Aging strippers gloriously strut their stuff, both physically and verbally, in Rama Rau’s entertaining documentary receiving its world premiere at Toronto’s Hot Docs film festival. Delivering their messages of survival and empowerment in highly colorful fashion, the elderly stars of League of Exotique Dancers make such modern female pop icons as Madonna and Lady Gaga seem like wusses.
The film is centered on Legends of Burlesque, an annual show put on at Las Vegas’ Burlesque Hall of Fame in which veterans of the form are invited to perform their vintage routines. Among those nervously and/or excitedly preparing for their appearances are Kitten Natividad, Camille 2000, Gina Bon Bon and Marinka, Queen of the Amazons, all in their sixties or seventies.
Archival film clips and photographs attest to the comely performers’ skills as they discuss their careers which, in some cases, were quite lengthy. Marinka, for instance, performed her act for over three decades, from 1960-1992.
“You had to have a gimmick,” comments Holiday O’Hare, paraphrasing the classic song from the Broadway musical Gypsy. There were also strict rules to be followed in those days—in the 1950’s, for instance, pasties were required and butt cheeks had to be covered.
“The only naughty thing I did in my act was contractions of the buttocks,” one performer attests, before drily adding, “You can imagine the effect that it had.”
Nearly all of the subjects proclaim their love of their former profession which paid far more generously than most other available avenues. But they also acknowledge its dark side, with several admitting to serious drug and alcohol problems.
Starting in the 1960s, the art of burlesque began disappearing, to be replaced by pole dancing, lap dancing and eventually pornography. “The art of teasing was over,” one performer points out. Several of them went into sex-related professions, with one becoming a dominatrix (we’re treated to an unappetizing clip of her plying her trade) and another venturing into phone sex. Others took more demure routes, including one former performer who sells hand-knitted nightgowns. Another is teaching burlesque workshops.
The film culminates with the Hall of Fame show, in which several of the women joyously reprise their acts, deep wrinkles and jiggling rolls of flesh be damned.
The procession of talking heads gets repetitive at times, and such digressions as Kitten Natividad’s account of her film career and lengthy relationship with exploitation filmmaker Russ Meyer go on far too long. On the other hand, there’s Marinka’s delicious account of dating both Bob Fosse and his screen doppelganger Roy Scheider when she appeared in the film All That Jazz. She quickly dumped both of them, as she has most of the men in her life.
“I got bored,” she explains.
Venue: Hot Docs
Production: Storyline Entertainment
Director/screenwriter: Ramu Rau
Producer: Ed Barreveld
Director of photography: Iris Ng
Editor: Rob Ruzic
Composer: Ken Myhr
Not rated, 90 min.