The film is based on "Making It", a short story by writer Margaret Gibson from her 1976 collection The Butterfly Ward; Russell and Gibson were roommates in real life.
A stage musical adaptation of the film was produced by Canadian Stage in 2000.
Robin Turner is an inept hairdresser. He does hair and makeup for the local drag shows but longs to get up on stage himself. His best friend, Liza, is schizophrenic. She had been institutionalized but decided to leave the facility.
Liza has a delusional episode in which she believes that "The Bonecrusher" from "The Other Place" is lying on top of her. Robin helps her push the Bonecrusher off and Liza tells him about the Other Place and her friend from there, Zara. Zara protects her from the Bonecrusher, who tells Liza that she is "the one born dead" and wants to take her to live in the Other Place forever.
A social worker visits Liza and they review Liza's lengthy list of medications. The social worker stresses that it would be very dangerous for Liza to become pregnant. When Robin comes home from work, Liza is excited that she was able to function with the social worker. Robin, however, is depressed. A client had urged him to be adventurous with her hairstyle but then reacted badly when Robin styled it like Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra.
Robin and Liza meet Robin's friend Perry and Liza's friend from the institution, Martin. Martin seems to suffer from some form of paranoid delusions, believing that his eyes are turning Chinese and ranting about Mao Zedong. Perry and Robin discuss their costumes for an upcoming Halloween party. Perry decides to go as Karen Black as the flight attendant from Airport 1975. Liza suggests that Robin go as Tallulah Bankhead and agrees to make his dress.
Robin is a smash at the Halloween party, winning first prize in the costume contest and being offered the chance to perform regularly. His boss at the hair salon, a closet case who thinks that women won't want to have their hair done by "fags," is at first reluctant to give Robin the time off to shop for fabric for new dresses but finally relents. Robin debuts at the club as Bette Davis, doing a routine mocking Joan Crawford's performances in Mildred Pierce, Autumn Leaves and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and singing live rather than lip synching.
Meanwhile, Liza is continuing therapy. She keeps a journal of her thoughts and dreams and reads them for her psychiatrist, who suggests that she return to the institution. She adamantly refuses. Her doctor cautions her again about becoming pregnant. Liza's lesbian editor friend Anne reads through Liza's journal and tells her that she might be able to sell some of her stories.
Robin continues to make appearances at the club, including a turn as Barbra Streisand, but loses his job at the salon after a client finds out about it and complains to his boss. Liza, who is somewhat sexually promiscuous, has become pregnant. With bills piling up, Robin leaves Canada for New York City seeking success as a female impersonator. On his way to his first gig at the "Jackrabbit Club," he meets Bob, a cab driver who was formerly a talent agent and agrees to allow Bob to represent him.
Robin performs Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend while rapidly changing drag personas, starting off as Carol Channing and transforming into Marlene Dietrich, Ethel Merman, Ella Fitzgerald, Pearl Bailey and Bette Midler before concluding as Carol again. For an encore he performs Give My Regards to Broadway as Judy Garland. Robin is a triumph and books a regular slot at the club.
Liza enters the hospital to give birth. Tragically, the baby is stillborn. She goes into a deep depression, calling Robin to tell him about the stillbirth and that she believes now that she is "the one born dead." Robin has Bob drive him to Canada to retrieve Liza. He moves her into his New York apartment and instructs Bob to get her dressed and to his show at the Jackrabbit.
That night Robin performs as Peggy Lee. Liza, initially completely withdrawn, slowly begins to respond to her surroundings. Following the number, still depressed, Liza tells Robin that the Bonecrusher's not there but that she's of his domain, that she's dead. Robin tells her that she's not dead, but crazy, and so is he, and that they need to embrace it. To him, she is as normal as anyone else in New York. At first reluctant, she begins to smile and agree. He then pulls her out to the floor to dance with the rest of the performers and patrons.Craig Russell - Robin Turner
Hollis McLaren - Liza Connors
Richert Easley - Perry
Allan Moyle - Martin
David McIlwraith - Bob
Gerry Salsberg - Jason
Andrée Pelletier - Anne
Helen Shaver - Jo
Martha Gibson - Nurse Carr
Helen Hughes - Mrs. Connors
Jonah Royston - Dr. Beddoes
Richard Moffatt - Stewart
David Woito - Hustler
Rusty Ryan - Jimmy
Trevor Bryan - Miss Montego Bay
Michael Ironside - Drunk
The film was entered into the 28th Berlin International Film Festival, where Craig Russell won the Silver Bear for Best Actor. It garnered several Canadian Film Award nominations at the 28th Canadian Film Awards in 1977, including for Best Picture, Best Actor (Russell) and Best Actress (McLaren).
Written by Brad Fraser and Joey Miller, the musical adaptation by Canadian Stage in 2000 cast Thom Allison as Robin Turner and Loretta Bailey as Liza Conners. One key change in the musical version was that Allison's multiracial heritage enabled Fraser and Miller to add Billie Holiday and Diana Ross to Robin Turner's repertoire of impersonations, thus allowing them to put a different spin on the character without entirely abandoning the original source material. The cast also included Tamara Bernier, Karen LeBlanc, Tim Howar and Ed Sahely.