The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert was and remains one of the most optimistic, quotable, touching and giddily entertaining gay-themed films ever made. Thirteen years after its debut, an "Extra Frills" (if you’ve already seen the movie, you’ll get the joke) special edition DVD hits shelves today, boasting director commentary from Stephan Elliott, deleted scenes, bloopers, a making-of featurette, trailers, teasers and more.
In August 1994, a fresh-faced Bill Clinton was in the White House and getting things done, the country was still reeling from the Nicole Brown Simpson murder, and the stages were being built for the ill-fated Woodstock 25th anniversary concert. The Lion King‘s roar was still echoing over the box office, and as usual, the studios were using August as a dumping ground for their less promising titles.
The United Nations had named 1994 the "Year of the International Family," and such words were never truer for many of us than when a dilapidated bus christened Priscilla and topped with a giant high-heeled shoe wheeled onto our late-summer cinema screens.
So what was this strange little foreign film that took the country by storm, racked up over $11 million at the U.S. box office in its initial run, won a prize at Cannes and an Oscar (for costume design), and launched the Hollywood careers of two of its stars?
Priscilla was the brainchild of writer-director Stephan Elliott, a native of Sydney, Australia, with one feature film (1993’s Frauds, which starred Priscilla‘s Hugo Weaving and Phil Collins) under his belt. He reportedly churned out the story of two drag queens and a transsexual crossing the desert for a gig in Alice Springs in a single week — and although he set out to make something wild and purely for entertainment, Elliott was surprised to find that the film had such an emotional impact, noting at the time:
"I couldn’t make a completely sympathetic drag movie and so I chose to write a film where in the first half you laugh at the characters, and in the second you laugh with them. I wrote the film as a comedy, it was simply to entertain. It’s turned out to be slightly less funny, but much more human. I wanted people to be very amused but they are actually very touched. That’s thrown me."
A self-described lover of old Hollywood and its clichés, Elliott wanted to make a film that celebrated the romanticized movies of the Golden Age in a different way, noting, "Drag queens are the great Hollywood musicals. The style, the glitz, the glamour, the pain, has gone. The film was a great reason to bring back the musical."
Indeed, the story lends itself to flights of fancy, melodrama and lots and lots of glamour.
In a nutshell, drag queen Anthony Belrose (stage name Mitzi Del Bra), played by Australian actor Hugo Weaving, books a job at a casino in Alice Springs and sets off in a dilapidated bus with fellow drag queen Adam (aka Felicia Jollygoodfellow), played by Guy Pearce, and recently widowed transsexual stage legend Bernadette (legendary actor Terence Stamp, in a career-reviving role — remember him as evil General Zod in Superman II?).
Along the way they meet up with aboriginal peoples, homophobes and true love, pulling through the rough spots by depending on each other and a limitless supply of ABBA tracks. But the biggest surprise awaits them in Alice Springs: It turns out Anthony has a wife and a son — a son to whom he’s never come out. This third-act revelation and ensuing family drama do exactly what Elliott described: turn a frothy movie about drag queens into something unexpectedly moving.
Priscilla was significant for many reasons, but first and foremost, it presented a group of gay heroes who were neither villainous nor desexualized, tortured or saintly. They were just bickering friends with a job to do and their own baggage to carry (both literally and figuratively).
These gay men weren’t out for canonization (as some criticized Philadelphia‘s hero for) and they weren’t castrated poofs who were just there to fluff pillows and play BFF to the straight characters (of which there are very few in the film). Such a human and sensitive portrait of a group of gay men was hard to come by back then, especially in such hilarious packaging.
When the film premiered at Cannes, it was such a smash that it nearly caused riots, and it sashayed off with the Audience Prize, nearly guaranteeing solid international distribution for what is at its heart a very Australian film. The movie is as much about the country as it is about the queens; as producer Al Clark put it at the time of the film’s release (echoing the original poster art), "The basic comic premise of the movie is: three people who may as well be Martians, standing in the middle of this enormous country — where in fact, they are Martians."
