Queen of the Deuce [Make Believe 2024 Review]

I love documentaries about people with unusual lives. Queen of the Deuce certainly fits that bill. The film, which screened at the 2024 Make Believe film festival, tells the story of Chelly Wilson, a woman of many contradictions. She married men despite being openly gay. She didn’t let her Jewish faith prevent her from celebrating Christmas. She also owned a whole bunch of porno theaters on NYC’s famed 42nd St.

Wilson’s adult children and colleagues relate the story of her life, which was just as unforgettable as the woman herself. An arranged marriage, a daughter she hid from the Nazis with another family, and a trek from her native Greece to America with just five bucks in her pocket are part of the amazing tale. Once established in the USA, she bought a theater and showed movies imported from Greece. Someone suggested business might be better with adult films, so she switched. Success did indeed follow, as did the purchase of more cinemas.

Perhaps even more amazing are the anecdotes about life inside her apartment. Despite being financially well-off, Wilson chose to live above one of her properties. Paper bags full of cash were strewn around, and her children/grandchildren innocently watched the security camera footage from each theater that was beamed into her place. Houseguests occasionally included members of the Mafia, because you couldn’t be in the porn business during the ‘70s without at least a peripheral connection to the mob.

Universal

Using interview footage, home movies, and animation to fill in the gaps, Queen of the Deuce introduces us to a woman who was unapologetic about her profession. Disreputable as it may seem to some, Chelly Wilson did incredibly well in the pornography exhibition business, providing for her family and shattering a glass ceiling in the process. Given the turmoil in various areas of her life, it’s impossible to begrudge her success. Perhaps more than anything, the documentary reminds us that the people who work in sex-related industries are human beings with their own struggles, hopes, and dreams.

Queen of the Deuce is fun on a visual level, too. There’s an abundance of shots of those now-gone 42nd St. theaters, with their magnificent marquees. The area is sanitized, having become taken over by major corporations. Maybe that’s for the good, but you can’t argue that a sense of personality hasn’t been lost. Seeing the old 42nd St. in all its seediness will appeal to cinephiles who yearn for the glory days of grindhouses.

From beginning to end, the movie is a compelling portrait of one woman and The Way It Used To Be.



© 2024 Mike McGranaghan