QUEEN OF THE DEUCE – Review by Leslie Combemale

0 Flares 0 Flares ×

There’s nothing like discovering that a place I deemed a dangerous dumpster fire of humanity at one time, actually represented resistance, resilience, and survival. The first time I walked down 42nd street was in the 80s, when it had become, as someone put it, “more dangerous than being a soldier in Vietnam”. I should have known there was a whole lot more to the history of The Deuce, as 42nd street is called, than the drug addicts, sex workers, peep shows, and violence in the streets that plagued it by that time.

In the documentary Queen of the Deuce, director/writer/producer Valerie Kontakos reveals the importance of one trailblazing woman, Greek immigrant and badass Chelly Wilson, to its development as a porn mecca. She also puts into perspective how Wilson’s success represented so much more than just making heaps of money in a business seen as immoral or unsavory by the average American.

In interviews with her children and grandchildren, as well as footage of Chelly herself, audiences meet and get to know this larger than life, tenacious woman in a way that demands respect, if not downright awe. A Sephardic Jew born in Thessaloniki, Greece, she escaped to New York just before other members of her family were shipped off and killed in Auschwitz. The short story is she went from selling chestnuts to buying buildings and building an empire of built from porn theaters and one extremely successful Greek restaurant, Mykonos. Through it all, she supported Greek charities and culture in the US through events and fundraisers. She was married twice, but had two live-in female lovers, and was, for the time, “out and proud”. She lived above one of her theaters in a fortified, sprawling, well-appointed apartment in which she held court, with parties that included folks from every walk of life, from the most famous to the most infamous. Truly, hers is a story that must be seen to be believed.

Chelly Wilson is someone who survived and thrived, in the face of loss and adversity. Remember, those of you who were around New York, that many of the porn movie houses were named after Greek gods? Those were all owned by Chelly. Through owning one of the first theaters to show gay porn, she was also responsible for building, if not a “safe space”, certainly a space for exploration for members of the LGBTQ community that still lived in fear of being arrested for their orientation. She had a longterm impact of normalizing sexuality and sex work.

So, did everything go off the rails eventually? Well, yeah, but she is not singlehandedly responsible for the chaos of that part of town in the 80s. That was a result of many many things happening at once at the time. It would have been nice, however, to have seen a happy medium come out of the ashes of 42nd at the height of danger and the sterile homogenization and “wholesomeness” of Disney and the other corporations that took over and “reinvented” those blocks of the city.

As for the way Queen of the Deuce is told, it is laid out with a balanced mix of interviews and vintage footage of the time, with those speaking about her clearly having great respect and love for her, as foul-mouthed, emotional, and intense as she was. The passion shown from those speaking serves to keep us engaged and invested in her unbelievable story.

The animation, contributed by female animator and illustrator Abhilasha Dewan, adds a light and delightful touch to both funnier and more dramatic moments of the film, including capturing the euphemistic “beaver” and “pickle”, terms for the genitalia variously shown onscreen in porn films.

Chelly Wilson died after multiple heart attacks in 1994, and of course little still exists now of what she built on 42nd street except the buildings themselves. It’s wonderful that through this documentary, audience, assuming they check their judgement and fly by the seat of their curiosity, can learn about one powerful unapologetic woman’s influence on one colorful corner of American history.

4 out of 5 stars

0 Flares Twitter 0 Facebook 0 0 Flares ×

Leslie Combemale

Leslie Combemale writes as Cinema Siren on her own website, CinemaSiren.com, and is a frequent contributor to MPA's TheCredits.org, where she interviews filmmakers above and below the line, with a focus on women and diverse voices. She is the Senior Contributor at AWFJ.org. Leslie is in her 9th year as producer and moderator of the influential "Women Rocking Hollywood" panel at San Diego Comic-Con. She is a world-renowned expert on cinema art and her film art gallery, ArtInsights, located near DC, has celebrated cinema art and artists for 30 years.