Martians or not, these three indefatigable performers inspire everyone they meet and change a lot of minds along the way, a feat that extended to the movie’s production as well, according to Elliott, who said in an interview: "Some of the more macho members of the crew came to the movie thinking it was going to be quite hysterical. By the end they got into it and every one of those boys quite happily put on a dress for the crew photo."
The infectious charm of Priscilla had that kind of widespread impact: Almost anyone, straight or gay or anything else, could enjoy this film.
When the film opened stateside, it became an instant hit with the gay community and eventually racked up over $11 million here in its initial theatrical run. Not bad for an R-rated foreign film with no stars about drag queens in the desert. (The rating itself has been a topic of much discussion; considering that the film has no nudity or violence, it’s unclear as to exactly why it received such a harsh rating here in the States, while overseas it had the equivalent of the PG-13).
Priscilla served for many young gay men as the Wizard of Oz of its day. I myself was just 19 and freshly "out" (and out on my own) for the first time, and the dazzling optimism of Priscilla was both a shot in the arm in terms of visibility (people of all walks were going to see a movie about gay men — and loving it!) and a cornerstone for discourse with other gay men.
If you saw a Priscilla soundtrack CD sitting on someone’s coffee table or dashboard, you could be assured that you were in relatively safe territory, and quotes from the film became shorthand for new friends eager to connect with other gay people.
When the Oscars rolled around the next year, Priscilla walked away with a statue for costume design, a rather amazing achievement considering that the film’s centerpiece "flip-flop dress" cost a whole $7 to make. The costume designer, Lizzy Gardiner, memorably accepted her Oscar wearing a dress made of credit cards.
The film also launched the Hollywood careers of Hugo Weaving (who would go on to star in the Matrix films as the evil Agent Smith and in the Lord of the Rings trilogy as Elrond) and Guy Pearce (Memento, L.A. Confidential), and revived Stamp’s career as well (he went on to star in indie hit The Limey, Bowfinger, and recently was the voice of Superman’s father on Smallville).
Elliott himself had a go of it in Hollywood, directing the very hot duo of Ashley Judd and Ewan McGregor (not to mention k.d. lang) in the ill-received thriller Eye of the Beholder, an odd but generally underappreciated movie. Due to the stress of filming, Elliott had himself committed to a mental hospital during filming, and since that film’s release hasn’t made a single movie.
But Elliott looks to be getting back in the game, with two projects in pre-production: Easy Virtue, a romantic comedy based on a Noel Coward play; and Black Oasis, based on the life of B-movie actress Susan Cabot (who was murdered by her dwarf son) and set to star Rose McGowan.
Priscilla had its own life after the film’s success as well, spawning a smash soundtrack and gaining a foothold in popular culture with its witty barbs and flashy savvy. While many people think that the American film To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar was an American remake, this far less successful film was actually in production while Priscilla was still filming, although the premise was no doubt at least borrowed.
The Priscilla soundtrack introduced Swedish pop sensation ABBA to a new generation of fans, and with the help of fellow Aussie film Muriel’s Wedding, cemented their status as camp gay music icons (despite there being nothing gay about two married couples singing disco).
The film was also translated into an elaborate, disco-filled stage musical that debuted in Sydney in October 2006. If it does well, one can imagine that it would be welcomed to Broadway with open arms, particularly given the Great White Way’s recent penchant for gloriously over-the-top camp and excess (see also: Xanadu, Mary Poppins, Wicked). And maybe we could even entice Aussie song-and-dance man Hugh Jackman back to the stage as Anthony? (Tell me you wouldn’t kill to see him in heels.)
Whatever the future holds for Priscilla, it’s great to see that the film itself continues to draw new fans and merit more elaborate and extra-filled releases. If you’ve never seen the film before, don’t even finish this sentence: Run out and grab a copy now. And if you already have the original, the Extra Frills edition might be the perfect way to revisit an old friend.