"Outrageous" is the kind of distinctive, eccentrically engaging "little" movie that makes one suspicious whenever a representative of the major studios complains about an alleged scarcity of interesting, fresh, filmable material. Maybe they don't look as hard as they pretend to.
A story in a book called "Butterfly Ward," by Margaret Gibson, seems to have provided Richard Benner, an American who has done considerable work in Canadian telvision, with the opportunity to make an admirable feature filmmaking debut and possibly duplicate the success "A Taste of Honey" enjoyed at art-houses in the early '60s.
A Canadian production shot in Toronto and New York on the outrageously thrifty budget of $165,000, a sum that wouldn't begin to cover the newspaper advertising costs on a ponderous turkey like "Orca." "Outrageous" is likely to prove one of the shrewdest little investments of the late '70s.
"Outrageous," which opened last night at the renovated West End Circle, 23d & L Strets NW, where first-run movies will now alternate with stage show, depicts the peculiar but emotionally sustaining friendship between a witty, homosexual hairdresser with a talent for female impersonation and a panicky, effusive, schizophrenic young woman who needs all the help and distraction she can get to ward off suicidal anxieties.
In "A Taste of Honey" a lonely, pregnant girl named Jo, played by Rita Tushingham, found temporary refuge in a housekeeping arrangement with a scrawny, maternal homosexual named Geoff, played by Murray Melvin, after being abandoned by her mother. The odd couple of "Outrageous," Liza Connors and Robin Turner, portrayed by Hollis McLaren and Craig Russell, who happens to be a professional female impersonator, seem like the latest specialized adaptations of Jo and geoff.
As misfits or social outcasts, they're rather more extreme but also more resourceful figures. At the same time Benner views their menage sympathetically and tenderly without slipping into the idyllic sentimentality that marred Tony Richardson's approach to "A Taste of Honey."
Liza bolts a mental institution, where she has been a voluntary patient, and asks Robin's friendship with Liza and apparent willingness to look after her indefinitely. We learn that they were high school pals, and it's not difficult to imagine how they drifted together sensing that they were irreconcilably different from their classmates.
However, Benner neglects to account for the bond specifically, through the recollections of either Robin or Liza. Although Liza's psychiatrist is shown agreeing to her change of domicile, one suspects that he would have wanted to talk to Robin before approving. Such a confrontation might have enabled us to learn more about the pasts of the characters while establishing Robin's ability to impress or disarm skeptical outsiders.
It's a curious missed opportunity, because it could have foreshadowed the success of Robin's theatrical act, which is shown to be broad and astute enough to appeal to heterosexual audiences, although it begins and to some extend will always remain a specialty turn for fellow homosexuals.
Encouraged by Liza and a transvestite friend named Perry (played by Richard Easly, who's particularly endearing when he turns up impersonating Karen Black in "Airport 1975"), Robin resolves to follow her own humorous, inverted inclinations and accept a job emceeing at a Toronto gay bar. Easily the classiest act on the bill, he comes on as Bette Davis, "All About Eve" vintage, and his opening joke is a clue to his potential popularity: "Anita Byrant sent me to beat some sense into you frozen fruits." It's the sort of zinger that might send any audience, including a Byrant audience, although not for the same reasons.
Robin begins to make some headway as an entertainer. Liza tries to sustain as elemental creative act of her own - she becomes pregnant by some off-screen beau and resolves to keep the baby against the advice of almost everyone. The story reaches its climax when things go well for Robin, who has taken his act to New York, and not so well for Liza, who has entered the maternity ward of a Toronto hospital.
The movie's basic appeal obviously derives from its sentimental assumption that two abnormal souls can make it as soulmates. However, Benner is honest enough to express the sentiment tentatively and skeptically. He declines to plunge into the ready, simple-minded trap from which Robin and Liza would emerge as superior beings by virtue of their inversion and craziness.
On the contrary, Benner indicates that these misfits may be able to survive and prosper and enjoy themselves only within unconventional social niches. In Liza's case special care is also necessary. "You're not normal," Robin tells her, "and you'll never be normal. You're special, but you can still have a hell of a good time." Robin's inversion and Liza's schizophrenia are not viewed as better , somehow ennobling conditions but as different conditions, compelling psychological adjustments and survival techniques that normal people may learn to tolerate but never really share.
For example, Benner catches the poignancy in Liza's isolation among the clientele at the Jackrabbit, the cramped gay bar where Robin makes his New York debut. He can perceive the sadness, indeed the unnaturalness, in her position as a little girl mascot lost in a homosexual milieu. Yet as long as she's doomed to dependence, it appears that Robin may be the only person she can depend on.
Benner also declines to sentimentalize or normalize the world Robin moves in. He seems to appreciate the uneasiness that heterosexuals are bound to feel when transported to clubs like the Jackrabbit. There is no pretense that the prevailing mood at such an establishment will be whole-somely gay. There are ugly little hungers flickering across the faces of several patrons, and the relative gentility and sophistication of Robin's impersonations are underscored by some of the gross performers he share the bill with.
Moreover, Benner observes tensions between homosexuals that rarely surface on the screen. The status of drag act appears to be somewhat controversial in the wake of gay liberation. Robin's employer at the Toronto hairdressing salon is a butch homosexual who considers any dabbling in drag immediate cause for dismissal. There is a scene in which Robin is panhandled by a guy he brings home and a joking reference to butch types getting generally intolerant about the habits of transvestites.
As a result, Robin emerges as something as a misfit within the homosexual milieu. He's bent in a reactionary direction and happens to have considerable theatrical talent in that direction. From certain angles Craig Russell suggest a pudgy, affable schoolgirl, but Robin isn't particularly girlish, and he's certainly no weakling. Russel may embody a new image of the loner, although it derives from the idea of the personality who needs a performing framework in which to realize itself. Robin's sexual identity is never quite here nor there, but that confusion may enhance his act.
I hope I'm not doing Russell a disservice, but it seemed to me that one of the neatest aspects of his performance was the feeling that Robin was still a groping, experimenting performer. It wouldn't make sense if Robin confronted us with a polished act, and Russel appears to give us an act in the formative stages, varying in quality from the slightly grotesque (this Bette Milder) to the slightly sublime (his Carol Channing, whom he impersonated in a mood of total, loving respect).
As Liza, Hollis McLaren deserves the raves that have greeted Kathleen Quinlan's performance as a schizophrenic in "I Never Promised You a Rose Garden." McLean, a vibrant young actress who resembles Sissy Spacek without the freckles (what a pair they might have made in "3 Women"!), confronts you with a jittery, disordered personality from her first appearance and never softens the impact. One can feel protective about this girl, but one can never feel that she'll be cured of the demons that haunt her.
Reviewing "A Taste of Honey" 15 years ago, Pauline Kael pointed out the "distinctively modern charm" of its role confusion: "The mother and daughter don't have a parent-child relationship; they are more like bickering siblings. And Jo and Geoff are not like woman and man but like non bickering siblings, Geoff the older sister looking after Jo, the disorderly younger sister . . ."
This pattern reappears with curious new variations in "Outrageous," where Robin functions as a kind of older sister and psychiatric social worker to Liza's out-patient disordered kid sister. No doubt it all has to do with a general disintegration of traditional family and sexual roles, and if it continues, "Outrageous" may be remembered as a landmark. It's also one of several recent pictures in which friendship is viewed as a last refuge against a hostile world. Whatever its ultimate significance, it certainly has a mood and vision that lifts it well above the ordinary.