The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) (R)

Gay men aren't usually allowed to identify themselves in movies of the past few decades. We see it too often how they get marginalized into minor stereotypical characters and then when they do show up in the spotlight, it's rarely in a positive way. We look back at "Boys in the Band" and then "Cruising" and Friedkin's work dies away but we're left with the sense that homosexuals will always be evil, annoying, or sad creatures that revel in their misery and deserve something of this type. Well, then there's "Philadelphia" which allowed us to see a happy, gay relationship that ended when one of them died and then there's "Brokeback  Mountain" where the gay relationship ends and our old favorite trope is at it again. It's not comforting to think that throughout the years, not much has changed.
Yet these are just the outskirts of queer cinema. When you consider how movies bring queer characters to the foreground and have them speaking words of identity, you may not be able to ask the question "where are the happy gays?" but it will help you observe something quite curious and altogether still unprecedented in modern cinema.
"The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" is one such example of a major work in political forwardness that does not hesitate to present incredibly gay, queer, and sometimes happy characters. It's frankly impressive with nothing else, but how does it compare as a movie? (what a broad, leading question)
The most famous image of the movie is Guy Pearce sitting atop Priscilla with a large silver dress flowing some hundreds of feet behind the automobile. It's this kind of unabashed queer-y-ness that leads Guy Pearce to say without blinking: "We dress up in women's clothes and parade around mouthing the words to other people's songs." Flamboyant hardly does the movie justice. It's more like a slap in the face with a feathered boa or the chorus to "I Will Survive": it's incredibly catchy, dazzlingly chic, and also lined with more than a hint of self-inflated depression.
Meet Tick (Hugo Weaving), he's the best drag performer in Australia and he's living comfortably but not well. He performs regularly with the quintessential gay man Adam (Guy Pearce). Adam is loud and obnoxious and fairly rude; but it's all with a lisp and a flick of the wrist, so who can really fault him?
Tick is going on the road for a cabaret performance to his wife's establishment, a hotel in the desert. He decides that the queen posse needs to be assembled and they need to get on the road. The last installment is Bernadette (Terence Stamp) and here the movie reinvents something so ballsy it takes a while to get used to. There isn't a lot of trans visibility to movies, and certainly there is more MTF visibility than FTM; but it's bizarre and also exciting to see  a movie that grapples with the nitty gritty details of transition. It's not put on a pedestal it's not looked down it, it's simply taken for what it is: a part of life and I find that rather inspiring. But I'm a altruistic kind of person, so there you have it.
Tick doesn't let Bernadette or Adam know that he's got a wife because they would probably tease him mercilessly for it; but as they head out to the desert, Adam buys a bus and calls it Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.
With this in mind, the movie can be seen as an adventure, road-trip movie that has our characters blundering from one funny situation into the next. What fun! This is the premise and it's tried and true; but this time we have two gay drag queens and a transgender woman having all the adventures.
As much as Guy Pearce tends to steal the show with his loud mouth and his body (sorry, had to be said), Hugo Weaving is fairly spectacular as a timid, yet tenacious drag queen who is facing down his fears in life. Yet neither compare with Terence Stamp, who inhabits the role of Bernadette so fully that it feels like Stamp is really her. It's kind of incredible.
The movie is gaudy and fairly immature; but the script is genuine and has laughs as well as tears. It's fun, it's wonderful, it's glossy.
It's a mostly undiscovered gem that deserves to be seen again and again.

Score: ★★★½

1 comment:

  1. Great review of a terrific film, one of my all-time favorites! So glad you enjoyed...hard to believe it was 21 years ago this first came out...unabashedly PRIDEful at the time and still a joyous experience every time I watch again.