and illusionary gender performance of his work all qualify him to be considered in a drag context – a medium that’s exponentially expanding its scope every passing year.

This unnamed dancer’s work is not some fresh invention of the modern era of drag. If anything, Gracefully catches up with the dancer in an era where his time is long gone and his traditions are threatening to fade away, forgotten. The conservative moralism that overtook his country after the Iranian Revolution of 1979 made his artform obsolete—as dancing itself was effectively outlawed—making this film just as much a harsh look at art under censorship as it is a portrait of a singular, fascinating man. Once a popular sensation as a man who dances in woman’s clothing (thanks to a gendered privilege that allowed him certain freedoms women couldn’t afford), he mostly continues his art in private, performing for no one. Sub-professional venues like local wedding celebrations & nursing home visits are certainly beneath his former prestige as a nationally recognized dancer with a burgeoning film career, but it’s amazing he’s still performing at all. Hell, it’s amazing that he’s alive. He toils most days as a respectable working-class farmer and the father to six(!) adult sons, but one whose domestic routines seem like harshly quiet, cruelly restrained distractions from what truly makes him happy, what he was born to do. Any time we get to see him perform his art for the camera it’s a gorgeous act of self-expression; the tragedy of the film is how limited those opportunities have become.

Gracefully is smart to never allow the flashiness of its craft to overpower the inherent fasciation of its subject (something that unfortunately can’t be said about this year’s Cassandro, the Exotico!). When it does get noticeably artful in its framing & imagery, it’s only ever in service of its subject’s dancing—often showing him performing in pitch-black voids as if his D.I.Y. glamor was the only thing in the world that matters. Otherwise, the emotional wallops of the film arrive in surprisingly understated ways: watching him raise young calves on the farm, listening to his sons express their varied opinions on the value & morality of his art, the tragedy of his extensive femme wardrobe being locked away in storage containers where no one can admire it, etc. Lest you think we’ve already arrived at a place where drag is no longer a subversively political act (which I don’t think is true in America; it’s just the kind of thing that Very Online, jaded city-folk might say), Gracefully offers an incredibly distinct, fascinating example where it’s being censored out of existence. Its nameless subject is a kind of rebellious activist in that sense, but for the most part he only wants to have the freedom to do what he pleases: dance in women’s clothing. And he’s really good at it! It’s devastating to see that his art has been so limited by censorship that he himself has become a living archive for a dead tradition, but at least this movie consciously strives to preserve his corner of drag tradition to help ensure his legacy is not forgotten. It’s important work.

-Brandon Ledet

The Queen (1968)

One of the reasons it was so easy to become an immediate fan of the competition reality show RuPaul’s Drag Race (admittedly as a late-comer) is that instantly felt familiar to me through the NYC ball culture documentary Paris is Burning. The runway categories, library reads, and aggressive voguing gyrations of the show felt like they were directly lifted from Paris is Burning’s most iconic moments – just smartly adapted to a modern reality competition show format. It turns out that was an incomplete picture of where Drag Race was pulling its inspiration from, as I recently discovered while watching the new digital restoration of the late-60s drag pageant documentary The Queen. Predating both Paris is Burning and, incredibly, the Stonewall riots, The Queen is a behind-the-scenes tour of a drag competition in 1960s New York City. It’s such an early glimpse of the scene that it was Rated X by the MPAA largely for its cohabitation of black and white contestants backstage before racial segregation was officially outlawed by The Supreme Court. It’s an invaluable artifact from a pageant drag tradition that hasn’t changed a lick over the last half-century even though the world has drastically changed around it. The trail back from Drag Race to Paris is Burning directly leads even further back here – a clear lineage of the exact kind of D.I.Y. spectacle & glamour in gender performance entertainment you can still see at your local drag bar this very weekend.

