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Creme de la 'Outrageous'

Outrageous! directed and written by Richard Benner now playing at the Orson Welles


THE RECIPE sounds like a sure-fire concoction for comic relief: take on pudgy post-pubescent with an effeminate face and a flair for tight-fitting French jeans and outmoded platform shoes; garnish with a sissy's voice and a drag queen's propensities. Serve in a Toronto beauty salon. Now take one long-haired schizo on the lam from the local loony bin, throw in a few touches of outward normalcy--a good eye for fashionable apparel, decidedly hetero leanings, and a good old-fashioned motherly instinct--and dash with an urge to write whacked-out tales for her beloved fellow "crazies" in a bulky ledger. Mix the two together and what do you get? Creme de la Outrageous!, of course.

Richard Benner's Outrageous! does have a way of standing out from this year's usual film fare, but the protagonists' quirky personalities are only part of the story. Odd-couple films are nothing new to American audiences, and--if one can hazard any generalizations about such movies--they tend to have a built-in pitfall. Few directors can resist the temptation to dwell on the most obvious differences between the two principals and milk every embarassed chuckle and nervous giggle out of the gag. This is acceptable for the first 15 minutes or so, but the jokes wear mercilessly thin after a while, and crass exploitation soon rears its ugly head. No such problems plague this low-budget entry from Canada, and the film's surprisingly adept treatment of the sensitive subject make Outrageous! something far greater than the bawdy comedy it may appear to be at first glance.

Outrageous! is, to a larger extent than most of today's movies, an actor's film. No question that Craig Russell owes a great deal to the razor-sharp script; his hairdressing, female-impersonating Robin Turner would be little more than a walking parody without Benner's quick-fire comebacks and one-liners. But an actor can only be judged on what he does with the raw material given him, and Russell never stumbles. He may share the top billing with Hollis McLaren's Crazy Liza, but there's little doubt whose film Outrageous! is.

Admittedly tailored for Russell, the role of Robin Turner suits him to a tee. Impersonating famous actresses comes naturally to a man born to have been a woman, and Russell's next starring role will be more telling about his future as a leading man, so to speak. Russell will have to be selective about his roles in coming months if he wishes to avoid the typecast stigma.

As for McLaren, there isn't all that much to say. Her pixie of a schizo is hardly the ideal showcase for a promising actress, requiring little more than an ability to play out the chilling delusions of a cute kid who's pretty bonkers.

Outrageous! requires a certain level of tolerance, and Anita Bryant groupies should attend at their own risk. Seeing drag queens prance and posture for the better part of two hours might take a few straights aback at first, but the initial revulsion fades fast as the guffaws start surging. Outrageous! plunges its audiences into the gay sub-culture, taking an unblinking gaze at the foibles and hangups of its members. But this is no Boys in the Band apologia for homosexuals. The film does not fish for either compliments or pity from its viewers; Turner and his fellow female impersonators may all limp their wrists and lisp their words, but they are all endearing people struggling to make it in a very trying business long on frustration and short on bucks.

In one sense, however, Outrageous! does present a distorted view of Toronto and New York, the film's other setting; aside from Liza, who goes through the motions of writhing under the willing body of a neurotic hero, Outrageous! takes an unswerving walk on the wild side. When Turner gets out of a taxi in New York and learns that his cabbie also shares his sexual persuasion, Turner flippantly asks, "Isn't anybody straight anymore?" "Sure," the driver deadpans, "my father in Montana."

WHILE A SENSE of continuity is hardly lacking here, isolated scenes stick in the mind much more than any self-indulgent moralizing, on which Outrageous! happily skimps. The film's showstopper comes in a stunning ten-minute medley of impersonations that Turner unveils in a trendy drag bar in uptown Manhattan. Knowing that the gig amounts to his Big Break in the business, Turner pulls out all the stops as he belts out, "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend." We hear Channing's raps, Ella's scat-singing, Dietrich's off-keys and a host of other readily recognizable ladies who have captured America's fancy and/or heart. Turner has clearly made it in the drag queen biz by the finale of the number, judging by the roaring ovations on the screen and in the theater, and you find yourself somehow sharing Turner's bizarre triumph. He has come a long way from the suburbanite-catering hair salon and the endless hours before the mirror in lipstick and wigs; the future is now his.

Most searing of all is Turner's tearjerking meaculpa, tracing his discovery that he would have to tread a different path in life. The moment comes at perhaps Turner's lowest point in the film; he has just finished "blowing off the lid" completely with a striking male hooker, and the wrenching innards come spilling out as he stares glazed-eyed into the shadow-draped confines of his Toronto flat. The essence of his platonic relationship with Liza reveals itself in all its poignant fullness here; comforting the dejected Turner, Liza eggs him on to do something "dazzling" for the crazies. It is Turner's and the film's turning point, the moment when the soon-to-be-fired hairdresser decides to burst out of the closet and don the dresses.

A film like Outrageous! could not have come at a better time than this rapidly concluding summer. Solid comedies with a very human touch have been in short supply this year; Outrageous! deserves a warm note of gratitude on that score alone. More significantly, however, this movie will serve as a perfect--though undoubtedly unintentional--counterpoint to the pink scare raised by the Florida Sunshine Tree gal and her band of bigots. Outside of the sensitive movie-for-T.V. Suddenly Last Summer, the media has handed homosexuals a pretty raw deal over the last ten years, protests of increasing tolerance notwithstanding. Outrageous! will go a long way towards remedying this problem, and judging by the packed houses the film is drawing, the lesson will not go ignored.

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