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Superstar in a Housedress: The Life and Legend of Jackie Curtis - Film Review

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by Chris Henniker (subscribe)
There are 6m postcodes in London, what's happening in yours?
Published March 23rd 2013

Don't you hate it when a gig is cancelled! I was hoping to see when I heard that the V&A cancelled it on health & safety grounds. Desperate to see something, anything, I paid my money and took my choice. Out of my desperation, I saw "Superstar in a Housedress: The Life And Legend of Jackie Curtis". Curtis was a Warhol superstar, actor, playwright, drag queen and general bohemian avant-garde darling who lived the dream out of a shoebox.

While it was the usual documentary formula of talking heads and footage, it was a very illuminating glimpse of the Warhol era. The anecdotes were hilarious, not the usual waffle you get on documentaries of this type. Two of my favourites were Curtis & Candy Darling going to Warhol's factory, turning the lights off and calling out to Mr Warhol that they know where he lived. Darling ended saying in a matter of fact tone: "The rent was payed for the next month." I laughed like a sewer with nitrous oxide pumped through it before lighting the sewer gases.

Another was when Curtis overdosed, but one girl tried to revive him. She couldn't dial 911, as Curtis didn't trust the police, being from a rough part of New York. Instead, she gave him a blow job. A scenario straight out of Chris Morris's "Jam", yet it really happened. Mind you, the film did trot out the usual struggling artist clichés, such as drugs and alcoholism. That said, he did write while on speed, which gave his work a hallucinogenic quality.

Having co-written a play myself, it brought up the question of what would happen if there was a heterosexual production of his work. By that, I mean that all female roles were played by women for a heterosexual audience. Curtis's plays were challenging sexuality and gender, as did the glam rock & punk he influenced.

When I saw Iggy Pop and David Bowie's manager pop up, I somehow had the feeling Curtis had something to do with it. I knew that's where David Bowie got his schtick from, as did punk's ripped clothing and DiY ethic come from this man. Put a photo of Curtis side by side with David Johansen from the New York Dolls, no contest. The DIY ethic was putting his plays on for £10 and making costumes out of table cloth fabric. Some photos shown of him in a peacoat and a bowl haircut make him look like a mod.

While there is no avant-garde today, as Lady Gaga demonstrates, Curtis was forging common ground between gays and heterosexuals, while drawing upon Hollywood and Theatre of the Absurd to shape the way the people who make us think think. What would Richard Hell be without ripped clothes, or Malcolm McLaren's sex be without safety pins? We'd still be In our comfort zones listening to The Carpenters, I'd guess.
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Why? An illuminating glimpse of the Warhol era.
Where: DVD
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