(USA/France, 97 min.)
Dir. Sébastien Lifshitz
Program: TIFF Docs
Casa Susanna illuminates a fascinating phenomenon in American 2SLGBTQ+ history and that’s reason enough to celebrate this documentary. But it does so while delivering a powerful emotional punch, which makes it even more of a must-see.
In the late ’50s and early ’60s, cross dressers, as they were called then, made their way to a house in the Catskills in New York State, where they laughed, shared dinners and personal experience and relaxed. With no digital networking possibilities available, these intrepid souls found each other via underground networks and word of mouth. They congregated to create community at a time when being queer was illegal, fear of discovery was a constant, and cross-dressing constituted a singular act of courage.
Director Sébastien Lifshitz, who has made several films about transgender experience (Wild Side, Bambi, Little Girl), takes a number of people connected to the Casa back to the house and gives them space to tell their stories. Katherine recounts her experience of coming to America from Australia and then, while living in New York, making her way to the Catskills and finding friendship and validation for her life. Diana tells of emerging from an ultra-Conservative Lutheran background to explore her feminine self, most crucially at Casa Susanna. Lifshitz gently jogs the memories of both these women, showing them old photographs that reveal not the flamboyant drag styles, which are now high-profile in TV shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race, but, rather, perfect semblances of 1950s housewives. Many of these documents lead Diana to exclaim, “Is that really me?”
Not among the living subjects are the founders of Casa Susanna, Maria, a cis hetero woman whose love for her cross-dressing spouse Tito, an influential Latinx radio personality, aka Susanna, never wavered. Katherine and Diana lovingly remember the couple and photos of Maria with her fabulous guests at Casa Susanna powerfully illustrate allyship in action. (In fact, many of Casa Susanna’s cross-dressing visitors’ wives accompanied them.) Susanna and Maria’s story is told through the eyes of their grandson Gregory, who, wholly appreciative of them both, visited them at their Catskill retreat as a young boy, often sneaking a peek through the windows to catch a glimpse of the drag shows that entertained the guests.
This love story, one for the ages, and Diana and Katherine’s joy at self-discovery makes this doc deeply moving. But it is not all joyful. Betsy, the daughter of science fiction writer Donald Wollheim, only discovered after he died that, as Donna, he was a frequent visitor to Casa Susanna. But that opportunity for refuge to did not bring Donna happiness. Wollheim actually began a memoir about his cross-dressing life called “Life among the Girls,” but was deeply conflicted about being queer and that had a major impact on his relationship with Betsy, who recalls her parents verbal abuse.
Even with this sad element, as these people’s memories flow freely, thanks to Lifshitz’s skilful guidance, the denizens of Casa Susanna reveal the glorious complexities of gender, sexuality, friendship, community, family and lovership. There are lovely surprises all along the way.
And Lifshitz delivers the perfect payoff in a scene near the end when his subjects honour Marie and Susanna in a beautifully tender way.
This is an essential entry into the queer cinematic canon.