For Michele Mahoney, spring 2001 was "a really festive time." A filmmaker and film professor originally from Saint Louis, she was playing with several ideas for future projects, including one about a scientist who sees jackalopes flying into Chicago. ("I like mythical creatures," she says, "and I have a whole postcard collection of jackalopes.") She'd also just begun performing as "Joe Chicago" with the newly formed Chicago Kings drag troupe, and the planning for Ladyfest Midwest--for which she was a film and video committee member and a panelist on feminist perspectives in pornography--had clicked into high gear. She was thinking of casting fellow drag king and Ladyfest organizer Sam Stalling as the geeky scientist in the jackalope film, and one balmy day they set out for Navy Pier to shoot some footage. While looking through the viewfinder at Stalling in horn-rims, a pink oxford, and a bow tie, she suddenly realized she'd found her Ben--as in Ben Braddock, the protagonist of The Graduate.
Mahoney had been batting around an idea for a parody of The Graduate since 1998, but had been too busy helping out on other people's films and working on a documentary on the Afro-Brazilian religion candomble (still in progress) to do anything about it. Once she had a Ben, though, things started to fall into place. She snagged the perfect Mrs. Robinson in fellow SAIC faculty member Barbara DeGenevieve, and she cast herself as Mr. Robinson. As for Stalling, "I thought Ben would be extremely nerdy, and as soon as Ben had sex, he'd turn into Sam's [drag persona] Vic Ferrari--really cool and suave."
"The Undergrad," planned as a 30-minute Super-8 feature, is cast almost exclusively with drag kings. Last October, Mahoney, Chicago Kings founder Kristin Lohr (who plays Alan, the Robinsons' "straight gay male" son, who plans to marry Jon, a Log Cabin Republican, against his parents' wishes), and Stalling performed with other Chicago Kings in Murray Hill's drag king show in New York. There they met performance artist and well-known drag king Diane Torr, who agreed to play the role of Mr. Braddock.
Mahoney describes the film, which is set in Chicago and Wisconsin, as "a playful celebration of desire and sexuality," with an ending that is both happy and subversive. "It's about people that stay in these relationships forever and they're not fun, they're not exciting, but they don't do anything else. Well, everybody in this film does something else." Much like her earlier work, which includes the short, lesbian-themed films Acrobats and Sword-Swallowers and Midwestern Hospitality, "The Undergrad" encourages the viewer to question normative concepts of gender. There are also going to be some steamy sex scenes, though, says Mahoney, due to the nature of the cast, "it's really hard to have an explicit scene, because then Ben is not Ben anymore."
Mahoney remembers seeing The Graduate in the theater as a kid and finding it titillating, but also identifying with the characters' awkwardness. "It had quite an impact on me. I was Ben. Everybody was awkward, everybody was kind of lost then. And like Ben, I wanted something different, too. I didn't want to be like my family. I think we all felt like that."
Further filming on "The Undergrad" starts in May and will continue through the summer; Mahoney plans to work on sound editing in the fall, and she's currently looking for production volunteers. On Saturday, May 4, there'll be a benefit to raise money for the film at the Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western. It'll feature performances by the Chicago Kings, local bands the Rope and Service Anxiety, and DJ Lori Barbero, formerly of Babes in Toyland; screen tests for the film will also be shown. Doors open at 9 and admission is $8. For more information call 773-276-3600.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Marty Perez, Christa Holka.