FINALLY, A COMEDY THAT WILL CHANGE THE WAY YOU THINK, THE WAY YOU FEEL, AND MOST IMPORTANTLY... THE WAY YOU DRESS.
Australia had quite the run of decent little comedies in the early part of the 90s. Strictly Ballroom introduced the world to ballroom dancing and Baz Luhrmann, Muriel’s Wedding gave Toni Collette the shot she needed to reach a wider audience and, in 1994, writer-director Stephan Elliott brought the world The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, a road movie that, in the pantheon of road movies, was pretty unique.
With the offer of a show in the far off Alice Springs, two drag queens - Tick/Mitzi (Hugo Weaving) and Adam/Felicia (Guy Pearce) - and a transsexual - Bernadette (Terence Stamp) - buy a bus and head out across the Australian outback. Each has their own reason for going, but their encounters along the way serve as a test to both themselves and the people they meet.
Stephan Elliott’s script is a deceptively layered piece. With all of the high camp and flamboyance in the film, it’s easy to overlook some of the more subtle aspects of each character. Tick is dealing with the impending fear of meeting his son, worried that he’ll embarrass the boy, or himself. Bernadette is not just in mourning, but has also grown weary in a life where she constantly has to defend herself against others. Adam is almost without any sense of depth at all, being all mouth and attitude, which is exactly what gets him, and others, in trouble with people. It’s Elliott’s attempt to utilise both the heights of stereotypes and the depths of real people. It may not always be successful, but it’s certainly interesting. Also, some of the putdowns in this film are hilarious. For example:
“Stop flexing your muscles, you big pile of budgie turd,” or
“One more push, I'm gonna to smack his face so hard he’ll have to stick his toothbrush up his arse to clean his teeth!”
The only people in the world who have better threats and insults than flamboyant gay men are angry Scottish politicos. This rather wicked humour goes even darker in some moments, such as Adam’s flashback to his uncle, which starts off in one direction, but changes at the last to very amusing effect.
Visually, Elliott fully embraces the theatricality of Priscilla, almost to the point of it being like a series of music videos, or the most ambitious drag act ever filmed. It’s sometimes absurd, even cartoonish, but it still seems weirdly grounded in a way. As odd as it is to see someone is full sequined regalia lip-synching to opera on top of a moving bus in the middle of the desert, it still seems perfectly acceptable that this is what they would do. The colour palette, as you’d probably expect, is vivid and flamboyant. The vibrancy of the costumes (Oscar-winning costumes at that) are matched only by the stunning Australian landscape.
The trio of lead actors in this film are superb. Terence Stamp, whose face has always carried that look of someone who’s seen a lot, captures Bernadette’s world-weary side, but also gives her a dignity that elevates her above the norm, even when taking part in a drinking contest. There’s an air of class about Bernadette, and much of the credit goes to Stamp. Hugo Weaving brings an understated sense of duality to Tick, who’s comfortable enough with what he does in his own world, but shows signs of unease when he feels he may have to explain the complicated nature of his lifestyle to his son. It’s his shift from a showier body language to more obviously restrained mannerisms that make it work. Guy Pearce, still holding some of the pretty boy status from the Australian soaps, is the one who looks the best in a dress, but more than that, he totally gets the catty nature of Adam. Complete with a slightly nasal voice, he’s the closest that comes to gay stereotype, but therein lies the character. Adam is that guy who fully embraces people’s expectations of being gay, mainly because he likes to rile people up. It might come back to bite him, but his enjoyment is more important to him.
I’ve been trying to sort out in my head just what exactly the projected endgame was for Priscilla. It has all the lavish pantomime and joyous theatricality of a gay pride parade, but where those marches are about putting the full measure of the explosive vibrancy of that lifestyle into a context that forces to people to deal with it and come to terms with it (apologies if that makes it sound overly aggressive), Priscilla can’t really boast that same effect. Since it’s a film, people choose whether they want to be exposed to it or not, and in that respect, you may just end up talking to people who are, in all likelihood, on your side anyway. If you’re seeking to convince other people of the legitimacy of your viewpoint, such as the perceived notions of gender, you kind of need them to be there. Otherwise, you’re just wasting your breath… but maybe that’s the point with Priscilla.
To be gay almost any time was probably never the easiest thing to deal with, but it was a particularly grim time in the 80s, at the height of the AIDS epidemic. With gay men and women still trying to fight for acceptance in society, along comes a global health disaster, which gets quickly associated with them and they become ostracized further. Then in the early 90s, things began to look a little better. In the world of theatre and film, more positive and sympathetic portrayals of men and women in the LGBT community began to have a significant effect. A huge step in this was Tony Kushner’s incredibly successful 1991 play Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, effectively acting as an equivalent to Shylock’s “if you prick us, do we not bleed” speech for the gay populace of the country. However, where Angels in America was an assertion for their right to exist, Priscilla is the assertion to enjoy that existence. By using the stereotypes that had become demonised in the previous decade, it tries to remind the LGBT community of the joys they used to take in their lives. It’s a pride parade for those whose pride had taken a bad hit.
Then again, maybe all of this, by which I mean my above thoughts, is just kind of misinformed and patronising. Maybe I’ve completely missed the point of the film, if indeed there was one. I don’t know. This is just what I came up with after spending a couple of hours thinking about the film.
Priscilla is kind of a weird movie, but unashamedly so. It’s very funny, sometimes sad, pleasingly mean and can be quite uplifting. It may be mildly episodic, and have the occasional moments where it doesn’t quite have the impact that it shoots for, but it’s really great fun to watch. Plus, there were a lot of people who, after watching this film, felt like it was okay to be gay again. By that measure alone, Priscilla deserves respect.