Of course, because it’s such an early snapshot of the pageant drag scene, the film is narrated with a kind of Drag 101 overview (not to mention outdated in its discussions of transgender identity politics). Mostly, though, it’s structured like a lost early season of Drag Race. At first, it feels as if there are way too many contestants for any one individual personality to shine through, but the major players and the obvious winner emerge over time in a slow-moving meltdown of hurt feelings, petty jealousies, and pure D.I.Y. glamour. Celebrity guests like Andy Warhol briefly appear to boost ratings. Life or Death wig emergencies heighten the backstage drama. Crystal LaBejia (whose infamous drag house would later feature prominently in Paris is Burning) reads a younger queen to filth for not having paid her dues. There’s even a controversy where the RuPaul-like figurehead of the pageant, Sabrina, is accused of rigging the results to crown her preferred queen in a sham of a competition. You could almost map out a Drag Race season’s worth of ficitional Reddit message board discussions of the competition and pass it off as critique of a recent era of the show. The only thing that’s noticeably out of date on the surface (as opposed to lurking in its era’s politics) is the types of drag represented onstage are much more limited in their variety – encompassed entirely by the Passing, glamorous concerns of the old pageant drag traditions that defined the artform for me growing up in the South. The exponential popularity of Paris is Burning & Drag Race has expanded the definition of what drag is (and the possibilities of what it can be) in recent years, but the competition format here indicates that the structure of its presentation has largely remained the same for a long time now.

The similarities between these three drag culture touchstones wouldn’t be so remarkable if there were more documents of the artform over time, so a lot of The Queen’s value as an artifact is how rare its backstage 1960s access truly is. Still, the film has its own artistic merits outside its place in a drag competition lineage, even if it’s more functional & matter-of-fact than it is avant-garde. Even in its new restoration it has the overly rich color & wildly out-of-focus drunkenness of an old Polaroid preserved in the back of a forgotten photo album, seeing the light of day for the first time in decades. Because the backstage spaces it crams into to document the drag show’s contestants are so cramped, it’s often shot from drastically low angles, incredibly close to its subjects’ faces. The audience often takes on the POV of a lost toddler who stumbled behind the scenes of a Vegas floor show. There’s plenty of beauty & glamor, but also cacophonous chatter & an overwhelming funhouse mirror effect in its closeups of half-dressed performers. You won’t find that kind of guerilla filmmaking excitement in the crisp, digital gaudiness of Drag Race, which has honed this drag competition format down to a machine-like precision. That tangible presence of humanity behind the camera overrides the sense that Sabrina is attempting to over-produce the narrative of her supposedly non-rigged competition à la RuPaul, and The Queen gradually takes on its own look & tone separate from its drag competition descendants to follow as a result. It’s both unique & traditionalist, warmly familiar & shockingly fresh – a vibrant relic from a drag lineage that’s proving to be eternal.

-Brandon Ledet

Cassandro, the Exótico! (2019)

It wasn’t until the last five years or so that I really started digging into the intricacies of pro wrestling & drag as artforms, and so it was immediately apparent as I studied them in tandem that they’re remarkably similar – to the point of functioning as two sides of the same gender performance coin. The pageantry, melodrama, glamour, caricature, and pantomimed exaggeration of gender traits shared between these two longstanding entertainment traditions is extensive, to the point where if you watch them both for long enough, pro wrestling and drag become indistinguishable. I used to naively believe that comparison to be a somewhat novel observation, but of course I was far from alone in noticing it. Recent drag & pro wrestling hybrids like the local performance art promotion Chokehole, the NYC podcast crew The Nobodies, the third season of Netflix’s GLOW, and the “WTF! Wrestling’s Trashiest Fighters” episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race have all covered this territory far more thoroughly & thoughtfully than I ever could, but even they were far from the first drag-wrestling pioneers. Wrestlers like Goldust & Gorgeous George have been incorporating drag pageantry into their in-ring personae on American television for decades. Also, unsurprisingly, the Mexican luchador tradition has its own version of this crossover in its subset of flamboyant gay performers known as Los Exóticos. And to help solidify the exóticos’ place in the pronounced drag-wrestling overlap, there’s now a feature-length documentary profile of that scene’s biggest star, Cassandro, who’s been wrestling in full glam makeup since the late 1980s.

Unfortunately, Cassandro, the Exótico! isn’t especially interested in exploring this contextual, historical background of how its subject fits into these drag & wrestling traditions. Instead, the documentary profiles Cassandro as he is now in the late 2010s: worn down, mangled, and yet still enthusiastic to entertain anyone who’ll lay eyes on him. We follow “The Liberace of Lucha Libre” through the highs & lows of his late in-ring career: the high-flying flamboyant spectacle of his pro wrestling pageantry and the quiet, painful recovery from those abuses in the privacy of his sparse home in Juarez. The most historical insight you get into Cassandro’s prominent role in the exóticos tradition is in his occasional anecdotes about how he got recruited into the luchador business as a young man and his collection of still photographs from that heyday. The movie is more largely about Cassandro as he exists in the present. We get to watch his private vape pen & makeup routine as he glams up to kiss & destroy his more traditionally macho (and gay-panicked) opponents in the ring. We’re taken on an intimate tour of his gorgeous ring-gear wardrobe, which clashes drastically with his barebones home in the desert. Also, unavoidably, we’re weighed down by Cassandro’s exponential list of scars, surgeries, and gnarled body parts – the toll of the business for any long-term wrestler, whether or not they perform in drag. It would likely help tremendously to know Cassandro’s backstory before wandering into this swan song documentary on his final days as a performer (I know I personally benefited from hearing his lecture on los exóticos culture at Tulane University this past Mardi Gras), but this year-in-the-life portrait of a highly-specific person is still invaluable all the same.

