Released in 1994, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, is the ultimate drag road movie, winning an Oscar for best costume design, a raft of AFI Awards and a GLAAD Media Award. Its midnight screening at Cannes brought the house down. Younger readers may be unaware of a film at all… it’s a musical, isn’t it?
But despite its sensational ‘coming out’, has Priscilla had an enduring impact on gay life, or the perception of GLBTI people in Australia? The answer depends on who you ask.
For veteran Sydney drag performer Mitzi Macintosh, the movie led to 12 “very long years” starring in The Priscilla Show at Erskineville’s Imperial Hotel, which featured at the beginning of the movie.
“When we first saw [the film] we thought it was just idiotic, but that’s primarily because we were in the industry and being a comedy the film took certain poetic license,” Macintosh told GayNT.
“[Director] Stephen Elliott came up with three characters that played very well. It worked well for the show. It certainly took drag into the mainstream, and I think from the film’s release onwards we weren’t ‘drag queens’ any more, we were ‘Priscillas’.”
According to Macintosh, Priscilla captured a style of drag that was popular in Australia at that time: “Priscilla’s style of drag was the peak of what I call the ‘gay clown’ era. It wasn’t a statement about gay rights or identity, it was more about entertainment. That style, which reached its climax with Priscilla, was all about making fun of yourself.”
Clown style or not, Priscilla was a success. Meanwhile, its contemporary, the American-made To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar, bombed.
“It was basically the same movie," Macintosh says. "But they were very different films, probably because of the distinctive Australian drag style. I think Priscilla was successful because it had that edge to it.”
Macintosh has no doubt about the enduring impact of the film, saying that the most frequent request from corporate clients hoping to book a drag show for business functions is for a “Priscilla gig”.
Shadd Denisi, owner of The Imperial Hotel, agrees: “The film has been absolutely fantastic for the hotel and made it world recognised,” he says.
“We get a lot of international tourists coming here because it is associated with the film, and they do talk about it when they come.”
Far from playing down the Priscilla connection, the hotel, now closed for renovations, will feature an extended Priscilla Bar when it reopens later this year.
“Overall, I think it’s been a fantastic film and great for tourism. And in the straight community, it has brought a lot of understanding of gay culture,” Denisi says.
But while The Imperial continues to spruik its reputation as “the Priscilla pub”, the same cannot be said of Lasseter’s Casino in Alice Springs, where the film’s climactic drag show was shot.
“We don’t get a lot of people asking about it,” Lasseter’s assistant manager Michael Jones told GayNT. “Mind you, the new stage version of the film doesn’t mention Lasseter’s at all, it just says ‘the Casino’.
“When I travel interstate on business, I do get people ask about Priscilla when they find out I’m from Lasseter’s, so it does come up every now and again.”
Jones said no one who worked at Lassiter’s in 1993 is still an employee, and the Casino itself is vastly different today.
“The bar and room they performed in is no longer in existence – and thank God for that,” he laughs.
Would a busload of drag queens get a gig at Lasseter’s these days?
“The Convention Centre is part of our property and conferences do have Priscilla associated events, so yes, drag queens do come and perform here as we have requests from companies wanting a Priscilla-style of show for their conferences.”
One establishment in Alice Springs has since turned its back on the Priscilla phenomenon. The straight-owned and operated Queen of the Desert hotel is now the far-less glamorously named Airport Hotel.
However, Phil Walcott, who owns The Rainbow Connection, a bed and breakfast in Alice Springs, is more upbeat about Priscilla’s legacy on the region.
Walcott said his own B&B had thrived in the wake of the movie’s success, as had gay tourism in general.
“We’re now in our tenth year, and we’ve had quite a deal of success,” Walcott said.
“While the film didn’t have any huge impact directly [on NT Tourism’s courtship of gay travellers], it allowed other things to happen, and NT Tourism has become very supportive of the gay and lesbian tourism market.
“There was quite an established gay and lesbian network here prior to the film, but as people leave, more people come, and if you look at the footprint of the gay and lesbian community in Alice Springs, there are some high profile players.
“If everyone had a day off the place would close down,” he says.
Catering to this influx of GLBT migrants, and the highlight of the region’s gay year, is Alice Is Wonderland, which began as a gay dance party in 2000, morphed into a festival, and now presents as a series of events held throughout the year.
Somewhat removed from the movie’s desert heart is Tasmanian gay activist Rodney Croome. He admits he was never a fan of the movie, but says Priscilla has made a “far more profound cultural impact than most gay movies”.
“When I compare it to a contemporary gay movie I did like, The Sum of Us, I like how that film defied stereotypes, and what turns me off Priscilla is the stereotypes. However, I understand that the larger-than-life appeal of the movie is based on those types.
“While The Sum of Us and Maurice have been relegated to the ‘art house’ section of DVD shops, Priscilla is still well and truly on the front-row, icon-movie shelf.
“I think this is because Priscilla is ‘fabulous’ in both senses of the word. Obviously it’s ‘fabulous’ in a camp sense. But it’s also fabulous in the sense of being a fable – the characters, events, stories, and even the colours, are simple and universal.”
Writing in Metro Magazine, critic Chris Berry accused Priscilla and its Australian contemporary, The Sum of Us, of papering over the hard issues confronting LGBT people.
“Priscilla and The Sum of Us avoid difficult issues so audiences may congratulate themselves on their tolerance without having to try all that hard,” Berry wrote.
At the San Francisco Film Festival, director Stephen Elliott was asked why he didn’t tackle more gay issues in the film.
“I’m making a musical here,” Elliott replied. “A very funny, tasteless, brash, loud, in-ya-face film. I didn’t want to get into that [gay issues]. I think it would have been irresponsible for me to ignore it, but I didn’t. AIDS is there.”
Transgender activist Linda Petrie says although the film didn’t concern itself with the lives of most transsexuals, who “merge unnoticed into the rest of the community”, it did “reveal the often ridiculed and difficult trans lives of those on the drag circuit”.
She also said Terence Stamp’s performance as Bernadette was a “brilliant, empathetic and touching portrayal of the often potentially lonely, often tragic lives many transgender people face as they enter their twilight years”.
“I think the film really endeared and raised the profile of trans people. It showed that like all Aussies, trans people too can take the piss out of themselves as well as the next bloke… or sheila,” Petrie says.
That includes the stars themselves, according to Mitzi Macintosh.
“When they first started shooting the film, Guy Pearce, Hugo Weaving and Terence Stamp turned up in full drag at DCM on Oxford Street.
“We were all saying, ‘Who are these people? Aren’t they just awful? They must be Melbourne queens!’
“But they all seemed to have a good time and Weaving was seen weaving his way up Oxford Street waving his stilettos in hand much later that night. It was a very funny experience.”
Though skeptical about the film at first, Macintosh now has no doubt about its enduring appeal.
“When I look at it again every couple of years, I always feel it’s incredible that it’s so much better than I thought at the time.
“There’s a heart and soul in this movie because it’s all about people, friends and family, and in particular, friends looking after each other.
“It transcends homosexuality. It’s very much a film about family… just not your everyday family.”