Director. An American expatriate who made it in Toronto, Richard Benner is remembered chiefly for his brilliant low-budget hit Outrageous! (1977, 96), about a Toronto drag queen who makes it in New York.
Based on Margaret Gibson’s story “Making It,” the feel-good story of the friendship of a female impersonator/hairdresser and a “real” female schizophrenic on the lam from psychiatry featured real life drag performer Craig Russell who became a star as a result. This Casablanca of English Canadian cinema reflects an almost perfect synchrony of talents brought together almost by accident at just the right moment, auguring so much for Canadian feature production then mired in the “tax shelter” void. Gibson had based her sharp original story on her friend Russell, and Benner transformed it into a witty script and mise en scene that more than deserved its Berlin Silver Bear and its sleeper success in New York. The climactic numbers featuring Russell reincarnated as Davis, Bankhead and even Ella Fitzgerald ("It's not tacky drag. I do real impressions. No records. My own voice.") are so wonderful that they make you forget what a fine little, very Canadian, movie about the redemption of outsiders and the emergence of community has proceeded them. Championed more by mainstream critics and audiences than by queer communities, Outrageous! is still positive and moving narrative of emerging queer identities. No longer available on video, this classic is a prime candidate for DVD release, in fact for a 35mm singalong version so that the youngsters can bellow along with Robin such immortal lines as "Mad as a Hatter Darling."
Benner went on to another Toronto-centred adaptation Happy Birthday, Gemini (1980), which managed to maintain a modicum of gay sensibility despite its US studio financing. The sequel Too Outrageous! (1987) also failed to impress, despite Russell in comeback mode, but was not as bad as all the critics said. AIDS robbed us of both Benner and Russell shortly thereafter.