Chelly Wilson is the definition of a ‘character.'
She was a Jew that celebrated Christmas. She was born in Thessaloniki in Greece, but escaped to the US shortly before the Second World War. After the move, she started her own porn theatre enterprise in New York. She was, for want of a better word, a legend.
It therefore makes sense that she is the subject of Valerie Kontakos' documentary film Queen of the Deuce. Named after 42nd street in New York (dubbed the Deuce) where Wilson founded many of her business enterprises, the film celebrates her life as a Jewish lesbian through the eyes of those who knew her.
It would be easy to slip into a generic format to portray Wilson's incredible story with merely a collection of talking heads, but Kontakos avoids this by using a variety of film-making techniques. She combines footage of Wilson's family and friends with animation to portray her life, as well as old family photos. There are even some audio recordings of Wilson herself from 1980 before her death in 1994 where she recalls her experiences. It lends a multi-layered quality to the film, and makes for a visually beautiful experience.
Her story begins with her upbringing in a Jewish household in Thessaloniki where she spoke Ladino (a Judeo-Spanish language). We are transported back to that time via archive footage of her small town. It provides an extreme contrast to when she eventually moves to New York, a place filled with bustling avenues and neon signs.
Wilson rose to prominence in the American porn industry between 1960 to 1980 through her ownership of theatres like Eros, which catered specifically to gay and bisexual men. It was a time when these kinds of cinemas were often one of the only places where queer sexualities were accepted, especially during the 80s when the AIDS pandemic meant homophobia was rife.
Many first-hand accounts from her family say it was an unspoken fact that Wilson was a lesbian, but it was never explicitly discussed. While she was married to a man at one point and had two children with him, she despised being physical. Once in New York, she filled her apartment with a cosy collection of friends and romantic partners who were constantly in and out. Wilson lived above Eros, a detail that is recalled with both fondness and oddness by her grandchildren who would often visit. Her daughter Bondi was involved with production of the film, and the project feels very much like a commemoration of Wilson's family legacy. Her grandson wanted to be a filmmaker, so she encouraged him to use Eros as a set. It is an example of her generosity and dedication to family.
We immediately gain an understanding of her character and each testimony portrays her sense of humour and warmth. It is incredible to hear her story of resilience and survival through the lens of people who loved her. Perhaps Kontakos' film will mean Wilson will be more widely recognised as a proud queer businessperson to be celebrated.
Queen of the Deuce was first released in 2022 and screened at the UK Jewish Film Festival 2023