Seated in the lobby of the Orson Welles Cinema complex, Craig Russell is explaining to two little girls why he is wearing two different shoes. "See, this is a boy," he says, slapping the leg that leads to a dark brown desert boot, "and this is a girl," hiking up his satin slacks to reveal a wildly flowered spike heel. He pauses for a split-second to make sure the nearby adults are listening. "And in between is an uninsurable risk."
Russell is, of course, the star of Outrageous!, the low-budget Canadian film that has become the biggest hit in the history of the Cambridge moviehouse. In town recently for two shows at the Berklee Perfomance Center, the 30-year-old actor/female impersonator/outrageous person dropped by the Welles to meet his fans, to sign autographs ("To Scott -- you're hot!"), to field questions before a special screening and - best of all - to have his hand- and footprints recorded in wet cement a la Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood. "We thought it would be in the spirit of the film," said a
Welles spokesperson, and, indeed, it was in the spirit of his character Robin Turner, a gay hairdresser who finds fame as a female impressionist, that Russell showed up in conflicting footwear. A walking double entendre, so to speak.
His performance in Outrageous! has been a career breakthrough for Russell; a former insurance salesman and hairdresser who took up professional drag performing only six years ago. Or, as he puts it, "The film opened a lot of doors for me, and one window." He won the "Best Actor" award at the Berlin Film Festival, and the Virgin Islands Film Festival presented him with a special citation as "Best Actor and Actress." He's writing the sequel to the movie himself (tentative title:
Tinsel); Casablanca Records wants him to participate in a disco menage a trois, as both a man and a woman, for a Donna Summer album; he's been invited to play Bette Midler on her next TV special so she can play other roles. The national exposure has also stepped up demand for Russell's live show. Titled
A Man and His Women and dedicated to the proposition that "sex is a
question of lighting," the act comprises more than a dozen dazzling impressions of Judy, Carol, Sophie, Bette, etc. Some are elaborate creations; others consist of no more than an inspired one-liner. (Lucille Ball: "Ethel, hurry up! Fred and Ricky are coming home, and we have to disguise ourselves as doughnuts!")
Arriving at the hotel suite for an interview, one immediately enters what New Times
called "that generalized, all-purpose Old Movie which is the stuff of Russell's art and a metaphor for his life." Album sleeves picturing Marilyn Monroe, Barbra Streisand and Peggy Lee are placed prominently on tables and windowsills; nail polish, perfume, packs of cigarettes and a hand mirror litter the coffee table. Their owner is in the next room, seeing off the last batch of reporters -- "Are you coming to the show? Well, get there early. No one will be seated after the first ten inches!"
"Notice anything new since you last saw me?" Russell hints. What's new is his nose, which was broken last January in a nasty accident and has been fixed in a way that obviously pleases him. "I liked myself before," he purrs, "but I love myself now." I've brought him a joke present - a photobutton of John Simon, whose usually acerbic pen flowed with praise for both
Outrageous! and the live show. Craig doesn't recognize the critic, though. "Oh yeah, I had lunch with him once. He told me, 'You'll never win an acting award. You're like W.C. Fields and Marlene Dietrich and Mae West - you're a natural.' He's a nice man underneath it all, very bright, but he hates women, with a vengeance."
The conversation takes off in several directions. Russell begins a tirade about money and rip-off artists, then stops to reassure me that success hasn't made him bitter.
"I get so much love. I just came from Montreal, where I played to my biggest crowds yet. The promoters said to me, 'From now on, we'll treat you like Shirley MacLaine, give you a 24-hour limousine.' I said, 'Who wants to spend 24 hours in a limousine?' Do you like this shirt? I had it made to go on Dinah Shore. Turned out to be Dinah Sore. She’s the most laid-back person in the world." He demonstrates, slouching toward me at Valium velocity. "Wellll, Crayyy-eggg . .. what's your movie
Observing Russell at close range gets spooky. He pulls impressions out in mid-sentence, and when he talks like Tallulah, mugs like Mae West, plays Edith Piaf delivering an imaginary plea for Canadian unity -- well, it's startling to see how
close to the surface these personalities lie and unnerving to sense how much they speak for his own feelings. And when the mannerisms that emerge appear self-destructive - the heavy drinking, the intense frailty, the panicky eyes that seem trapped in that "Old Movie" - it's downright disturbing. Perhaps Russell is aware of the danger of pushing the parallels to his prototypes, perhaps not. "I know a lot of people think I'm just a drunken drag queen," he told me, "but I've learned from Judy and Marilyn and the rest to let them think you’re an idiot but to keep your eyes open all the time.”
In any case, like his female idols, Russell matches extreme vulnerability with a
strong survival instinct. The latter often hides behind camp and flippancy, yet it's always there. I keep remembering what he said about the floor-length feathered cape he wore to the Orson Welles screening. "I knew each and every one of these birds," he quipped casually. "They were all vultures."
Boston Phoenix, 1978