Earlier this month The Ethels went on a field trip to the pictures when the V&A showed the 70s Canadian film ‘Outrageous!’ as part of its Classic, Camp and Cult: Queer Film Weekend. We haven’t stopped thinking about it since. None of us had heard of this movie before, but all had a real sense of ‘where has it been all our lives’ as soon as it got going. The film is about Robin, a hairdresser who wants to be a drag queen, played by Craig Russell who was a hairdresser who became a drag queen. It follows his rise to drag fame encouraged by his best friend, Liza, who happens to have just left an institution, diagnosed with schizophrenia. Their relationship is moving and lovely; Robin’s message that Liza should embrace her craziness because we’re all crazy freaks is simply gorgeous. The film – slightly slow to start, a bit clunky and definitely lo-fi – is just fabulous. Hollis McLaren as Liza is outstanding. Acting crazy is an actor’s dream and usually it’s heavy-handed and insulting. But Hollis manages to convey the complexities of Liza without resulting to cliché and giving her genuine warmth that is only enhanced by her interactions with Robin.
The film is based on an a short story by Margaret Gibson, a woman who struggled with mental illness and who shared a flat with Russell. So it’s all a bit true and the fact/fiction of their lives continued with a roman à clef and play about Margaret and Craig written by Stephen and Guia Postal. The play starred Mario Cantone (Anthony in ‘Sex and the City’), a man who also does an incredible Garland impression and an equally astounding Minnelli. It’s all a queer-mimic heavenly mishmash.
Craig Russell is an absolute delight and we quickly fell in love with his chubby cuteness and ability to not only do drag brilliantly, but carry off dungarees with chunky aplomb. Truly one of the best drag-impersonators ever, what he lacked in sung imitation, he more than made up for in face and gesture. That said, his spoken mimicry of the goddess Streisand was Babs straight out of her TV specials: Brooklyn kookiness in spades. Along with Babs he did the most uncanny Mae West ever. It’s as if he’s lifted her face and stuck it over his own and then channelled her soul for good measure (he may well have done: see below). Also present were Carol Channing, Peggy Lee, a BRILLIANT Bette Davis, Tallulah Bankhead, Judy Garland and – YES! – Ethel Merman.
Smitten, we wanted to contact Craig Russell to tell him of our love and devotion and were very sad to learn that he died in 1990. We did, however, discover that there is a sequel called ‘Too Outrageous!’, but sadly it doesn’t seem to be available in any form. The original ‘Outrageous’ is though – you can view it in its entirety on youtube, you lucky, lucky things. If his drag and chub-cuteness weren’t enough to win our hearts, it turns out he founded a Mae West fan club as a teen, was invited to be her personal secretary as a result (SQUEAL!) and was apparently fired when she caught him trying on her clothes and makeup. We hope that’s true. He is said to have declared that Mae West ‘taught me all I know’. We know where we’re going to study our own drag skills and it starts with entering ‘Outrageous!’ into youtube.