There are some bold, glaring filmmaking choices from director Marie Losier that can distract from the built-in fascination of Cassandro’s over-the-top persona, and your appreciation of the film might depend on how well you can adjust to her methods. This is much more of a Pretentious French Art Film than a fluff documentary piece, with Losier often imposing her own presence onto a story that could likely do without it. She shoots Juarez and South Texas like the fantastic landscapes of an alien planet in a sci-fi film. Cassandro himself often comes across like a mystical, otherworldly creature in that abstraction, particularly in his private religious practices that mix Catholic & Native rituals with little distinction between them. I appreciate that she shot the documentary on actual celluloid, since its 16mm home movies aesthetic helps contextualize him as a kind of living historical figure whose drag-wrestling artistry deserves an eternal reverence. However, her wildly out-of-focus framing and harsh jump-cut editing style often feel like a filmmaker playing with a new toy instead of consciously serving the subject at hand. In another way, though, I can see why a story joining Cassandro this late in his career would be a little discombobulated and melancholy. The film becomes increasingly looser & less focused (visually & tonally) as Cassandro’s body degrades beyond repair in his final days in the ring before (what will hopefully be a permanent) retirement. It isn’t until Losier flashes back to the much sharper, more physically explosive performer Cassandro was just a couple years earlier at the start of the documentary that the full sad story of what we’ve lost as he reached his physical limit becomes clear. Even then, not all her creative indulgences can be justified as directly serving the text. Some of them clearly exist for their own sake, and it’s a distraction.

Thankfully, there’s already a more traditional, straightforward documentary the drag-wrestlers of lucha libre in the 2013 film Los Exóticos, which I look forward to catching up with to provide retroactive context for this picture. Still, as a standalone work, Cassandro, the Exótico! still satisfies as an intimate portrait of one of the most significant players at the intersection of drag & wrestling, a singular performer whose glory days are still distinctly visible in the rearview mirror. This blurry photograph of a documentary won’t be all the world has to remember him by (he’s still touring around as an entertainer & a public speaker, after all), so it’s okay that it mostly functions as a snapshot of his final, painful months in the ring (and a travelogue for Marie Losier).

-Brandon Ledet

Filth & Divinity at the Ace Hotel

The Ace Hotel in downtown New Orleans is a very strange space. It’s a clean, trendy, expensive hotel I couldn’t possibly afford if I ever needed to spend a night in the CBD, but it’s still a facility I find myself utilizing fairly often. The fresh oysters in its seafood restaurant are refreshing & addictive; they have a decent coffee shop & bar; and, most importantly, it’s an abnormally comfortable place to mooch free Wi-Fi downtown – a service I abuse often. The most surreal experiences I have at the Ace, however, are when the building functions as an art space. Whether it’s a New Orleans Film Society screening, a brass band set, or a mixed media art instillation, it’s always strange to see the bougiest hipster-prone space in town play host to something that’s actually, genuinely cool. I had the most extreme art vs. venue dissonance I’ve ever experienced at the Ace just a couple weeks ago when the venue played host to a local drag show. Not only was it the kind of drag revue we’re used to seeing at dive bars & dimly lit cabarets in much cheaper corners of the city; it was also a show dedicated to the honor of a drag queen whose persona was the spiritual antithesis to the Ace Hotel’s upscale cleanliness: Divine.

