Gay culture continually gets called out for being shallow, youth-obsessed and body-obsessed, but of course, just like everyone else, people get old.
In “Beautiful By Night,” documentary director James Hosking invites his audience to be quiet voyeurs, offering a peak at the three older individuals still performing, after years and years, at Aunt Charlie’s, a legendary drag lounge in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood.
For Donna Personna, Collette LeGrande and Olivia Hart, drag is an integral part of their lives, and Hosking follows them as they prep at home for their show to the bar itself and then back home again at the end of the night. Hosking decided to film a documentary after shooting photographs for an August 2014 article about the women in Out magazine.
There’s an intimacy in seeing these performers padding about in their hose, stuffing their bras, attaching their lashes, brushing their wigs; it feels akin to watching your grandmother getting dressed. That intimacy is what made Dorian Corey such a great narrator in “Paris is Burning.” You saw him in his wig cap, wielding a blush brush mid-application, and instantly trusted that whatever he was about to tell you was A) worth knowing and B) unlikely to come from anyone else. In “Beautiful by Night,” we witness wavering hands applying liquid eyeliner, the way powder and foundation settle into the facial fissures brought about by time and sun exposure. We see the beads of sweat that settle and collect before the hard work of the evening has even commenced. Missing is the neat, vampy, airbrushed perfectionism of the girls of “Ru Paul’s Drag Race.”
“When you see queens, they’re always prepared and groomed,” Hosking said. “It took a lot of trust for them to allow me to document that and then to allow it to go out into the world, so I feel very lucky.”
The viewer is guided through their world by cinematographer Vanessa Carr, who follows Personna, LeGrande and Hart through the cramped backstage of Aunt Charlie’s, where wigs, costumes and makeup share space with boxes of beer and tubs of cold cuts.
“Drag interests me a lot as a form of labor,” Hosking said. “As a routine, it’s fascinating. We go to work, and at times we can embody different personas, but not as directly as the transformation they undergo. I think there’s something ritualistic and fascinating about emerging into the world and embodying this new persona and feeling the power through that to sort of escape yourself.”
San Francisco has become a city that’s known for its crazily high housing prices, fueled by the proximity of Silicon Valley. Personna, LeGrande and Hart are reminders of what the city used to be like before well-moneyed interlopers began to insist San Francisco get its act together and settle into respectability. Even in the five years since Hosking, 31, moved there from New York, the transition that was already in motion gained momentum exponentially.
“It’s very much changed, economically,” Hoskings said. “There’s a lot more vacancies in terms of apartments. The evictions weren’t at such an epidemic level … I think that’s impacted a lot of people, especially in the drag and transgender communities, queer communities who are directly impacted by that in rent-controlled apartments.”
In some ways, the story Hosking chooses to document of Personna, LeGrande and Hart is an allegory for the Tenderloin. It’s unclear how much longer they’ll continue performing, or how much longer Aunt Charlie’s will stick around. Vicki Marlane, a trans performer and famous Aunt Charlie’s fixture, died in 2011 at age 76. They carry her legacy. Will the bar remain as a landmark beacon for tourists, or will it succumb as the once-notorious Tenderloin becomes less associated with seediness, vice and single-room occupancy hotels?
“Part of the mentality is how long can it go on for,” Hoskings said. “This wonderfully self-contained world, all these performers who’ve known each other for awhile, who were drawn to San Francisco and really embody a certain kind of San Francisco identity, a sort of freedom of self expression, and were drawn here because of the city’s reputation.”
You can watch “Beautiful By Night” in full below: