Monday, October 1, 2012

Movie – The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994)

I can’t remember how or why I rented this film back in the mid 1990s.  Maybe the cover looked interesting or maybe the description sounded like it would have some good laughs in it.  In either case I ended up getting a lot more than I bargained for when I watched this film.  While it does have comedy in it, it also has some drama.  While it does have a couple of flamboyant characters, its heart is really the more reserved, worn down by life character.  The result is that I found that the movie simultaneously has some depth to it, while at the same time it still knows how to have fun.

Those of you who have seen this film may be wondering how this fits into the “playing the other gender” category since it features drag queens.  Actually, only two of the three characters are male drag queens – Tick, played by Hugo Weaving (The Matrix) and Adam, played by Guy Pearce (Memento).  The third major character is Bernadette, a female transsexual played by General “kneel before” Zod himself, Terence freaking Stamp.

Tick, a Sidney, Australia based performer, arranges to do a drag show at Alice Springs, a remote resort town in the middle of the Australian continent.  He is doing it for his friend Marion, who runs the place where they will perform.  He convinces Adam to go with him, but Bernadette is another matter.  She has recently suffered a heartbreaking loss and doesn’t really feel like doing much of anything.  They finally convince her that a change of scenery will do her good.

They head off across the continent in a big pink bus that has been named Priscilla.  They have all their outfits and props with them.  As they get further and further into the outback they encounter people who don’t have a single clue what they are, and some who do, but don’t like them.  It is the reactions of these people that provide some of the humor and some of the drama. 

The bus breaks down in one town and Adam, the obnoxious one, decides to see if he can stir up trouble.  He succeeds, and gets badly beaten as a result.  Bob (Bill Hunter), the man who was fixing the bus, decides to join them on the rest of their trip.  He was about the only person in his town to not hate them when they arrived.

Along the way we see some performances from Tick, Adam, and Bernadette.  Think of a cheesy song played incessantly on the radio in the 1970s and it’s probably used in this movie as part of one of their acts.  Their costumes are as over the top as you might expect, and I still vividly remember Tick stepping off the bus in an outfit made entirely of flip-flops.  Even his earrings were mini flip-flops.  This movie ending up winning an Oscar for Best Costume Design.

The four eventually do get to Alice Springs, but they find that Tick has not been honest with them.  Amongst his friends where everyone is as “out” as can be, it turns out he has been keeping some secrets from them.

I didn’t know either Weaving or Pearce from anywhere when I saw this film.  True story: I rented The Matrix in 1999.  Every time Agent Smith would appear he would look familiar and I couldn’t figure out why.  About halfway through the movie Weaving said something, or moved a certain way, and all of a sudden I said to myself, “Holy crap!  It’s the drag queen in flip-flops from The Adventures of Priscilla!”  Needless to say, I didn’t see Agent Smith the same the rest of the film.

I mentioned at the top that it is Stamp’s character of Bernadette that is the heart of the picture.  I did know him, of course, and it was a bit mind boggling to see him playing a woman.  He doesn’t get to be outrageous or rude like his two co-stars, and at first it was easy to overlook him.  As the movie went on, though, I noticed that he played Bernadette with both grace and as much dignity as possible.  Ultimately, it didn’t matter that the character was a transsexual; all I saw was a woman beaten down by circumstance, caught in a job that didn’t do much for her anymore, and just going through the motions of life.  It’s great, then, when you see her come alive as a result of the adventures that she shares in.

A couple of notes: 1. Stay tuned after the credits for an additional scene; 2. I have not seen the American semi-clone Too Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar (1995), so I do not know how the two compare.

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is not for everyone.  Obviously, if you are homophobic you should probably skip this film.  If you don’t like “quirky” then this is also probably not the film for you.  For everyone else, especially people looking for something a little different, I recommend that you give this film a try.

Chip’s Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

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  1. Good review Chip. It's fun, wild, and really, really goofy, but also has a heart to it and that's where the real connections I had with this film kicked-in. I mean, I obviously didn't connect with everything in the film, but still felt like I was one of the drags and had a great time because of it. That American remake they did was garbage and gives this movie a bad-name.

    1. Thanks, and thanks for the info on Wong Foo. "also has a heart to it" Exactly. That's why I liked it more, too.

  2. I didn't expect to like this film nearly as much as I did. As Dan said above, this film has heart, and that goes a long way--I ended up really liking these characters and wanting them to end up happy.

    I frickin' LOVE the flip-flop dress!

    1. Sounds like we're very much in agreement here.

  3. O.K., I'd watch this just to see Hugo Weaving and Guy Pearce in drag. ;-) I did see Wong Foo, but I don't remember it well. Maybe it didn't make that much of an impression on me.

    1. If you think of it, after you watch it please let me know your opinion on it.

  4. Nice job, Chip. This movie was a lot of fun (especially all of the crazy costumes), and the characters had a surprising amount of depth. Seeing Lord Elrond in drag just makes me smile.

    I agree with the other comments, regarding Too Wong Foo -- completely forgettable, compared to this movie.