Point of View

For 40 years, this classic Canadian film has had an 'Outrageous!' impact on the LGBTQ community

Four decades after it made waves around the world, it's time to take a look back at Richard Benner and Craig Russell's groundbreaking 1977 film.

A look back at Richard Benner and Craig Russell's groundbreaking 1977 film

Craig Russell in Outrageous! (Cinema 5)

Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.

Do you know who Craig Russell and Richard Benner are? You should. While it's no secret that even Canadians themselves are typically challenged when it comes to their country's cinematic history, Russell and Benner's collective contribution to it is literally Outrageous!

In the mid-1970s, Benner was a Kentucky-bred Canadian implant working right here at CBC Toronto as a writer. Russell, meanwhile, was making a name for himself as a drag queen in Toronto (perhaps most notably for impersonating Tallulah Bankhead). Even though neither of them had made a film, they decided to team up and adapt Russell's former roommate Margaret Gibson's short story "Making It" into one. They were able to scrounge up $168,000 (which, if you adjust for inflation, is more like $700,000 today) through personal funds and some financing from the Canadian Film Development Corporation (what Telefilm Canada is now) and by late 1976 cameras were rolling, with Benner behind and Russell in front. (Notably also involved was the late Bill Marshall, who at the time was also busy founding what would go onto become the Toronto International Film Festival.)

The result was Outrageous!, the story of a Toronto hairdresser who aspires to become a famous female impersonator (Russell) and his schizophrenic roommate (Hollis McLaren) — and there's nothing else like it. And not just because of its gritty portrait of life in 1970s Toronto (a city that still doesn't get much opportunity to play itself on screen) and Russell's uncanny impersonations of everyone from Barbra Streisand to Judy Garland to Bette Midler — but also simply in the fact that a movie with such unapologetically gay content didn't just get made...it became an international sensation. 

After premiering in the market at the 1977 Cannes Film Festival, Outrageous! went on to win Russell the Silver Bear for Best Actor at the 1978 Berlin Film Festival and to receive multiple nominations at the Canadian Film Awards (which is what they were called before they changed their name to the Genies and then again to the Canadian Screen Awards), including Best Picture, Best Actress and Best Actor. It even got a very positive review from a young Roger Ebert, who wrote on August 26, 1977:

"Almost any description of Outrageous! makes it sound like a sensational exploitation film but that's exactly what it isn't. It's a bittersweet, endearing, sometimes funny little slice of life, and when you describe it as the story of a friendship between a transvestite and a schizophrenic, you have to add that they're loyal and human and deserve one another."

Hollis McLaren and Craig Russell in Outrageous! (Cinema 5)

The film is said to have ultimately inspired the now-legendary Harvey Fierstein to not give up on a performance career and The Kids In The Hall's Scott Thompson to come out as gay. Its imprint can also clearly be felt in everything from The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert to RuPaul's Drag Race.

Benner and Russell would team up again for a 1987 sequel, Too Outrageous!, though the film was not nearly as critically or commercially successful as its predecessor. It would also come as both men were battling AIDS, which they would succumb to within five weeks of each other in 1990. They left behind a truly fabulous legacy, one that — 40 years after the film debuted — should not be forgotten.

While Outrageous! not the easiest film to buy (or cheapest, as per this $180 copy on Amazon), it's been uploaded in its entirety on YouTube by "ClassicCanukCinema." It's been up there for over five years now and no one has seemed to formally complain. It also has let to nearly 200,000 views and over 100 mostly glowing comments from people who have come across it, with some experiencing it for the first time:

"i found this movie by accident and OMG i loved it!. went back and researched the back story. this movie made my night!" - Teri Norris

For others, it was an opportunity to revisit the impact the movie had on their own lives:

"I saw this movie when it played at an indie style cinema 20 years before homosexuality was decriminalised in my home town. Under both our jackets in the dark my boyfriend and I allowed our fingers to touch. Of course during a brightly lit scene we would move our hands back to our own laps. The fear and punishment was intense. I fell in love with this movie and many years later when it was released on VHS I had to have two copies. Two because I knew I would wear the first one out (and I did)." - SirDilbere

And while this article does not endorse the questionable legality of the YouTube upload, not being touched by the good it's done would be, well, outrageous.

About the Author

Peter Knegt

Peter Knegt has been CBC Arts' digital producer since way back in 2016. He has been working as a journalist for over a decade, and is also the filmmaker of numerous short films and the author of the book About Canada: Queer Rights. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter with the same obvious handle: @peterknegt.

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