May 9, 2014
Beneath the wigs, the film is about quintessential Australian values: self-deprecation, blunt humour and determination in the face of adversity
During the opening scenes of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert – writer/director Stephan Elliott’s bright, glitzy and fabulously queer road movie that made a mighty splash when it arrived in cinemas in 1994 – two drag queens discuss travelling interstate for a cabaret show.
Mitzi (Hugo Weaving) pitches the idea to venture to Alice Springs to Bernadette (Terence Stamp), a tart-tongued trans woman with a sense of humour as dry (to use the sort of Australian colloquialisms the film embraces) as a dead dingo’s donger.
“That’s just what his country needs,” Bernadette scoffs. “A cock in a frock on a rock.” And, actually, that was just what the country needed: an intelligent and entertaining Australian film that embraces LGBT culture without turning turning a quintessentially personal story into an exercise in outrage-pedalling and button-pushing.
Priscilla’s popularity (it took around $15m at the local box office and was a hit overseas) exposed audiences to a kind of masculinity they, like many bemused Joes and Janes depicted in the film, may never have experienced before.
The characters are well-developed and the performances rich and endearing. Led by a spectacularly cast-against-type Stamp, the actors do a wonderful job skirting stereotypes and turning preconceptions into people.
It would have been an obvious choice for Elliot to focus on the outrage of shocked observers as the queens do their thing. There’s certainly an element of that: the flamboyant three protagonists (played by Stamp, Weaving and Guy Pearce) encounter bigotry as they travel further from the city to the sticks and have their bus (the Priscilla of the title) defaced with red graffiti reading “AIDS FUCKERS GO HOME”. But Elliot’s affection for his characters and ability to portray them as robust personalities rather than proponents of a political message means that Priscilla avoids being an exercise in finger-wagging.
The film’s alternative aesthetic, including a spectacular wardrobe for which costume designers Lizzy Gardiner and Tim Chappel received an Academy award, is fondly remembered. But Priscilla found mainstream appeal largely by tapping into quintessentially Australian values, such as self-deprecation, blunt humour and determination in the face of adversity.
“We’ve got nothing here for people like you – nothing,” scowls a prickly local woman when the trio, frocked-up and thirsty, visit a dingy outback pub. All eyes turn to Bernadette, who turns to her assailant and says, calmly and slowly, “Now listen here you mullet. Why don’t you just light your tampon and blow your box apart, because it’s the only bang you’re ever going to get.”
That zinger sends the pub into hysterics and instantly wins over the singlet and flannel-clad punters. It seems a little unlikely that the crowd can be so easily brought onside, but the point is made that comedy can be a more powerful force than bigotry.
When asked why he wants to leave a glamorous lifestyle for a hike into the middle of nowhere, Adam/Felicia (Guy Pearce), the youngest and peppiest of the trio, responds: “Ever since I was a lad I’ve had this dream … to travel to the centre of Australia and climb Kings Canyon – as a queen – in a full-length Gaultier sequin, heels and a tiara.”
That dream is realised in one of several sequences that blend the characters’ extravagant looks and mannerisms with vast and beautiful Australian landscapes, inferring, perhaps, that one is no more natural than the other.
It’s clear from the opening sequence, in which Weaving in full drag mimes Charlene’s I’ve Never Been to Me, that something strange and magical is in the air. That strangeness hits a crescendo 40 minutes in, when the girls befriend a community of Indigenous Australians and perform I Will Survive in the desert.
“I’ve got an idea,” says Mitzy. The next shot shows an ecstatic Aboriginal man joining the group, glammed-up and dancing in a preposterously gaudy silver dress. Two decades later, it’s hard to know quite what to make of that scene. Like the film, it’s gorgeous, glittery and a little bit crazy.