American Fabulous

A film by Reno Dakota  

Stephen Holden in The New York Times
October 16, 1992

A Would-Be Star Tells The Stories of His Life
Film Review

Before dying of AIDS in June at the age of 33, Jeffrey Strouth, the subject of Reno Dakota's documentary portrait "American Fabulous" lived several lifetimes' worth of frenetic adventure. Proudly and flamboyantly gay, Strouth also learned how to tell, and perhaps how to embellish, a good yarn.
"American Fabulous," which opens today at the Joseph Papp Public Theater is a crudely edited autobiograohical monologue that was videotaped two years ago in the back of a 1957 Cadillac while driving around in Strouth's native territory, southern Ohio. Although growing up gay in small-town America must have had its traumas, in Strouth's recollections the experience becomes a grotesquely funny personal odyssey whose pungency is enhanced by the twangy lilt of his delivery.
Strouth's insistently comic tone only partly camouflages the pain and desperation of his short, frenzied life. His horror stories of his father, a brutal, alcoholic man and sometime Elvis impersonator, are capped by his memory of the time Strouth tried to asphyxiate his father with bleach fumes. When Strouth, at the age of 14, was sent to live with his father in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., he was left alone for weeks at a time and forced into prostitution to feed himself. Characteristically, Strouth claims to have rather enjoyed turning tricks.
Beginning with Miss Earl, a tootthless transvestite who was his first gay friend, Strouth's memoir is peopled with the kind of larger-than-life eccentrics one often finds in Southern Gothic fiction. One of many outrageous stories he tells on himself is of accidentally running a car out of control, while high on drugs and booze, into the apartment of a 400-pound drag queen and burning the place down.
His most elaborate story details a cross-country hitchhiking jaunt that he and a friend made, carrying a little dog and a caged bird. In his most harrowing tal, he recalls being dumped naked at a highway rest stop in the middle of Utah after escaping possible death at the hands of a psychopath. Rescued by the police, he was held in jailfor two days, forgotten, without food or water. Later, he was taken under the wing of the Salvation Army and washed dishes to raise money to return east.
Strouth, who had always dreamed of being some kind of a star, eventually wound up in New York, dressed as a caterpillar in a display case in the fashionable early-1980s nightclub Area, and sleeping in a friend's car in his costume to keep warm. When he finally found an apartment, his roommates were drug dealers for whom he played "nurse,' administering everybody's daily heroin fixes, including his own.
The same streak of defiant eccentricity that colors Strouth's adventures on the road extends to his narrative's rare moments of outright sentiment. He describes in exquisite detail the funeral he arranged for his troubled younger sister after she committed suicide. For the event, he bought her a white Victorian gown, redid her makeup and strewed the casket with flower petals to make her look like an angel.
"American Fabulous" offers an indelible portrait not only of Strouth, but also of a type he represents, which might be described as a tough Southern queen who take no prisoners. Impossible in some ways, endearing in others, he emerges as a flaming creature who was well worth memorializing.



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