Growing up in the 1990s, some of my favourite films featured queer characters and, coming out as a teenager, they became my idols. I learnt about queer culture from the drag queens played by Guy Pearce, Hugo Weaving and Terence Stamp in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994), Robin Williams in The Bird Cage (1996), and Ewan McGregor, Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Christian Bale in Velvet Goldmine (1998). But, surprisingly, these roles were all played by straight actors – not a single one of them openly identifies as queer.
I began this blog post thinking I’d write a critical text on issues raised by straight actors playing queer roles and, while I still believe there is a necessary conversation to be held about appropriation, and the need for affirmative action within casting, on re-watching City of Lost Souls (Stadt Der Verlorenen Seelen, Rosa von Praunheim, 1983), and looking back at queer/drag on-screen representation, another question arose: how have we arrived at this moment in cinematic history, where we ‘homonormatise’ our on-screen queers?
While it’s commendable that queer characters have moved from supporting roles to centre stage, from the gay sidekick BFF (see Rupert Everett in My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997)), to more fully realised characters (such as Simon in Love, Simon (2018)), these more prominent roles seem to have been made more palatable for a wider audience, a kind of glossing-over. It seems that in the process of moving centre stage, queer on-screen representation has had to be cleaned up and diluted for a wider audience.
Viewing City of Lost Souls, we soon discover there is no attempt to gloss-over or dilute queer experience. This is apparent in the choice of characters themselves, including Angie Stardust, a black trans lesbian woman and Tara O’Hara, a trans sex worker. Then there is Lila, played by Jayne Country, a trans actress/punk musician of the era. Arguably the campest and most fabulous character in the film – as well as the most confusing – I only realised she was playing a cis woman when the character becomes pregnant! City of Lost Souls intentionally fucks with you. It’s challenging, camp, and slapstick.
Between the cabaret numbers and outlandish punk performances, there are few moments that could be described as ‘tender’, but there is one that stands out. In this scene Angie Stardust and Tara O’Hara are getting ready for a night out, reminiscent of the Werk Room on RuPaul’s Drag Race, or the dressing rooms of Paris is Burning (1990), but during this moment, they discuss their gender identities and differing attitudes to gender across their respective generations.
Angie and Tara have a complex exchange about their own gender expressions. Angie is seeking gender-realignment surgery, and is adamant that, in the narrator’s words, she “won’t become an old man”. Tara, of a younger generation, self-identifies as “transvestite”, and “third sex”, not feeling the need for surgery. Identifying as a woman with the anatomy she was born with, Tara accuses Angie of being old-school in her mindset.
Had she not been murdered in a homophobic attack in 1983, how would Tara O’Hara feel about her gender expression? Would she have found kinship in the ballrooms of 1990s New York, in Paris is Burning, and the legendary mother Pepper LaBejia of the House of LaBejia? Schooling the children, she famously said “having the vagina, that doesn’t mean that you’re gonna have a fabulous life”.
Angie is a fierce character throughout, bursting onto the screen in the opening song, telling the staff of the Hamburger Queen to stop messing around and get back to work. In her scene with Tara, this anger is channelled into educating her young prodigy on the struggles the trans community faced, ultimately allowing her to be free in her gender expression. This sensitive and nuanced exchange between these two very different women, is a rare gem of political debate in an otherwise brash, bombastic queer musical!
The reason this otherwise inconsequential scene stands out for me, is a shocking indication of how little progress we, as queer people, have made when it comes to the wider recognition of gender diversity. I’m left questioning how queer culture has failed to make the gains we looked set to achieve in 1994, when we celebrated Terence Stamp’s portrait of Bernadette, a trans woman who performed ‘womanhood’ in her job as a drag queen in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.
It is problematic to hold up RuPaul’s Drag Race as the benchmark by which we judge all representations of queerness on-screen, but with viewer numbers through the roof, 13 Emmys and a growing international fanbase, Mama Ru has reached audiences previously unimaginable to drag queens. For many people RuPaul’s Drag Race is queer culture. But, with their questionable stance on trans inclusivity and homogenised beauty standards, is Drag Race partly responsible for the ‘homonormativity’ we find across queer popular culture today? How have we strayed so far from the ’80s/’90s queer representation that was so gender fluid and wholly inclusive?
This is what makes revisiting City of Lost Souls so exciting and utterly pertinent. It is a chance to enter into an absurd world of queer kinship, where a trans woman plays the role of a woman assigned female at birth, a drag queen self identifies as “the third sex” and her best friend is a black, trans, lesbian who reigns over their household as a fierce matriarch. The rules of gender are broken and rebuilt in our viewing of this bizarre, queer extravaganza, about love, rejection, violence and self-expression.
City of Lost Souls never achieved the box-office success of Priscilla, or even the cult status of Paris is Burning, but it is an incredible reflection of the Berlin underground in the 1980s. Indeed, perhaps its relative obscurity allowed it to be so subversive.
Ultimately, I hope Hollywood casting directors will realise that they need to do better and start casting queer people in queer roles (like the brilliantly-cast Tangerine (2015)). Until then, maybe we will need to keep looking to the margins to find our contemporary queer idols.
Matchbox Cineclub and Queer Classics present City Of Lost Souls at Centre for Contemporary Arts, Glasgow on Monday 18th November, as part of BFI Musicals! The Greatest Show on Screen, a UK-wide film season supported by National Lottery, BFI Film Audience Network and ICO. bfimusicals.co.uk
Tickets are priced on a sliding scale £0-8, and are available exclusively here.