(2020) Documentary (Discovery Plus) Michael Alogna, Henry Arango, James Bidgood, Robert Bouvard, George Chauncey, Claude Diaz, Joe E. Jeffreys, Esther Newton, Terry Noel, George Roth, Joseph Touchette, Adam Faison (voice), Robin de Jesus (voice), Cole Escola (voice), Matt Shively (voice). Directed by Michael Seligman and Jennifer Tiexiera
When L.A. radio personality Reno Martin passed away, like many folks these days, he left many of his possessions in storage. Among those discovered were a cache of letters from the late 50s. It turned out that Martin had been a part of the drag queen scene in Manhattan in the day and even after leaving for the other coast kept in close contact with his friends who couldn’t wait to dish about what was happening back home.
These letters form the basis for the bittersweet doc P.S. Burn This Letter Please, capturing an era when men dressing as women were a big no-no and could get you arrested – and get the bar you showed in shut down. Even the Mattachine Society, pioneers in activism for gay rights, were uneasy about drag queens (or female impersonators, as some prefer to be called) who they felt harmed their cause more than helped it.
Filmmakers Seligman and Tiexiera were moved to seek out the writers of the letters and found a surprising number of them, some still living in New York. They are in their 80s and 90s, but they remain vigorous and chock full of personality. The men haven’t seen these letters since they wrote them more than sixty years previously. Embellished with photographs of various occasions that they attended back in the day, the era of glamor and utter fabulousness which informs much of gay life even now was born in the clubs, bars and parties that these men put together. They describe feeling like outcasts and finding, at long last, a place they belonged and people who were more family than the families they’d grown up with who had largely judged and rejected them.
In some ways it’s kind of odd the picture that is painted here – in an era where RuPaul is a cultural icon and cross-dressing is more or less accepted, the kind of consequences that were levied on these men and their generation seems almost alien, until you read about a protest at a library where a man in drag was reading children’s stories. Perhaps we haven’t come quite as far as we think we have.
The men react with a variety of emotions; unrepentant pride at some of their escapades, sorrow at friends lost (the AIDS epidemic of the 80s hit their community particularly hard). The men have some wonderful storiesl; Claude “Claudia” Diaz tells about stealing wigs with Josephine Baker (the nom de gowne of Roberto Perez) from the Metropolitan Opera to sell to eager members of their community. However, it is the excerpts of the letters that are the most compelling, read by professional actors in the catty, swishy cadence of the epoch. Some might find it hard to follow, as some of the terminology is not mainstream; to paint is to put on make-up, to mop is to steal, to dish is to gossip. Still, the utter delight in describing the gowns they wore, the parties they went to, the men they picked up – it is the historical documents of an era where letters such as these were routinely destroyed by family members who were ashamed of the sexuality of the recipient. Much of the descriptions of life in that fabulous era have been lost forever in that way.
While historians of gay culture do contribute some commentary, I would have liked to have seen a bit more context offered in how the drag queens of that era have influenced modern gay culture, but perhaps that wasn’t what the filmmakers were after. If so, they are reducing this to a niche documentary which would be a shame because this is just so damn well-made. Some of the identities of the people referred to in the letters are intentionally kept hidden until the end of the film, making it all the more poignant when they are revealed. In that sense, this is a movie that is meant for audiences that are both gay and straight, although perhaps straight audiences might be uncomfortable with it. That is the sort of thing that reminds us that we have a ways to go when dealing with our attitudes towards alternate sexuality.
The movie was originally slated to play Tribeca last year but the festival was unfortunately canceled due to the pandemic. It is playing there tomorrow in a show that is unfortunately sold-out and it is not available as on the festival’s streaming platform. However, the movie is currently available on the Discovery Plus streaming platform, a link to which is provided below.
REASONS TO SEE: Fascinating and occasionally moving.
REASONS TO AVOID: Could have used a bit more modern context.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as sexual and drug use references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was among the initial offerings when Discovery Plus went live on January 4th.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Discovery Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/12/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Paris is Burning
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Reflection: A Walk With Water