Not A Woman, But A “Woman”

Though I am speaking about sensibility only — and about a sensibility that, among other things, converts the serious into the frivolous — these are grave matters. Most people think of sensibility or taste as the realm of purely subjective preferences, those mysterious attractions, mainly sensual, that have not been brought under the sovereignty of reason. They allow that considerations of taste play a part in their reactions to people and to works of art. But this attitude is naïve. And even worse. To patronize the faculty of taste is to patronize oneself. For taste governs every free — as opposed to rote — human response. Nothing is more decisive. There is taste in people, visual taste, taste in emotion – and there is taste in acts, taste in morality. Intelligence, as well, is really a kind of taste: taste in ideas. (One of the facts to be reckoned with is that taste tends to develop very unevenly. It’s rare that the same person has good visual taste and good taste in people and taste in ideas.) … Camp sees everything in quotation marks. It’s not a lamp, but a “lamp”; not a woman, but a “woman.” To perceive Camp in objects and persons is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role. It is the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theater. – Susan Sontag, “Notes On ‘Camp'”

Campiness can be a hard thing to portray, especially on television given the proximity that audiences have watching it. For true camp to work correctly on television, there must be a balance between the outrageous, the outré, and yet still have something resembling genuine heart and emotion at its core. Thankfully two good examples of camp were on our televisions this past week.

While it finishes shooting its sixth season, Logo has rebroadcast for the first time the very first season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, which is billing as “The Lost Season.” Having covered the show in depth on this very blog, and being a long-time viewer of the show, I was thrilled at the prospect of revisiting the season which made the show. While I am rather annoyed by the billing of it being a “lost” season, and extremely annoyed by their decision to clutter the screen with random bits of information ala Pop-Up Videos, this debut is still a bracing watching experience for a number of reasons:

– First off, as this is the first season, the production values are decidedly lower, but you can see where many of the main concepts and main challenges came from. Also, in the beginning season, Drag Race was as much a parody of reality television competitions as it was an actual competition; being a more brazen homage to both Project Runway and America’s Next Top Model.

– Then there is the cast. Without a doubt, the original nine queens are probably the most diverse cast in the shows history; featuring clearer delineations between the various schools of drag. While later seasons have had queens that have blurred various schools of drag thought, for the very first cast this was essential as an introduction to all of the various styles of drag; from glamorous showgirls to genderfuck divas to talent queens and everything in between.

– Another key component is Ru her/himself. In the first season, Ru is less bitchy and more focused on being as much of a mentor to her charges as much as she is critiquing them. Ru’s workroom critiques have never been stronger and her runway commentary is much more exacting. To put it in Project Runway parlance, she went from Tim Gunn in the earlier seasons to Michael Kors in the later seasons. And speaking of the judges, I forgot how much I missed original judge Merle Ginsberg, who also fell in line with the mode of more constructive critiques. (If I had my druthers, I would bring her back, keep current judge Michelle Visage, and get rid of Santino Rice.) Finally, the judges often debated and disagreed with one another. The finale (which still remains the closest final two in the show’s history and still remains debated to this day) has one of the most fascinating deliberations ever as Ru, Merle, and Santino argue for each of the queens.

– Finally, there is a stronger element of surprise in this first season. Unlike the other four seasons where careful viewers can figure our who is going to win or Ru resorting to hold the reveal of the winner till the reunion show, the first one had the tightest finale ever, with the viewer not knowing until the last second who would win. Also this season has some truly surprising moments. Ru has gone on record saying that she tries to give each season one genuinely shocking moment, which results in either head scratching judging decisions or painfully obvious attempts at manipulation. Because this is the first season, where everyone is still writing the rules for how the show will go, the shocking moments this season come from a more genuine place and are truly gasp-worthy (and if you’ve seen the season already, you know what I’m talking about – but please don’t spoil it for those who haven’t seen it yet).

RuPaul’s Drag Race: The Lost Season airs Mondays on Logo (and Tuesdays on-line on their website) and I can not recommend this enough. It’s a rare experience to compare where a show was to what it has become.

*****

Speaking of camp (and what inspired this post), there is one thing that great camp does best; combining artifice with genuine emotion. The best camp (like a good drag queen) has wit and intelligence behind it. For an example of good camp, one only has to look at Lifetime’s recent television movie House Of Versace.

Based on the Deborah Ball’s book of the same name, House follows the Versace family; talented, mercurial Gianni (Enrico Colantoni), loyal, business savy Santo (Colm Feore), and rebellious Donatella (Gina Gershon) through the rise and murder of Gianni, and the fall and rise of Donatella as she takes over the iconic fashion house in the wake of her beloved brother’s murder. Is this a good movie? Absolutely not. It glosses over way too many details of the tumultuous transition from Gianni’s reign as head designer to Donatella’s and reduces Donatella’s story to a bland, run of the mill tale of a woman facing her demons and triumphing (and if there is one thing any story based on Versace should not be it is bland). Are the performances good? With one exception no as they run the gambit from bland (Colantoni, though he looks eerily like the slain Gianni), to expendable (Colm Feore and Donna Murphy, as Donatella’s loyal head seamstress Maria) to ludicrous (Raquel Welch, as Aunt Lucia, looks and acts like a low rent Gina Lolobrigida). The sad thing, and this I lay at the director and screenwriter’s feet, is that the performances are not cohesive; none of the actors seem to be appearing in the same film.

This disjointedness amongst the performers could have been solved if they and the director had all taken their cues from their leading lady. Gina Gershon’s best screen roles have always had a touch of smart camp to them (see Bound and especially Showgirls), and it’s that skill set that makes her performance as Donatella so fantastic. While this is a more drag queen take on Ms. Versace (as opposed to Maya Rudolph’s legendarily accurate Donatella on Saturday Night Live back in the early 00’s), Ms. Gershon still manages to find some heart and brains to her Donatella, while sashaying across the screen and spitting out quips that would make gay men and drag queens envious. She gives a magnificent performance in a film that sadly does not rise up to meet her.

Photo Credits: LOGO, Jan Thijs / Lifetime

Originally Published on 9 October 2013 as part of my column “The Idiot Box” for l’etoile magazine.

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