Written & Directed by Michael Seligman & Jennifer Tiexiera
For over sixty years, a trove of the history, culture and experiences of female impersonators and their surrounding friends and allies sat undisturbed, forgotten and biding its time – then in 2014, hundreds of letters saw the light of day once more. A series of messages, often signed by the vivacious Daphne, containing conversations and natterings addressed to the infamous Hollywood talent agent Reno Martin (Ed Limato), which would delve into the lives of those on the New York, New Orleans and American Drag and female impersonation circuits in the 1950s. From the illegal bar parties to the private rooms of luxurious mansions and penthouses, it wasn’t all champagne, caviar, and gooey gowns as behind the false lashes and sequins were authentic, breathing people who each had a role in altering histories perceptions.
Drama is one thing – living history is another. Hypnotic, the authenticity of P.S. Burn This Letter Please is tremendously empowered by filmmakers Jennifer Tiexiera and Michael Seligman’s dedication in approaching and securing those named within the letters for interviews within the film. From female impersonators, club runners, dress-makers and friends, what follows is a previously shrouded and rose-tinted slice of history that lifts the veil to uncover warts, the mopping, the gin and the chaos which existed.
Mercifully, Seligman & Tiexiera grasp the fundamental importance of reinforcing any participants chosen title as a female impersonator rather than drag queen, allowing them to retain the identity they crafted for themselves more than sixty years ago. There’s a validation, not only in who these people are and what they do, but in the openness the film allows them to communicate their raw emotions to the world, unaware of just how impactful their words have been and continue to be.
There is an unquestionable repetition within the film’s structure, but it isn’t an overall detractable feature. If anything, it offers comfort and ease of viewing. The process of taking each letter as a chapter or division to transition between tales is a simplistic yet effective direction to undertake. It allows the break-up and segmentation of the film’s more nuanced moments or difficult moments, which require a keener grasp of respect and weight.
Remarkably, despite the elegiac nature of some topics, there’s a sense of safety and comfort as stories are shared and experiences unravelled. Seligman & Tiexiera capture the tremendous warmth of community throughout the film while reinforcing the delectable nature of passion surrounding female impersonation.
Interconnecting the interview sequences or archival footage are charming animated tie-ins that marry the words of Daphne’s letters with illustrations of the attire made for the impersonators or of street corners and calligraphed wisps to evoke the words from the page. For its limited cinematography as an interview-style documentary, Zachary Shields still manages to provide a sense of scale and character for the cast interviewed.
The palpable sense of salacious scandal and enjoyment, but not without cost. And yes, there is pain, undeniable despondency and loss. It would be ignorant and wrong to ignore the gross abuse of police power, or the catastrophic impact HIV/AIDS has had on the gay community, both in a life-threatening sense but also the stigma. Touchingly, as the discussions turn to lost friends, nothing is pushed or prodded to gain sympathy – we’re here at their bequest, not prying, but learning.
Over sixty years later, the fight isn’t over, and P.S. Burn This Letter reminds us of the trials & tribulations fought and endured to achieve the freedoms we can express to this day. Though with so many nations still denying fundamental rights, what may have been a gigantic step is still a drop in the ocean for the grand scheme. And that even as recent events and actions expect those pushing for their right to exist to be silenced, P.S. Burn This Letter Please instructs the communities of the world not to flicker into the darkness but to strap on some glad rags, shine like a rhinestone and strut into the world and let it know precisely just who you are; sickening, fierce, and a member of a persevering and glorious community.