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Superstar In A Housedress

Solid, suitably fey, tastefully over-the-top tribute to self-styled, Warhol-certified superstar Jackie Curtis sparkles with storytelling celebrities from Lily Tomlin to Holly Woodlawn, all of whom knew him/her well. Fan, friend and documentarian Craig Highberger delivers the goods with rare clips of the inimitable Jackie in Off-Off Broadway shows written by the star.

With:
With: Lily Tomlin, Harvey Fierstein, John Vaccaro, Holly Woodlawn, Ellen Stewart, Paul Morrisey, Joe Dallesandro, Penny Arcade, Joe Franklin, Alexis del Lago, Michael Musto, Sylvia Miles, Taylor Mead. Narrator: Lily Tomlin.

Solid, suitably fey, tastefully over-the-top tribute to self-styled, Warhol-certified superstar Jackie Curtis sparkles with storytelling celebrities from Lily Tomlin to Holly Woodlawn, all of whom knew him/her well. Fan, friend and documentarian Craig Highberger delivers the goods with rare clips of the inimitable Jackie in Off-Off Broadway shows written by the star. The shaky, blurry quality of this never-before-seen archival footage shot by the helmer only adds to pic’s surreal shoestring mystique. Opening May 5 at Gotham’s Film Forum, fascinating study of pioneering glam gender-bender could lure urban auds nationwide.

Brought up on the Lower East Side by speakeasy-owning grandmother Slugger Ann, Curtis felt the need to reinvent himself or, as she herself puts it in an excerpt from the David Susskind Show, “my mother, aunt and grandmother worked in dance halls and my uncle, father and grandfather were Marines — so there was a choice.”

What makes Highberger’s docu so rewarding is the wealth of material available, from costumed reminiscences by theatrical co-star Alexis del Lago to fashion photos of Jackie modeling jewelry in Vogue to Curtis’ many guest shots on the Joe Franklin Show.

One might argue that Highberger and his interviewees exaggerate the effect Jackie had on late-’60s/early-’70s culture. Yet her presence was definitely a force in the art world: her likeness graced a wide array of portraits from the period, Larry Rivers often painted backdrops for her plays, and photographer Jack Mitchell found inspiration in her reinvention of ’30s and ’40s movie iconography.

In the area of film history, Paul Morrisey readily credits Curtis for her freeform improvisations in “Flesh” and the much-excerpted “Women in Revolt” (while, in the meantime, denying Warhol credit). “Flesh” star Joe Dallesandreo proffers magnificently total incomprehension as to why anybody would want to see the film, but expresses grudging admiration for his gender-confused co-stars.

But it is in Jackie’s plays that Highberger presents Curtis’ star in the ascendancy. Play-House of the Ridiculous creator John Vaccaro and La Mama founder Elaine Stewart are some of the admirers.

Curtis debuted on stage at age 17 in “Miss Nefertiti Regrets,” playing opposite Bette Midler who reportedly later stole much of her image from Jackie. Harvey Fierstein, who played Jackie’s mother in Curtis’ “Americka Cleopatra,” recalls the part and the play fondly. Curtis’ “Glamor, Glory and Gold” (1968) gave Robert de Niro his first stage role (though the actor is a docu no-show).

In fashion, Jackie invented faux drag. Built “like a linebacker,” she eschewed falsies, dismissed hygiene and often went unshaved. Curtis’ unique penchant for flip-flopping between male and female personae brought an abstract, whimsical quality to the question of gender. Lily Tomlin confesses how much fun it was to never know which Jackie would show up.

Numerous, well-chosen anecdotes, often illustrated with photos, and delivered by actors and performance artists who worked with Jackie, flesh out the bigger-than-life figure that flashes across the stage. Holly Woodlawn, the last surviving member of the Warhol trio, is perhaps the most evocative in her remembrances. Penny Arcade recounts the details of Jackie’s grotesque drug-overdose demise, a death stranger even than Curtis’ fiction, and the glorious downtown send-off by his/her myriad friends.

Tech credits are apt.

Superstar In A Housedress

Production: A Highberger Media production. Produced by Craig B. Highberger. Executive producer, Andrew LaBarbera. Directed, written, edited by Craig B. Highberger.

Crew: Camera (color, B&W, Super 8/DV/16mm-to-35mm), Highberger; music, Paul Serrato; photographs, Jack Mitchell; associate producer, Joey Preston; sound, John McDaniel. Reviewed at the Film Forum, New York, April 22, 2004. Running time: 95 MIN.

With: With: Lily Tomlin, Harvey Fierstein, John Vaccaro, Holly Woodlawn, Ellen Stewart, Paul Morrisey, Joe Dallesandro, Penny Arcade, Joe Franklin, Alexis del Lago, Michael Musto, Sylvia Miles, Taylor Mead. Narrator: Lily Tomlin.

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