By Richard Winters
My Rating: 7 out of 10
4-Word Review: Female impersonator befriends schizophrenic.
Robin (Craig Russell) works as a gay hairstylist during the day, but longs to be up on stage as a female impersonator. Liza (Hollis McLaren) is a schizophrenic who leaves the hospital she was confine in and moves in with Robin her longtime friend. Both find ways to help each other with their problems, which allows Robin the confidence to finally get on stage in drag as Tallulah Bankhead, which makes him an instant hit and gets him a paid gig in New York City. However, when he moves away Liza’s condition worsens forcing Robin to decide what’s more important: his budding career, or his friendship.
The film is based on the shorty story ‘Making It’ by Margaret Gibson, which in turn was based on her experiences dealing with mental illness and her real-life friendship with Craig Russell whom she roomed with in 1971. The story nicely tackles the challenges of dealing with mental illness and how Robin’s support helps Liza overcome her demons that the other professional Dr’s and counselors that she sees don’t because they only view her as just another patient instead of a person.
The grainy, low budget quality works to the film’s advantage as it brings out the fringe, economically disadvantaged lifestyle that the two lived in while McLaren’s performance shies away from the cliches of mentally illness causing the viewer to see her as a regular everyday person, not just some ‘crazy’, valiantly fighting a nasty illness that she can’t always control.
The segments dealing with Russell’s onstage act are quite entertaining as well though when I first saw this film decades ago I found these moments to be off-putting as they turned it more into a documentary, or a comedy special that took the focus away from the actual essence of the story, which was the friendship. However, upon second viewing I liked the way it captures the gay club scene that was unique to that time period. Russell’s impersonations where he does Barbra Striesand, Judy Garland, Mae West and Bette Midler just to name a few are outstanding. I’ve seen some female impersonator acts before, but Russell’s far outshines any of the others I’ve ever watched as he gets the body language, voice, and facial expressions of the people he’s playing just right to the point that he completely disappears into the women characters until you can’t tell the difference.
While the film does have many touching moments I felt it should’ve shown how Robin and Liza first met instead of having it start with them already knowing each other when she moves in with him. Since they are such an odd pair capturing how and where this unique relationship all started and what element brought them together seemed crucial, but we never see it nor does it even get addressed in conversation. Having this backstory could’ve helped the film stay a little more centered on the relationship as well and prevented the over reliance on Russell’s stage routine, which while quite good, still takes up a bit more of the runtime than it should’ve.
My Rating: 7 out of 10
Released: July 31, 1977
Runtime: 1 Hour 36 Minutes
Director: Richard Benner
Studio: Canadian Film Development Corporation
Available: DVD, Amazon Video
Nice review. I’ve always been fond of this little movie. Saw Craig Russell do his show at Carnegie Hall (!). I enjoyed it, but many did not. Craig attempted to incorporate contemporary (at the time) divas (e.g., Debbie Harry), along with his usual classics, and it did not go over well. Many people stormed out. I felt sorry for him. It was a fun show. Pity the audience wasn’t more open minded.
Interesting. Thanks for your comment.
It’s always noteworthy how some really good and important films only find their best recognition after a time. It may for most people be easier to absorb the best of a film at home on TV without the vast expectations that the cinema debuts can impose upon us.