The outdoor festival season in Vancouver has begun.
First up, the Children’s Festival with its tents in Vanier Park, soon to be followed by the Jazz Festival, the Folk Music Festival, the Powell Street Festival and, of course, Pride.
A hidden gem on this circuit is the Francophone Festival d’été on West 7th Ave, which runs from Jun 18 to 24. In honour of this event, this month’s column will celebrate the accomplishments of that icon of French Canadian drag, the colourful, scandalous 85-year-old Guilda.
Born into wealth in 1924 as Jean Guida de Mortellaro, the Great Depression and then WWII soon had him scrambling for a living as a ballet dancer, film extra, stunt man and whatever else came his way, including drag. A useful resemblance to Marlene Dietrich helped him make a name for himself in the world of nightclub and cabaret reviews, including a stint as stage double for the legendary entertainer Mistinguett at the Casino de Paris.
It was while on a North American tour in 1951 with Mistinguett that he discovered Montréal, returning to settle there in 1955. He soon became a household name throughout French Canada thanks to appearances on French CBC television. But he came to fame just as the music hall and review tradition he represented was coming to an end.
A political drive to clean up Montréal’s nightclubs in time for the 1967 World’s Fair and changing musical tastes led him to increase his television and film work to over 100 movie and television appearances. His performance in a historical drama as the famous 18th century female crossdresser and spy, the Chevalier d’Éon, won him critical plaudits. The slightly perverse logic of hiring a man who dressed as a woman for a living to play a woman who all her life dressed as a man must have appealed to the casting director of the series.
Having more or less retired from the stage by the late ’70s, like many an old trouper before him, Guilda had to find other means of staying in the public eye. He recorded five albums, wrote an autobiography in 1979, and was the subject of an hour-long television special in 1986.
He took up painting and began exhibiting homoerotic paintings in the early years of the new century, making headlines in 2006 when an Italian Cardinal commissioned a portrait of the late Pope John Paul II from him. A second autobiography was released in Québec this year just in time for Mother’s Day, which must say a great deal about Guilda’s core audience.
As a performer — YouTube features a number of clips — Jean Guida was in the grand musical review tradition of glamour and more glamour. There aren’t enough sequins, feathers, dancers, chorus girls and grand entrances up and down staircases in the world for Guilda, who sings in her own low, very French sounding voice. Her patter is also quite different from what you would hear today from a younger performer — bitchy of course, but never tawdry, and closer to the world of her generation’s mainstream entertainment than to that of our contemporary queer culture.
Jean Guida the man — his stage name Guilda was inspired by the film Gilda starring Rita Hayworth in the sexiest pair of elbow length opera gloves in cinematic history — led the kind of life that fed headlines to the Québec tabloids for decades.
He knew Piaf, Aznavour, Jean Marais, Princess Grace and Josephine Baker. A bisexual, he was introduced to group sex in Monaco as a 19-year-old refugee from Buchenwald. He was married four times (his mafia employers once offered to rub out wife number three for $500 to spare him the expense of a divorce: “Once you start making money for them, the mafia loves you. Best employers I ever had.”) and fathered three children, but had his heart broken by a 16-year-old boy.
Heartbreak was followed by depression and bankruptcy.
The Guilda persona is significant because it introduced an image, not so much of gayness, but of gender-based sexual ambiguity into mainstream Canadian culture years before Mick Jagger or David Bowie did the same on the world stage, and in a different, somewhat more louche genre, than Dame Edna.
How effective was he at passing? In the course of a radio interview, the show’s host confesses to Jean Guida that when he was 11 years old, he saw Guilda perform on television, and was so carried away that his father intervened by saying, “That’s a man.”
Guilda also serves as a living link with our camp past, when many gay men closely identified with over-the-top feminine icons and longed to live in a world of artifice.
Guilda is a relic from an era when gayness and showbiz were mirror images.