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'Cockettes, The'

'Cockettes' resurrects a brief, weirdly shining moment

Friday, August 23, 2002

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

Who were "The Cockettes," subject of the movie now at the Harris Theater? Film director John Waters, the self-proclaimed king of bad taste, may say it best when he describes them as "hippie acid-freak drag queens."

'The Cockettes'

RATING: Unrated; contains nudity, harsh language and incessant references to drug use.

DIRECTOR: David Weissman and Bill Weber.

WEB SITE: grandelusion.com


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That was something unique when they burst upon the San Francisco scene in 1969 -- and still is, he asserts, even though the troupe broke up in 1972 and many of its members have since died, either of drug overdoses or of AIDS.

But did they have enough of a lasting cultural influence to warrant a documentary on their act three decades later? I don't think the movie, directed by David Weissman and Bill Weber, makes enough of a case.

But it does serve as a valid snapshot of a tumultuous moment in time, when the counterculture still thought it could change society by turning on, tuning in and dropping out.

The Cockettes also represented the sexual revolution in full bloom. The troupe consisted of gay and straight men and women, living together in a commune and letting their freak flags fly in what began as a chorus line between midnight movies at the Palace Theater in San Francisco. Tripping on LSD and chaotically amateurish, they danced to rock or show tunes and dressed in thrift-shop drag (when they weren't appearing in the nude), wearing glitter in their hair and beards.

The press notes for the film make the claim that "The Cockettes inspired the glitter-rock era of David Bowie, Elton John and the New York Dolls, and the campy extravaganzas of Bette Midler and 'The Rocky Horror Picture Show.' "

I couldn't help but think of "Rocky Horror" as I watched archival film of their performances, which became more scripted and included one horror-movie spoof. But I dare say Bowie, John and the New York Dolls developed their glittery androgyny without any help from the Cockettes, whose act laid a gargantuan egg in their first and only New York engagement.

As actress Sylvia Miles says in the film, drag queens were old hat in New York even when she was young. The utter lack of professionalism of the Cockettes -- which was much of the point of the act, although it later came to split the group in two -- appalled New York audiences. "Having no talent is not enough," Gore Vidal said of them.

But there was some talent in the troupe, as the film clips demonstrate. A singer named Sylvester displays a sassy, powerful voice. A filmed spoof of Tricia Nixon's wedding, with drag queens playing political and show-business celebrities of the moment, contains some hilariously irreverent parody. The Cockette known as Scrumbly (real name: Richard Koldewyn) gives his drag authority figures a wonderful come-hither bitchiness.

The film's greatest fascination may lie in the contrast between then and now. Many surviving Cockettes, male and female, appear in interviews. Some look wasted. Some retain no vestige of their hippie past. A few seem not to have aged at all. Others remain outrageously flamboyant -- a chap named Jilala responds to questions in a brightly colored turban that complements his face, painted in multicolored patterns.

And then there is our own reaction to the Cockettes and to the San Francisco hippie scene in which they flourished. For those of us old enough to remember those days, it seems like an acid flashback to a waking dream in which we once indulged the bright, shining fantasy that we could remake the world into a place where people could do what they wanted without restraint or responsibility. The idealism beckoned, not letting us see the cost as we chose to embrace the insanity of even thinking it could happen.

I can only imagine how younger people would react to the Cockettes, with no context except what the film provides. But this is a different time and a different world. Maybe now they seem old hat. For those who still care, the movie lets you decide.

Ron Weiskind can be reached at rweiskind@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581.

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