'Sons of Tennessee Williams' explores gay rights in New Orleans
Before New York's Stonewall riots in 1969 and before the Christopher Street West gay pride parades of the early 1970s in Los Angeles, there was a group of gay men in New Orleans who wanted to have a Mardi Gras ball of its own. This was the starting point for director Tim Wolff's first feature documentary, “The Sons of Tennessee Williams.”
Opening Friday in Los Angeles, the film explores the story of the gay men of New Orleans who put together the first state-chartered Mardi Gras drag balls in the early 1960s. Once recognized as official Mardi Gras organizations, they were entitled to hold balls in public venues and receive police protection.
The documentary follows the gay krewes of New Orleans, social clubs whose members celebrate the Mardi Gras season together despite conservative laws and people who sought to fight against them. It captures the obstacles these krewes faced from 1959 to 2008: a police raid on their first ball and arrests; the AIDS epidemic, which claimed hundreds of members; and the toll of Hurricane Katrina. In their heyday, 21 gay krewes existed — now that number has dwindled to five.
But the documentary focuses equally on the glitz, glamour, sparkle and fun that came with the culture of the gay krewes, revealing the extravagantly bedazzled costumes, the coronation of an annual king and queen and the rising popularity of these drag balls among both gay and straight communities. These balls are distinct from the far more well-known parade aspect of Mardi Gras.
“I chose to focus on the celebratory aspect of it all,” Wolff said. “I hope my audience is able to leave the theater and say, 'That was really fun.' I hope this movie will stand as a good time.”
While “The Sons of Tennessee Williams” centers on one gay krewe in particular, the Krewe of Armeinius, and its 40th anniversary ball in 2008. As straight krewes were putting on dry, dull balls throughout the 1960s and 1970s that honored their debutantes, the Krewe of Armeinius and other such groups were putting on loud, entertaining balls that centered around dressing in drag, wearing highly ornate costumes and honoring the “debutramp.”
The title of the documentary serves as an homage to Tennessee Williams, who not only gave voice to the gay experience in his plays, but was also very open about his own homosexuality while he was living in New Orleans.
Wolff said that once he attended his first gay Mardi Gras ball in 1992, he knew that he wanted to make a documentary about the culture and history behind them.
Finding krewe members willing to be interviewed was relatively simple, but it took 18 years for Wolff to complete his documentary. For many years, he did not feel he was equipped with the tools or self-confidence to be a documentary filmmaker — he figured some historian with more experience would come along and tell the story. Furthermore, Wolff said, it was initially very difficult to get funding.
But ultimately, Wolff’s biggest setback and his biggest motivation was Hurricane Katrina, which wiped out 50% of his archived and contemporary footage and his recorded interviews.
In a moment of utter loss and despair, Wolff pushed himself to rewrite the treatment for the film that the storm had destroyed. He passed it along to a prominent gay gallery owner who in turn passed it along to the board of the J.B. Harter Charitable Trust — and within days Wolff had the first $30,000 he needed for production to begin. With momentum on his side, Wolff said was eventually provided with a $150,000 budget to produce the film.
“I lost my house, my business and my belongings to Katrina. All my friends moved out of New Orleans,” Wolff said. “But it was the complete devastation from Katrina that spurred me to create this documentary. Katrina fueled me at the time to start from scratch.”
-- Jasmine Elist
Photo: Krewe of Petronius member Bill McCarthy and his costume "Petit Fors" parade at the Armeinius 40th anniversary ball in 2008 in a scene from "The Sons of Tennessee Williams." Credit: First Run Features