Queen Of The Deuce

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Queen Of The Deuce
"In piecing the whole thing together, Kontakos appears to have been spoiled for choices, but she delivers a strong narrative which never gets overwhelmed by its content."

They say there’s no revenge like living well. Chelly Wilson barely escaped the Nazi annihilation of the Jewish population of Thessaloniki, which killed 95% of the people she knew, but when she settled in New York City she had no intention of hiding away and counting her sorrows. Like many immigrants, she sought to build a new life by starting a business and working hard to build it up. Uniquely, she chose to dedicate her time to a gay porn cinema, and within in a few years she had built up an empire of such establishments, started producing her own films and became the centre of a social whirlwind. She lived in an apartment above the legendary Adonis, and she was known as the Queen of the Deuce.

Screening as part of the 2023 UK Jewish Film Festival, Valerie Kontakos’ documentary is a survival story like no other. It explores the New York story in parallel with an account of Wilson’s previous life, about which she rarely spoke after crossing the Atlantic, so that the daughter whom she left in the care of a non-Jewish family and eventually summoned to join her knew nothing of her wider family – not even her own ethnicity. This daughter, like the son who spent the war in Palestine, was an unplanned occurrence. The young Wilson had an arranged marriage which didn’t last. A queer woman who grew up in a traditional Sephardic family but dressed as a boy and wanted to be a doctor, she celebrated Christmas in her later years, always grabbing hold of life and forcing it conform to her terms.

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Was she happy? Her grandchildren and a few surviving friends remember her as a woman who rarely smiled, but she certainly had good things in her life, and impressed people as a force of nature to whom all kinds of people came to pay court. She was raised speaking Ladina, a distinctive Jewish Spanish dialect, but taught herself fluent Greek, French and English. She played poker with porn stars and mob bosses. She never wanted to be a mother, but she was a powerful matriarch.

As the owner of the Cameo, Eros, Venus, Lido West and Lido East, she branched out into mixed sex porn as well. The early work looks incredibly tame by today’s standards, dependent on actors selling the experience because the actual sex could not be shown. When hardcore porn emerged in 1969 she quickly adapted, and produced the likes of Scarf Of Mist Thigh Of Satin, I Want You!, Whip’s Women, Come Ride The Wild Pink Horse and, experimenting with subgenres, Scare Their Pants Off! One of her former errand boys introduces the locations where it all happened, helping viewers to see the connections between the empire she built and the city as it is today.

There is, naturally, little footage to illustrate the Greek part of the story, though some photographs survive. Animator Abhilasha Dewan fills in the gaps, bringing a wit to proceedings which helps to even out the tone and emphasise the consistency of Wilson’s character in very different situations. Naturally there are a lot of great anecdotes available, but the plethora of photographs taken later on adds intrigue, and their unpolished look adds to the intrigue of the piece, the sense of it as a family story (of both the biological and found varieties). In piecing the whole thing together, Kontakos appears to have been spoiled for choices, but she delivers a strong narrative which never gets overwhelmed by its content. It’s a lively, fascinating film about an extraordinary woman who took everything the Nazis hated and gave it a vibrant new life, liberating countless others along the way.

Reviewed on: 25 Nov 2023
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Profile of Chelly Wilson, a Christmas-celebrating Jewish grandma, a lesbian who married men, and a proud owner of porn cinemas in 1970s NYC.

Director: Valerie Kontakos

Writer: Christos Asteriou, Valerie Kontakos, Despina Pavlaki

Starring: David Bourla, John Colasanti, Jeffrey Escoffier, Efrain Gonzalez, Arthur Morowitz, Barbara Nitke, Dina Pomeranz, Paulette Pomeranz, Kosmas Sklifas, Bondi Walters, Don Walters

Year: 2022

Runtime: 90 minutes

Country: Greece, Canada


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