Beautiful by Night, a short film directed by James Hosking, offers an intimate insight into the ritualistic transformations and preparatory repetitiveness of three veteran drag performers and their nightlife in San Francisco. In the course of the film, the viewer observes mundane, personal moments and candid glimpses into the art of drag, not only as a physical transformation but also as a ritual that completely redefines the self.
The film adopts a unique angle on what being a drag performer entails and who they may be. The trio, Olivia Hart, Collette LeGrande and Donna Personna, have all been in the industry for decades. The film is shot through the lens of the slow, unhurried and aging body, distinct from depictions of drag in popular media, for example, Rupal's Drag Race.
Representations in such media and the mere nature of the profession naturally lead the public to believe that drag performers are invariably extravagant and dynamic personalities, living the fast-paced life of a flamboyant artist. Beautiful by Night offers a shift in perspective, delving into lesser-known LGBTQ+ communities and subcultures through a candid exploration of the subtleties of aging, identity and labour.
Accompanying the film is a photo series, shot by Hosking over the course of a few years. Hosking uses film stocks, black and white as well as colour, creating “a sense out of time” and paying homage to the roots of photography while remaining contemporary. The photographs feature many reflections of the subjects in mirrors, representing their intimate relationship with the self.
“A lot of what this series is about is ‘how do people spend time with their self-image?’” Hosking explains, “How do they wish themselves to be seen, and how they reach that, while also fighting some of the more mundane aspects of getting ready and the routine of it, and keeping that excitement and reinvention alive…or not.” We see the aging artists grappling with the repetitiveness and effort it takes to be a performer, from the processes at home to the performance at Aunt Charlie’s Lounge, a small bar in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighbourhood.
The photographs, along with the collection of personal shots in the film, are a testament to the honest connection and bond formed over a few years between Hosking and Olivia, Colette and Donna, giving an absolute profundity and truth to the work. This creates a closeness between the viewer and the protagonists, where we are let into the private sphere and permitted to observe the transformation into the public.
Aunt Charlie’s Lounge had a profound influence on San Francisco’s LGBTQ+ community for well over twenty years. While the neighbourhood once had many thriving queer spaces, the bar is now the last gay bar in the area. The beauty and intimacy of each image is a reflection of the erasure of this vivacious community, of this place so rich in history and so full of vibrancy. During the pandemic, many LGBTQ+ spaces have been lost, making this work particularly relevant to the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goal for Reduced Inequalities.
Hosking, through this work, shines a spotlight on individuals within a larger community, specifically a group of aging artists, who crave and embody self-expression and self-acceptance, proving that creativity and the need to express oneself don't have to expire with age. In this pursuit, we can observe the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal of Good Health and Well-Being, with an emphasis on mental wellness in aging populations.