Despite its exclamation-point-adorned title, this independent Canadian production is really more offbeat than outrageous. A lively drama based on the real-life friendship of a drag queen and a mentally ill woman, the picture sketches a relationship defined by mutual need and unwavering support. So, even though the movie’s sympathetic exploration of gay life is historically noteworthy, at its heart the film is a sweet tribute to the power of friendship. Outrageous! was adapted from a semiautobiographical short story by Margaret Gibson, who shared a Toronto apartment in the early ’70s with her friend, Craig Russell, a hairdresser-turned-female impersonator. Russell plays the character he inspired, “Robin Turner,” and Hollis McLaren plays the character based on Gibson, “Liza Connors.” When the story begins, Liza has just been released from a long stay in a mental institution, so she arrives at Robin’s doorstop hoping for a place to crash until she gets her life in order. Devoted and understanding, Robin takes Liza in and becomes a support system while she deals with an overwhelming barrage of depression, hallucination, medication, and unfulfilling sexual encounters.
Meanwhile, Robin finds his groove as a female impersonator in Canadian nightclubs, dressing up in opulent costumes to portray Tallulah Bankhead, Bette Davis, and Barbara Streisand. After he gets fired from his salon job for being too “out,” Robin relocates to New York for a shot at the showbiz big time. Liza stays behind because she’s become pregnant, and Robin promises to send for her once he’s established in Manhattan. The resolution of this peculiar situation underscores the movie’s theme about companionship trumping adversity. Written and directed by Richard Benner, Outrageous! has a handmade vibe—think choppy editing, low-rent cinematography, and unglamorous locations—but the storytelling is sincere and the leading performances reflect deep commitment. Russell’s drag numbers obviously provide most of the film’s entertainment value, though it’s odd whenever the movie cuts from heavy dramatic moments to extended scenes of Russell prancing around a nightclub stage. Nonetheless, the movie was enough of a cult hit that a sequel (titled Too Outrageous!) was released in 1987.