‘Queen of the Deuce’ Review: A Fun Footnote About a Behind-The-Scenes Mogul of the Sexual Revolution

Over half a century ago, movies were changing at warp speed, with censorship boundaries falling and artistic ones expanding, as remembered from such game-changers as “Bonnie and Clyde,” “I Am Curious (Yellow)” and “2001: A Space Odyssey.” You probably do not remember the likes of “Whip’s Women,” “Come Ride the Wild Pink Horse,” “Once Upon a Body” or “Scare Their Pants Off!” — and good luck finding them now, since many such disposable late-1960s “adults only” features are assumed lost now. But they, too, made the ’60s “swing,” while making fortunes for individuals like the subject of “Queen of the Deuce.”

Valerie Kontakos’ documentary is about a singular character, one Chelly Wilson. She was the unlikely queenpin of the 42nd St. porn emporiums that flourished for a couple decades, until home video and other factors led to their gradual demise. Entering the biz when softcore had not yet turned to hardcore — though she was unruffled when it did — this larger-than-life Greek émigré had a history even more dramatic than her associates knew. It’s all briskly chronicled in this entertaining cultural footnote, which Greenwich Entertainment releases to U.S. theaters, Amazon and Apple TV streaming on May 24.

Those in her orbit, family members and business associates alike, saw Wilson as an eccentric force of nature, barking orders and “holding court like a mafia queen” from the sofa in her apartment, located right above “all-male” cinema Eros. Frequently chomping on a cigar, surrounded by shopping bags of box-office cash, she presided over endless high-stakes poker games in which porn stars and organized crime figures were fellow players.

But she also reigned over an ever-shifting cast of live-in gofers, lesbians lovers, employees and friends (including a husband), in addition to visits from her relatives. Now-grown grandkids are interviewed here, recalling how intrigued and mystified they were by the living-room banks of surveillance-camera monitors showing patron hijinks at her various XXX holdings around town.

Gruffly temperamental but also gregarious and generous, Chelly preferred to live in the moment. Few knew that she was Jewish, let alone that she’d barely escaped Europe in time, catching the “last boat out” from Athens before WW2 broke out in 1939. Most of the family left behind perished in Auschwitz, though the two children she’d already had managed to survive the war. They too crossed the Atlantic afterward, joining a mother whose entrepreneurial mojo was just warming up.

Aggressively climbing a multi-career ladder (at first to send money home), Wilson initially dipped a toe in the seventh art by importing and exhibiting films from her homeland for New York’s Greek community. By the mid-’60s, however, there was much more money to be made in showing racier stuff, and she did not hesitate. Soon she’d acquired half a dozen downtown theaters in which to titillate “the raincoat crowd,” as mild as those less-than-graphic “nudies” and “roughies” may look now. In order to meet demand (and further maximize profit), she then also went into production and distribution, bankrolling such luridly titled cheapies as “Scarf of Mist, Thigh of Satin” and “Shootout at Beaver Falls.” Clips are shown from an assortment of these, though scant attention is paid toward the talent involved, including low-budget sexploitation maestro Joe Sarno.

The home videos, photos and other memorabilia glimpsed give little indication how Wilson felt about the industry she was in, beyond that she lived life entirely on her own terms, and suffered no moral qualms, save perhaps survivor’s guilt over having outlived so much of her family. Sheer force of personality attracted kin, mobsters, gays and more to her hearth. While her explosive temper often ignited, no one else was allowed to quarrel. For some years she delegated some film-related responsibilities to others while preoccupied with Mykonos, an ethnic restaurant whose success drew myriad celebrity patrons.

Her primary trade was already on the wane by the time Mayor Giuliani’s aggressive cleanup of Times Square ended its heyday as a mecca for adult entertainment. But Chelly’s real estate holdings kept her in good stead for the rest of her life — and it seems unlike everyone else who made bank from 42nd St. sleaze, she never had the least desire to ditch the neighborhood for more upscale surroundings herself.

Psychotronic cinema fans may wish “Queen of the Deuce” spent more time on her celluloid stomping ground, and a bit less on family ties. Still, she did have a fascinating backstory, and surviving relatives’ (as well as some colleagues’) reminiscences are colorful. If the lady remains something of a cipher, one suspects that is exactly as she would have preferred it.

Director Kontakos’ smartly paced feature deploys animation (by Abhilasha Dewan) in various styles to illustrate some of the subject’s off-camera episodes. Ken Myhr’s original score likewise runs a stylistic gamut from traditional Greek sounds to disco in limning the times Chelly Wilson kept changing with.

Best of Variety

Sign up for Variety’s Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.