Double Feature: Life's a Drag (Sweet and Salty Edition)
Double features are a great way to watch movies. Well-selected double features complement each other like food and wine, bringing out hidden flavors or making you realize new aspects of something familiar. If you’re ever in need of a keenly paired set of movies to screen, check out our handy pre-packaged Double Features category– complete with theme breakdowns, aesthetic comparisons, and honest commentary about which movie should be the leading feature.
Well-crafted characters can elevate a good movie to a great one, and exceptional drag is all about well-crafted characters. Realistically, anyone can put on the clothing of the opposite gender (not just dresses, shout-out to my fellow kings) and parade around for a reaction as we’ve seen in dozens of lackluster comedy sketches, but the people who make the most powerful impressions are the ones that create and commit to a character. That’s exactly what’s on the docket for this double feature. Two drag movies, one sweet and one salty, that are more about character studies and less about outfits. But, don’t get me wrong, there are still plenty of outfits.
I have a very funny story that’s a bit long to fit here about the first time I saw this movie but it involves missing the last ferry to Fire Island. There was an agenda that day. To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar (1995) is a modern day fairytale where three drag queens (actually, two drag queens, and a drag princess) break down in a middle of nowhere town on a cross-country drive to a drag competition. No one’s getting points for the originality of the storyline because, frankly, it doesn’t matter. The story is truly secondary to the characters and performances.
First, there’s Vita played by the late Patrick Swayze. Vita is a grande dame. She’s a woman who owns and uses a parasol and mentions when she feels like Jayne Mansfield. Graceful, classy, and always matching, Vita is the level-headed voice of reason that still makes dumb mistakes like picking style over substance, and letting her emotions get the better of her when she sees someone she cares about in danger. Not to mention how fast she can turn to mudslinging once provoked. Swayze moves in a woman’s body and has these beautiful small motions, like Vita hesitantly waving to her mother, that make the character real.
Next, there’s Miss Noxema Jackson played to attitude-flooded perfection by Wesley Snipes. If you’re thinking to yourself, “I’ll bet Wesley Snipes makes a funny looking woman,” then congrats on being completely right. Then get ready to be blown away. Snipes inhabits the role entirely and there is not a moment when you don’t believe you’re not watching Miss Noxema Jackson. Wise-cracking and realistic, Noxema knows when trouble’s a given and throws down off color jokes because life as she knows it is hella off-color. Part of me thinks that Wesley Snipes stayed in character throughout the whole filming like a campy Daniel Day Lewis. That’s how far he disappeared into that role.
And finally, the sexy drag princess, Chi-Chi played by John Leguizamo. According to Leguizamo’s graphic novel Ghetto Klown, his longtime friend and business partner hit on him the first time he saw him in drag. As Chi-Chi, Leguizamo found a flavor and depth probably missing from a lot of the stereotypical roles he played. Chi-Chi is young and she’s wounded, but she’s fearless – even when she’s aware of how much there is to fear. There’s only one scene where Chi-Chi gets scared as she’s being surrounded by a group of men who, it’s implied, intend to rape her. Leguizamo’s performance in that moment is beautifully layered as his face shows not the fear of sexual assault but fear for his life, as a likely brutal murder might occur once these men realize he’s not a woman. Aside from that, Chi-Chi makes no apologies and takes no shit.
The main criticism this movie was charged with when it was released was that it was too sweet, too convenient. If that’s going to be an issue for you then skip this one. But if you like things adorable, kinda predictable, and full of style montages To Wong Foo... will be right up your alley.
Sweet into salty, and boy is this one salty! Girls Will Be Girls (2003) is different than To Wong Foo... in a few obvious ways but most notably because the drag queens aren’t playing men in drag. They’re playing women. These are characters they’ve created and performed as for years and years and it was just time for them to make a movie.
Girls Will Be Girls follows Evie Harris (Jack Plotnick), a washed-up seventies actress, and her co-dependent friend Coco Peru (Clinton Leupp) as they live together in Evie’s house in L.A. They welcome a new roommate Varla Jean (Jeffery Roberson) who is young and full of potential. Pretty soon, her career is taking off. Jealousy overtakes Evie and she’s doing everything she can to stand in Varla’s way. Meanwhile, Coco deals with being lonely and tries to find love with a repulsive doctor. I won’t tell you how they met because that’s half the fun.
This movie is very funny but also very mean spirited. The characters are not particularly likable, though I find Coco to have the most redeeming qualities. Lots of the humor comes from the strange nature of the entertainment industry and the struggle to make ends meet outside the normal nine-to-five life, as well as Evie’s tales of sexual conquest. Example line: “So I said to him ‘what do you mean what am I laughing at? Your name’s Barker and we’re doing it doggy style!’”
Very few topics are off the table in this movie, and the characters really do change and grow over the course of the events. It’s absurd in so many ways – as it’s supposed to be – but also a funny, scathing, and ultimately compassionate look at people who have been chewed up and spit out, only to continue that cycle with the next generation.
Themes: Gender roles, Sexuality, Self-acceptance, Abuse
Aesthetics: Bright colors (pastels and neons), Miss Coco Peru (appears in both)