It’s 1977. Into a world just beginning to explore and document the gay experience comes a film that still transcends the boundaries of gay cinema. The movie is Outrageous, directed by Richard Benner, the story of a young schizophrenic woman named Liza Connors and gay hairdresser Robin Turner. They find themselves sharing an apartment and a life together.
Sounds like a bad sitcom, right? Wrong!
Based on Margaret Gibson’s story “Making It” about the author’s life as roommate to the late great Canadian female impersonator Craig Russell, the film is a moving, charming, life-affirming story of love, friendship and acceptance. Liza (played by Hollis McLaren) escapes from a psychiatric institution and finds herself on Robin’s doorstep. Robin (Russell) wants to be a female impersonator but lacks the courage. They move in together and with each other’s help, they strive to make peace with the “voices” in their heads and find a path that makes sense to them.
More shocking than the film’s frank and raw depiction of gay life and mental illness in the 1970s, was the fact that it reached a crossover audience who embraced and cared so deeply for this story. There were two reasons for this. First, the chemistry between McLaren and Russell was palpable. Their warmth and humanity made audiences feel hopeful. These two characters, who society considered outcasts, were given voices and faces and futures — that gave every underdog the promise of possibilities.
Second, Russell’s incredible impersonations. His performance made him an international superstar. He spoke and sang with a three octave range all of his ladies live; he was able to impersonate them with staggering accuracy. We only get a taste of his brilliance in the film but what a taste.
I first saw the movie around 1984 or ’85; it was life changing. Especially Russell’s performance. I still remember the shock and delight as each icon — Mae West, Peggy Lee, Judy Garland — magically appeared out of the same body. A fascination with transformation and Craig Russell was born. I would watch that video taped from TV over and over and try to imitate Russell’s impersonations.
I was an overweight teenager with a “beyond his years” vocabulary, an effeminate voice and a penchant for live theatre. God help me! And here was this strange man, playing the hero of his own story.
Cut to the spring of 2000. I get a call to audition for a workshop of Outrageous: The Musical written and directed by Brad Fraser. The role was best friend Perry. I get the part. But through a showbiz twist of fate, a week later I get a call from Fraser asking me to play the lead, Robin, in the full production. The role that inspired me to find the joy in acting was now offered to me. Of course I said yes.
Throughout rehearsals, I was filled with two opposing feelings: First, not wanting to let Craig down; and second, sensing angel Craig sitting on my shoulder guiding me along, telling me to follow my own voices. Fraser had said that casting me (younger and mulatto) as Robin freed him from Russell’s presence. But I could still feel Craig watching. I wanted his blessing.
On opening night, Russell’s widow came backstage afterward (he had married his longtime friend Lori Jenkins in 1982; Russell died of AIDS in 1990). She told me, “Craig would have been proud,” then handed me a bag. Inside was the sequined top that Craig wore as Judy Garland. That was the sign I was looking for. A part of my life had come full circle.
Through this one movie, Craig Russell made me — like countless others — laugh. He inspired me, cheered me on, helped me dream, comforted me. He made me believe anything was possible. He made me unafraid.
And now, with Inside Out celebrating the launch of the remastered DVD, a whole new generation gets to discover this extraordinary film and performer. Bless your sweet soul, Mr Russell, and thank you.