As the sun blazed through the windshield of our car, I donned a pair of shades for the exhilarating drive up the wintry slopes to Park City, Utah. The old mining town was located 7,000 feet above sea level and set deep within the pine-covered Wasatch Mountains. It glistened like an opal, buffed shiny by the thriving ski trade, which brought with it new money and trendy boutiques. The western flavor of the 1860s architecture looked like the back-lot at Warner Brothers but the quaint facades housed thriving businesses like The Noodle and Pizza, art galleries, tea shops and chocolate confectioners. On Main Street the curbs were covered with a foot of frozen snow. Eager out-of-towners braced themselves against the frigid wind. In hooded parkas and designer boots they scurried along the slippery walkways to afternoon screenings and celebrity press parties. Due to the thin air and our close proximity to the pinnacle of the independent film world, my head was reeling.
For ten days each January, this tiny hamlet swells to capacity as thousands of filmmakers from every corner of the globe gather for a chance to showcase their work. Although artistic achievement is valued above commerce here, Sundance award winners have little trouble finding enthusiastic distributors; crowded restaurants are filled with agents trading offers over lattes or corned beef on rye. Besides the talented newcomers, Hollywood personalities stream into town to attend the premieres. Major stars from Matt Damon and Nicole Kidman, to quirky fringe players like Benicio del Toro–who arrived to accept the Piper Heidsieck Tribute–mix freely with filmmakers and movie fans. To add to the inherent allure of such an event, an old friend and I were being featured in a documentary titled The Cockettes, which had been entered into competition. Nothing could have kept us away.
Fayette was all-atwitter when she met my plane. She brought with her a much-coveted festival pass, which she hung around my neck. This exceptional prize–an ordinary-looking plastic badge on a cord–had hidden powers. It was the key to the city, allowing us to mingle with the creative elite at Hospitality Suite, the House of Docs, and other restricted venues. The Cockettes was showing at the Yarrow II and in anticipation of attending the question and answer periods that followed each screening, Fayette and I rented a condo near the theater. Here we housed our drag and made frequent pit stops to change into elaborate ensembles.
I purchased an official Sundance catalogue and devoured it, right there in the lobby. To my delight, the film schedule surpassed my wildest hopes: international cinema, celebrity premieres, engrossing documentaries, animated shorts and much more. And, it was filled with pictures! The sheer number of movies being screened added another wrinkle to our already-tricky schedule. Like kids choosing colored gumdrops, we snatched up as many as we could, in between the screenings at the Yarrow. This last-minute maneuvering cut our time perilously close as we skidded all over town in a rented car. With Fayette wearing her black monkey fur coat and me sporting a silver-dyed fun fur, we made mad dashes through the frigid air to claustrophobic tents where we waited in line with other film devotees for the “no-show” seats to go on sale. Afterward, nestled in the lodge, we sipped hot cider, excitedly critiquing the day’s flicks.
At night the downtown strip was a mass of colored lights. Parties and midnight cult screenings like Hollywood Hong Kong kept the town open all night long. The entire trip seemed like one endless day-broken only by brief periods of rest when I took off my makeup and lay sleepless in the dark–fearful that I might miss something. When I finally nodded off, my fears were realized. Fayette burst into the room with an armload of swag from Shadow Ridge and the news that she’d just met and posed for pictures with Gena Rowlands! I am a huge fan of John Casavettes’ films and bounded out of bed like the sheets were on fire.
The Cockettes co-directors, Bill Weber and David Weissman, were popular and sought out by high-profile characters like Robin Williams who stopped by the Yarrow just long enough to give his blessing and to kiss the top of Bill’s bald head. The Mayor of Park City–Dana Williams–was a high school chum of David’s. After his appearance at one afternoon screening he was amused when Fayette and I posed for the cameras with our arms around him. It would be a far cry from his scheduled morning meeting with the straight-laced Attorney General, John Ashcroft. The President’s advisor was coming to Park City to scrutinize security for the upcoming Winter Olympics.
With eyes swollen shut from over-heated accommodations, lack of sleep and too much makeup, we kept up the relentless pace. We finagled tickets to see How to Draw a Bunny, the story of the enigmatic life of pop artist Ray Johnson, and spotted film critic, Roger Ebert, seated in the back row. We immediately introduced ourselves and invited him to our next screening. The Cockettes caught the imagination of a number of other reviewers. Articles about the film were currently running in Daily Variety and The Hollywood Reporter. We had also made the cover of Film Print. Fayette and I were soon recognized around town and asked to pose for pictures, which seemed surreal, as we in turn were chasing much larger fish.
A trip to the library the following morning got us into a quirky James Spader film called The Secretary before we squeezed onto a standing-room-only shuttle bus to catch Tilda Swinton in Teknolust at the Eccles Theatre. Regrettably, I faded along with the dimming lights. I slunk down into my seat totally exhausted, and caught a few zzzs. When I finally stirred, the film was over. Karen Black was speaking from the podium and Fayette was on her cell phone making arrangements to get our names on Universal’s party list. At Deer Lodge we waited for Andie MacDowell’s dinner party to break up and for a car to be sent down the hill to collect us. In groups of four we were escorted to the palatial Chrysler House Lodge where outside, a contingent of parking valets huddled around a flaming brazier to ward off the arctic night chill.
Nearing the final weekend, Fayette’s trunks exploded and we were forced to make an unscheduled trip to the post office to mail boxes of her drag home to L.A. That evening, The Cockettes played Salt Lake City in a midnight showing at Sugartown Mall. Fearing a tar and feather party, we were delighted to find a contingent of local hipsters who regaled us with their stories of wild nights at the Palace Theatre.
On closing night the Awards Ceremony was held at the Park City Racquet Club. Tickets were harder to come by than hens’ teeth, which left most of the eager crowd watching the monitors in the spillover room. Fayette and I–dressed in velvet and feathers–obtained two of the coveted seats, joining David and Bill in the auditorium. The room was completely dark except for the stage. It felt like the Academy Awards. When they announced the winner for best documentary we held our breath.
The prize went to Daughter From Danang, a dramatic telling of the evacuation and subsequent U.S. integration of orphans and Amerasian children following the Vietnam War. Old friend John Waters, along with Patricia Arquette, were on a separate jury evaluating dramatic competition. Waters stopped outside to five me a hug and put an acerbic spin on the evening’s events. “You were robbed!” he joked. Everyone knew there were no losers at Sundance. The evening ended gaily when the entire Cockette entourage retreated to Renee’s to enjoy an intimate vegetarian dinner by candlelight.
The thrill of going to Sundance as a member of the Cockettes was matched only by the awe I felt being surrounded by so many innovative storytellers. I was a goner form the first night. In a makeshift auditorium, Fayette and I sat on folding chairs–squeezed shoulder to shoulder with a roomful of intriguing strangers. My pulse pounded as I tried to sit still. The opening trailer featured a close-up shot of pursed lips–lipstick red and wrinkled with age. An arthritic finger raised to cross them and a “Shhhhhhh” hissed from the speakers. As the music rose, the screen went black, then the 2002 Sundance Film Festival Logo suddenly appeared. I knew there was no place on earth that I would rather be.
Boarding a plane for home I reflected on my inadvertent benefactors, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison. After twenty-five years of gracing the back wall of my closet, their matted and numbered images were sold on eBay to make this trip possible. I’m sure they would have enjoyed the party.