Dick Benner’s “Too Outrageous!” (1987): When the going gets tough, the tough get gorgeous!

By on January 10, 2019

In Night Flight’s “Outrageous in Hollywood” — which first aired on July 16, 1988, and you can now find streaming on Night Flight Plus — we see various examples of people trying to “make it” in Hollywood, including wannabe actors and actresses.

If you don’t blink during this vintage half-hour collage-style collection of black & white newsreel-type clips interspersed with colorful Hollywood-themed music videos, you’ll be able to see a short excerpt from Kentucky-bred Canadian-based director Richard “Dick” Benner’s offbeat sentimental comedy Too Outrageous!, the 1987 rags-to-riches sequel to his previous critically-acclaimed 1977 comedy Outrageous!

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In both drag-to-riches films — lensed in Toronto, Ontario, and in NYC — the main focus is on “Robin Turner,” a gay hairdresser-turned-drag queen nightclub performer, played by actor Craig Russell.

Turner has not-so-secret ambitions to become a famous star by doing his uncanny impersonations of Barbra Streisand, Mae West, Marlene Dietrch, Bette Midler, Peggy Lee and Judy Garland.

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Craig Russell was already a star on the drag circuit before he appeared in Outrageous!, making a name for himself by notably for impersonating Tallulah Bankhead (ask your grandma).

Margaret Gibson Gilboord, a friend of his back home in Toronto, would end up writing a short story called “Making It” which was based on her friendship with Russell and his friendship with Mae West, which provided the basis for Benner’s Outrageous! screenplay.

In Outrageous!, Turner’s penchant for performing in drag leads to him being fired from the beauty shop where he works.

It turns out the owner of the shop is a gay man who looks down on “fems” and demands that his employees appear and act “straight” in order to attract female customers.

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Outrageous! also featured a subplot about Turner’s touching relationship with “Liza Connors” (Hollis McLaren), a voluntary patient at a mental institution who escapes and then turns up at Turner’s doorstep.

Turner takes Liza in — she becomes his best friend and roommate — and he protects her from her wacko family and the doctors who all want her to go back to the hospital.

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Turner believes Liza is actually healthy enough to make it on her own, but he has little faith in himself until Liza encourages him to keep performing his nightclub act.

When Liza becomes pregnant by her boyfriend, he leaves. The baby is stillborn, though, and Liza’s hopes of having a “normal” life are suddenly dashed.

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Turner’s unemployment leads to him moving on from the small Toronto club to Manhattan’s Jack Rabbit, and then to an uptown straight club (which forces him to tone down his drag act).

Turner rents an apartment for himself and Liza in a “freaky” NYC neighborhood, and he gets an agent former taxi cab driver “Bob” (David McIlwraith), who scores with men he meets at the straight club (he helps push Turner to the top of the drag performer field).

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Outrageous! also featured a homophobic psychiatrist, a feminist who deprecates gay men, and Liza’s mother “Mrs. Connors” (Helen Hughes), who makes her unstable daughter even crazier.

Read more about Dick Benner’s Outrageous! and Too Outrageous! below.

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Too Outrageous! ‘s plot features the reverse of the original story, as Turner and Liza return to Toronto nine years after living in New York City.

Turner has now added black singers to his repertoire, impersonating Eartha Kitt and Tina Turner, and, as we were now firmly settled into the mid-1980s, in keeping with the times, one character has AIDS.

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Just like the first movie, the script for Too Outrageous! features lots of zingers, including Turner griping: “Remember when lubricating cream went on your cock and not on your face?!”

There were also a lot of jokes you apparently had to be Canadian to understand, like pointed insults aimed at people hailing from Ottawa.

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Outrageous! — partly-funded by the Film Consortium of Canada, Inc. — was considered a positive and moving narrative of emerging queer identities.

Some critics even compared it favorably with Rocky, and Outrageous! even premiered at Manhattan’s Cinema II, where Rocky had enjoyed a successful theatrical run.

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Ultimately, Outrageous did great business at the box office, earning many times its original $160,000 production budget.

The film became a cult classic and a sleeper hit after premiering at the 1977 Cannes Film Festival.

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Writing about Outrageous! on August 26, 1977, Roger Ebert called the film “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.”

Outrageous! also apparently inspired Harvey Fierstein to not give up on his performance career and “The Kids In The Hall”‘s Scott Thompson to come out as gay.

Unfortunately for Benner and Russell — who would win the “Silver Bear” Best Actor award at the Berlin Film Festival in 1978 — their sequel Too Outrageous! failed to impress audiences.

Both of Benner’s progressive gay-people motion pictures — championed by mainstream critics and audiences more so than than by queer communities — were likely as much about the film’s director as they were about the musical comedy and show-business themed plots.

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Benner’s 1980 film Happy Birthday, Gemini (based on Albert Innaurato’s play Gemini) — despite having a cast that featured Madeline Kahn and Rita Moreno — had, despite its U.S. financing from United Artists, also failed to connect with audiences.

Tragically, both Craig Russell and writer-director Richard Benner would both succumb to AIDS in 1990.

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Watch Night Flight’s “Outrageous in Hollywood” — and check out our previous post about the episode here — on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.