'P.S. Burn This Letter Please': Film Review | Tribeca 2020

Alex Bohs/Courtesy of We Were There Inc.
Brash, bedazzling, sweet and poignant.

A documentary traces a collection of 60-year-old letters to some of their writers and subjects, key figures in midcentury New York's variously vilified and celebrated drag scene.

[Note: In the wake of the Tribeca festival's postponement this year, The Hollywood Reporter is reviewing select fest entries that elected to premiere digitally for critics.]

Whether the Storage Wars crew would have recognized the value of a box of letters discovered in a Los Angeles storage unit in 2014 is open to debate. But it's a good thing that directors Michael Seligman and Jennifer Tiexiera did. With that epistolary treasure trove dating from the late 1950s and early '60s as their starting point, they sought out the men who wrote the letters as well as the men they were written about — all of them devoted practitioners of the art of female impersonation. The resulting documentary is a delightful and affecting oral history, chronicling a specifically New York chapter in the story of gay life in the United States.

The surviving batch of ephemera that sparked the film is all the more precious given that, in less enlightened times, the letters and journals of gay men and lesbians were often treated as shameful evidence by their families and destroyed upon their deaths. Just as crucial, the interviewees who appear in the film, charming and with delicious stories to tell, are all in their 80s and 90s. If not now, when?

Doubling down on the charisma factor, the filmmakers bring a special appreciation to the letter writing itself, a lost art if ever there was one. The excerpts they've chosen — all addressed to "Dear Reno," a onetime New York scenester who left the city to pursue a career in radio — receive distinctive visual treatment. And the voiceover actors who read the passages do so with maximum pizazz, matching the coded, gossipy language beat for breathlessly flavorful beat.

Even with all that captivating personality and dishing on tap, in the early going the film can feel as if it's in search of a through-line. But the collective magnetism and historical resonance build as the doc proceeds. So too does a sense of mystery surrounding the identities of two central figures among the letter writers, and that of the cherished confidant Reno, with strategically withheld information giving way in the final moments to revelations both poignant and exultant.

A handful of historians provide sharp commentary, lending big-picture scope to the first-person testimony that Seligman and Tiexiera have collected. But the film belongs to the drag queens themselves — or, as some prefer to identify themselves, female impersonators or femme illusionists, a distinction that emphasizes performance and elegance.

Though a few are still in Manhattan (one interviewee has lived in his coveted West Village apartment for more than 60 years), they're found on both coasts and in small towns in between, and filmed in their homes with warmth and zero to-do by the filmmakers and cinematographer Zachary Shields. They include a couple of small-town boys who discovered their inner divas while in the military (an Air Force list of verboten New Orleans gay bars proved ultra-helpful for one soldier). One Midwestern transplant, James Bidgood, staked his claim to art house fame — albeit anonymously at first — with the 1971 erotic fantasy Pink Narcissus, rumored for a while to be the work of Warhol.

Their day jobs largely go explored, but their devotion to the clubs and drag balls that defined the scene couldn't be clearer. Describing outfits and wigs they wore or helped friends slip into, their memory for design detail is touching, tapping into not just a dressmaker's talent but a place and time. Presented with photos from some of the big nights on the town, native New Yorker Claude "Claudia" Diaz can barely contain his emotion. In a more jubilant and defiant mode, he shares the nifty story of his role in a headline-making heist of wigs from the Metropolitan Opera. His partner in crime was "Josephine Baker," the drag name of Roberto Perez, an inveterate shoplifter and an undisputed star of the drag underground, whose name is dropped repeatedly in the excerpted letters.

In his big, overdecorated stage set of a house in Astoria, nonagenarian Henry "Adrian" Arango speaks fondly of the good times and the camaraderie, quipping, "We didn't have any civil rights, but who needed them?" But it wasn't all rhinestones and laughs; raids and arrests posed constant threats for a group of people who were defiantly out before being out was a thing. They might not have viewed themselves as political, but the queens were risk-takers and social trailblazers. One performer, Terry Noel, speaks movingly of her gender-assignment transition, a process she began with the help of the Brooklyn doctor of Mafia wife Anna Genovese.

That unlikely connection between drag culture and the macho mob was born of necessity; with homosexuality illegal, legitimate businesspeople weren't about to run the clubs where queens hung out and performed. Hassles with the law aside, there was money in it: Predominantly straight audiences — A-listers as well as lookie-loo tourists — flocked to places like Club 82 on the Lower East Side.

P.S. Burn This illuminates countless fascinating aspects of the New York drag scene, its joys and challenges and the way it helped to break down barriers. At the balls in Harlem, blacks and whites partied together. Some of the resistance the queens faced came from unexpected quarters: In an eye-opening clip, a Mattachine Society spokesman makes a point of distancing his groundbreaking gay rights group from "swish" culture. Arango recalls that drag wasn't permitted in the city's first Gay Pride march; for organizers, a nonthreatening, gender-conforming image of gay men was paramount.

Seamlessly drawing their subjects' stories into the present, Seligman and Tiexiera offer compelling evidence: For such a specialized, marginalized and stigmatized culture, New York's drag scene has far-reaching, ongoing resonance. And, as several of the people who created that scene say with great feeling, it was in the big city, dressing up with their fellow queens, that they found the place where, for the first time in their lives, they belonged.

Production company: Lady & Bird in association with Reno Martin LLC
With: Michael "Daphne" Alogna, Henry "Adrian" Arango, James "Terry Howe" Bidgood, Robert "Robbie Ross" Bouvard, Claude "Claudia" Diaz, Lennie "Dayzee Dee," Terry "Terry Noel," George "Rita George" Roth, Joseph "Tish" Touchette
Voice cast: Adam Faison, Robin de Jesus, Cole Escola, Matt Shively
Directors: Michael Seligman, Jennifer Tiexiera
Screenwriters: Michael Seligman, Jennifer Tiexiera
Producers: Michael Seligman, Jennifer Tiexiera, Craig Olsen
Executive producers: Richard Konigsberg, Eric Szmanda, Jessica Bendinger
Director of photography: Zachary Shields
Editors: Jennifer Tiexiera, Alex Bohs
Music: Jonathan Kirkscey
Design and animation: Grant Nellessen/Good Radar
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Viewpoints)
Sales: The Film Sales Company

106 minutes