DOC NYC 2022 Review: “Queen of the Deuce” Tells a Singular Life Story

“Everything was on a need-to-know basis,” Bondi Wilson Walters recalls in “Queen of the Deuce,” going a long way towards explaining why her mother Chelly Wilson has somehow never had her remarkable story told in full. You’re actually not sure there will be anything left after the rip-roaring opening minutes of Valerie Kontakos’ deliriously entertaining biography in which Chelly’s grandchildren Dina Pomerantz and David Bourla recall family gatherings, making the trek in to Times Square at its seediest from well-to-do Westchester where they’d have to walk through the lobby of a porn theater to get to her apartment above, unaware that was the family business though they had to know something was up when Chelly freely had surveillance monitors from all the theaters she owned running during dinner.

However, Kontakos quickly moves past the shock value of Chelly’s unusual occupation, as her own family would, from learning their matriarch built a small empire in New York of movie theaters catering to adult audiences,to tell an even more compelling story beyond how the shrewd businesswoman seized upon skittish mainstream exhibitors concerned with suburban flight in the ‘60s and ‘70s and getting the picture houses for a song. Naming the theaters after Greek Gods such as Eros and Adonis, other traces of her upbringing in Solonika would stay under wraps, allowing “Queen of the Deuce” to deliver one revelation after another about the self-made woman who had been something of a mystery to even those who were closest to her. Bondi would not know, for instance, that her mother had caught the last boat out of Athens before the German occupation of her hometown of Solonika as World War II began until Paulette, a sister she had been completely unaware of, arrived later from Greece, and it was just the start of the secrets that had to be kept as a means of survival when being identified as a Sephardic Jew had considerable consequences even in the U.S.

Chelly may have remade herself in New York, marrying a projectionist Rex, who had changed his own last name to Wilson so as not to encounter any discrimination, and turning the $5 she had in her pocket upon arriving at Ellis Island into millions in real estate holdings, but the pugnacious spirit that surely was a part of her DNA never changed, and in a rare case where stories about her are told with such verve that a traditional talking head set-up hardly seems staid, Kontakos goes one step further and includes animation for at least a few of the exploits that can’t be recreated otherwise, with Abhilasha Dewan and crew’s sketches bursting with personality.

“Queen of the Deuce” would make for a nice double bill with Abel Ferrara’s lovely 2019 doc “The Projectionist,” the unexpectedly heartwarming profile of Nicolas Nicolaou, another Greek refugee who found fortune owning adult theaters in Manhattan, that doubled as a lively portrait of the city during one of its craziest periods, showing the symbiotic connection between the vibrant metropolis and the unique characters that keep it that way and as was true about Nicolaou, no matter how wild or titillating anything that Chelly showed at her theaters was, it’s safe to say that it can’t match her own life story, made into a movie that should bring joy to just about anyone.

“Queen of the Deuce” will screen at DOC NYC at 4:45 pm at the Cinepolis Chelsea and available to stream on the DOC NYC online platform until November 27th.

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