As part of Harlequeen’s Honor Thy Mother series, the Ace Hotel played host to a local Divine Tribute Show drag revue in early May. Seven performers paid tribute to various milestones in Divine’s career throughout the show – lip-syncing to her disco hits, restaging scenes from her appearances in John Waters films, and – in one of the more inspired gags of the evening – reading beat poetry in her voice. It was a lovely evening in a pristine venue that was meant to honor a performer defined by Filth & Chaos. There was a dissociative effect between the vile acts being pantomimed onstage & the general chic, professional atmosphere of the venue. The show was cheap; the performers were consistent to the depravity they’d stage anywhere else in the city. Still, it was bizarre to step into a “late night” drag revue that was well-lit, punctual, relatively sober, and frequently disrupted by a straight-girl bridal party (okay, maybe that last part was fairly typical). The venue’s clean-cut hipsterdom was in sharp contrast to the various visions of Divine that graced the staged and smeared it in filth, which only made the experience more surreal. It was like the difference between seeing Divine rip through the trashier sets of early films like Multiple Maniacs & Pink Flamingos and the later films like Polyester & Hairspray where she irons clothes & pretends to be a suburban mom: it was almost even more perverse through the contrast.

Regardless of the ambiance, the performers did an excellent job paying tribute to Divine without stepping on each other’s heels in overlap or repetition. Tarah Cards & (Krewe Divine member) CeCe V DeMenthe did traditional lip-sync routines to Divine’s disco hits, but in entirely different tones; Cards filtered her interpretations of the original numbers through the Mink Stole temper tantrums of Female Trouble, while DeMenthe nailed the music video originals with impeccable accuracy in her attention to detail. DeDe Onassis & mistress of ceremonies Franky gently mocked the high-brow venue where the show was staged with the classic glamor of stage musicals & Torch Light singers, respectively. It was Mary Boy & Puddin’ Tain who really leaned into the absurdity of staging a Divine-themed drag show in the early-evening sobriety of the Ace Hotel, though. Puddin’ Tain’s first number was well behaved enough in a Lust in the Dust-themed foot fetish routine. It was her second number in a beatnik mutation of the classic Babs Johnson flamenco dress, now topped with a black sequin beret, that truly had the room in tears. Listening to her perform a beatnik poem about a meatball sub (in honor of Dawn Davenport) to a chorus of appreciative finger-snaps really felt like witnessing something special. For their part, Mary Boy went full carnival geek with two gross-out routines: First, a very literal homage to Eat Your Makeup. Then, a gag where they liquefied cash money in a blender and drank the contents in front of our horrified eyes. I’ve never been more hyper-aware of what I was watching and where I was watching it then I was in that moment.

You can see a picture of the full cast below (courtesy of Michael Meads) for reference, as well as a poster that includes a portrait I took of CeCe V DeMenthe in her first year “marching” with Krewe Divine. I don’t think either of those documents fully capture the absurdity of that evening though. For the full effect, I’d encourage you drop by the Ace hotel in the next time it sounds like they’re hosting something especially raunchy & uncouth in one of their various art venues (the next Honor Thy Mother event may even be a good start). Whether it’s a risqué art film, a series of nude photographs, or a drag show dedicated to the undisputed Queen of Filth, there’s something about that building’s buttoned-up, bright-eyed atmosphere that accentuates the depravity of art that does not belong there. It’s good to know they’re worthwhile for more than free Wi-Fi & a decent cup of cold brew, even if most of us could never afford to stay the night.

-Brandon Ledet

Krewe Divine 2019

In 2017, a few members of the Swampflix crew decided to finally grow up and get serious about Mardi Gras. We collectively shed our annual personal crises about what themes to include in our Fat Tuesday costuming by pooling our resources to pray at the altar of a single cinematic deity: Divine. Arguably the greatest drag queen of all time, Divine was the frequent collaborator & long-time muse of one of our favorite filmmakers, John Waters. Her influence on the pop culture landscape extends far beyond the Pope of Trash’s Dreamlanders era, however, emanating to as far-reaching places as the San Franciscan performers The Cockettes, the punkification of disco, RuPaul’s Drag Race, and Disney’s The Little Mermaid. Our intent was to honor the Queen of Filth in all her fabulously fucked-up glory by maintaining a new Mardi Gras tradition in Krewe Divine, a costuming krewe meant to masquerade in the French Quarter on every Fat Tuesday into perpetuity.

Our initial krewe was a small group of Swampflix contributors: site co-founders Brandon Ledet & Britnee Lombas, regular contributor CC Chapman, and repeat podcast guest Virginia Ruth. Last year we were joined by local drag performer Ce Ce V DeMenthe, who frequently pays tribute to Divine in her performances. There’s no telling how Krewe Divine will expand or evolve from here as we do our best to honor the Queen of Filth in the future, but for now, enjoy some pictures from our 2019 excursion, our third year in operation as Swampflix’s official Mardi Gras krewe:

Eat shit!
Krewe Divine