There are just two ways about it when actors go drag.
It can be a career boost, as Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon found with Some Like It Hot, or it can be an albatross, as Tim Curry (The Rocky Horror Picture Show) and Jaye Davidson (The Crying Game) discovered to their eternal typecast regret.
Fortunately for Terence Stamp, Hugo Weaving and Guy Pearce, the three itinerate drag queens of Stephan Elliott’s campy road comedy The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, the outcome has been more than favourable.
They’ve all had success in a variety of roles since then, something that couldn’t have been predicted 13 years ago when Priscilla first caught moviegoers – both straight and gay – by surprise.
Aussie actors Weaving and Pearce were at the time unknowns outside Oz. Britain’s Terence Stamp was the marquee star, and you needed to qualify that. Stamp was primarily known to cinephiles as the serious face of such 1960s classics as Billy Budd, Poor Cow and Far From the Madding Crowd. His best days seemed behind him and mainstream appeal was lacking.
Even more deficient was support for making the movie, as writer/director Elliott recalls on his commentary in this "Extra Frills Edition" DVD. Traditional Aussie reserve and macho culture made it a tough slog casting the movie. Especially for the key role of Bernadette, an older transsexual mourning the lost of her life partner.
Elliott had no shortage of ideas for the Priscilla leads: rock star Michael Hutchence and actors Jaye Davidson, Rupert Everett, Colin Firth and Jason Donovan were all canvassed.
Tony Curtis nearly signed on as Bernadette ("I started my career in a dress; I’ll end it in a dress," he told Elliott) but got cold feet. Elliott finally decided to go with actors who people wouldn’t immediately think of for the roles.
There was also a lack of support from the gay community, which couldn’t figure out if Priscilla was to be good fun or savage mockery.
"In those early stages, a lot of people didn’t want to know about us," Elliott says.
So it was a real leap of faith for the three actors to fearlessly don feathers, latex and thongs to play drag troupers Bernadette (Stamp), Tick (Weaving) and Adam (Pearce), who travel in a battered pink tour bus (christened Priscilla) from Sydney to remote Alice Springs for a month’s engagement at a casino.
By all accounts, Stamp, Weaving and Pearce loved the experience – although we don’t really get that firsthand on the DVD, since only Elliott does a commentary.
The movie was a worldwide smash, returning more than $100 million on an investment of some $5 million. Priscilla won an Academy Award for its costume design, and the gay community embraced it as a touchstone of community acceptance of alternative lifestyles. The use of ABBA for the soundtrack was a fortuitous accident. Priscilla was a low-budget film, and major backer Polygram held the rights to the Swedish group’s 1970s pop hits. Elliott agreed to use ABBA tunes in Priscilla, which led to a mid-1990s ABBA revival.
Most amazing of all is how the three Priscilla leads have prospered in mostly dramatic films: Stamp in the first Star Wars prequel and The Limey; Weaving in The Lord of the Rings and The Matrix trilogies; and Pearce in L.A. Confidential and Memento. You’d hardly know they used to wear heels.