Revisiting Craig Russell and Outrageous!, Canada's groundbreaking drag film

The tape might be fuzzy, the audio low-grade and dim, but when he hits the stage, you might as well be watching Mae West herself.

Craig Russell in Outrageous!


Craig Russell in Outrageous!

When it comes to drag cinema, Canada is queen.

Long before RuPaul or Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, when drag on film was the domain of straight actors wearing bad wigs for cheap laughs, there was the 1977 Canadian film Outrageous!

Directed by the unknown Richard Benner and starring an all-Canadian cast working on a shoestring budget, Outrageous! defied the odds to become an international hit, and one of the first widely distributed gay-themed films in North America.

The loosely autobiographical film follows Robin Turner (played by Canadian female impersonator Craig Russell), a Toronto hairstylist who finds he has an outrageous talent for drag. From Bette Davis to Judy Garland, Robin’s specialty is impersonating movie starlets from the Golden Age of film.

After being fired from his hair salon gig for openly performing in drag, he packs up his wigs and eyeliner and moves to New York with dreams of becoming a star. Things get complicated when long-time friend, now escaped mental patient, Liza Connors (Hollis McLaren) starts rooming with him.

Groundbreaking for its open portrayal of drag culture, the film inspired actor Harvey Fierstein (himself a female impersonator at the time) not to give up on a performance career, and The Kids in the Hall’s Scott Thompson to come out as gay.

The story was inspired by Canadian writer Margaret Gibson’s 1976 short story Making It. Gibson, who struggled with mental illness, roomed with Russell in the early 1970s and based the work on her experiences with him.

After scrounging up barely enough funds to start shooting, having to pump some of their personal finances into the $167,000 project, producers clashed with Benner. He wanted a purely auteur film; they wanted commercial appeal. What we got was something equal parts authentic and entertaining. It was dangerous and conventional all at once, allowing the film to find huge appeal beyond its niche subject matter.

Russell won Best Actor at the 1978 Berlin International Festival for his role in Outrageous! and has the rare distinction of winning both Best Actor and Best Actress at the Virgin Islands Film Festival.

A sequel was made, again directed by Benner and starring Russell, 10 years later. It failed to find an audience. A musical version was also produced for stage in 2000.

As a film, Outrageous! isn’t the most finely tuned piece of work. Script-wise, Russell’s rags to drags storyline is interesting enough, but it’s like mixing oil and water whenever the distressing side-story of Liza’s mental illness and mystery pregnancy pops up. Her obviously serious schizophrenic condition is essentially glossed over and used for dramatic effect, then abandoned for convenience – a pill I found particularly hard to swallow.

You can watch Outrageous! in full on YouTube here:

Most of the supporting cast perform amateurishly, and the production quality is art-house level.

But as soon as Russell dons his wig and makeup, none of that matters. His Hollywood drag impersonations are dead ringers for their targets, and the humour he injects into his stage personas is laugh-out-loud funny. The tape might be fuzzy, the audio low-grade and dim, but when he hits the stage, you might as well be watching Mae West herself.

Russell had been performing long before Outrageous! and to simply class him as a drag queen would be underselling his talents. With a full three-octave vocal range, he was able to sing Barbra Streisand in her own key, and even perform a one-man duet between Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong.

Russell found major fame and success from Outrageous! and toured internationally afterward. He appeared on talk shows, TV specials, and even a one-man off-Broadway show called Craig Russell and His Ladies.

From his first appearance impersonating Tallulah Bankhead at a Toronto gay club in 1970 to his early death in 1990, Russell was one of the “best-known female impersonators in North America.”

His own tragic story – a downward spiral into alcoholism and drugs that negatively affected his performances, and his struggles with mental illness – mimicked those of some of the famous women he impersonated.

Craig Russell without makeup (left), and as some of his ladies.

Russell died from a stroke brought on by AIDS in a Toronto hospital in 1990. He was 42 years old. Less than five weeks later, Outrageous! director Benner also died from complications due to AIDS.

Though the film itself isn’t perfect, there’s no denying the influence, the bravery and the entertainment value of Outrageous! More than 35 years later, Craig Russell can still knock ’em dead.

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