Two drag queens and a transsexual get a cabaret gig in the middle of the desert.
A group of drag queens, a purple bus, a rack of spangly dresses, ABBA on the tape deck; “Dancing Queen” was never more appropriate. Actually, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert doesn’t feature that particular song, probably because it’s too obvious a joke for anyone who isn’t a movie reviewer with terrible taste. Instead, it has a kickass soundtrack (including a host of other songs by the Swedish supergroup), along with some fabulous outfits, a lot of fun, and a surprisingly hefty dose of charm. Despite its unusual subject matter, this quirky little piece from the Land Down Under is my go-to movie when I need a smile—or something to sing along to.
Anthony “Tick” Belrose (Hugo Weaving), a cosmetic-salesman-by-day/drag-queen-by-night who goes by the stage name Mitzi Del Bra, is growing bored with life in Sydney. One day, he gets an unexpected pick-me-up: a phone call from an old friend, beckoning Mitzi to the middle of Australia for an exclusive show. Delighted, Tick gathers up his recently-widowed transsexual BFF Bernadette Bassenger (Terence Stamp) and Adam Whitely, AKA Felicia Jollygoodfellow (Guy Pearce), an arrogant but talented up-and-coming drag queen, and the three set off across the desert in a clunky tour bus.
As road-trip movies tend to go, what follows is a series of raucous on-the-road adventures, including a shortcut gone awry and an inevitable bus breakdown. If Priscilla is somewhat predictable in format, though, it’s certainly not in content. The queens’ escapades include a barbecue with some disco-loving Aborigines; a run-in with a woman with a very unusual ping-pong ball trick; flying a kite made of sex toys; and mountain climbing in sparkly gowns and hiking boots. They also make a new friend, Bob (played marvelously by Bill Hunter), who tags along to look after the bus and winds up sharing sparks with Bernadette.
Along the way their trip is punctuated with wildly fantastic musical numbers as they attempt to rehearse for their show, culminating in the implausible-but-fabulous number at the Alice Springs resort. The songs give the filmmakers a chance to show off the phenomenal Oscar-winning costumes of Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner, which are extremely creative (the dress made of shoes is not to be missed), and the impressively elaborate BAFTA-winning hair and makeup work of Cassie Hanlon, Angela Conte, and Strykermeyer.
But most of all, the songs are just plain old fun, much like the rest of the film. What is remarkable about Priscilla is its warmth and sense of humor, its ability to be ribald and raunchy, but also charming and, above all, wholly entertaining. At a time when most gay films were mired in tragedy and despair, it was—and still is—a rare gem. Moreover, unlike so many gay protagonists, the queenly trio, carefully crafted by writer/director Stephan Elliot, shine as real, three-dimensional personalities. They, and the film itself, don’t shy away from their sexualities, or the problems faced by gay men in a straight man’s world; but these problems are treated with grace and empathy on the part of the filmmakers, courage on the part of the characters.
The acting, of course, shines. All three actors are incredible in their roles. My personal favorite is Guy Pearce as Adam/Felicia, who is so delightfully, cheerfully obnoxious that it comes right back around to endearing. But the true powerhouse of the film is clearly Terence Stamp, who infuses Bernadette with such quiet dignity that she becomes queenly in a completely different way. Fans of The Matrix and Lord of the Rings will no doubt be astonished to see Hugo Weaving pull off heels and a tiara, but he carries the accessories, and the film, very well as Tick/Mitzi. The camerawork is also very good, particularly owing to as Brian J. Breheny’s sweeping Outback vistas.In summary, I love this movie to death. It’s not an example of truly great filmmaking, but it’s absolutely engaging. While it’s not as well-known as its vastly inferior American counterpart, Too Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, it absolutely should be.
(And for those straight guys out there worried about watching a film like this—the one who showed it to me was my father, then-50 and decidedly straight. Trust me, anyone can enjoy a movie like this.)