Jennie Livingston discovers drag balls -- The documentary filmmaker finds success in Washington Square Park

By Judith Shulevitz
April 05, 1991 at 05:00 AM EST

If art is a mirror, then 29-year-old Jennie Livingston’s Paris Is Burning is of the convex, vanity-table variety. At the ”drag balls” depicted in her documentary (see review) conventional images of an upper-crust way of life are magnified into burlesque with a bite. Though Livingston grew up surrounded by such pictures of privilege (daughter of a children’s book writer, a photography student at Yale), she was always conscious of the how the media, ”bears down on how women feel about themselves,” she says. Then, in 1985, she spotted an event in Washington Square Park that put a new spin on old images of women: male voguers who struck poses that fit into categories, such as ”Butch Queen in Drag,” or ”Saks Fifth Avenue Mannequin.” Fascinated, Livingston was among the first of the throng of filmmakers and journalists attending drag balls.

Livingston waited two years, while she tried to raise cash, before committing her interviews to film. Ironically, the filmmaker was able to complete Paris Is Burning with money from the National Endowment for the Arts that was awarded months before the attacks began on NEA subsidies of homoerotic art. Recalls Livingston, ”We were nervous and worried: Is someone going to find out about this and stop our checks?”