#95 The Adventures Of Priscilla Queen Of The Desert
(1994, Stephan Elliot)
“That’s just what this country needs: a cock in a frock on a rock”
Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert is an anomaly. It helped put Australian cinema on the map, and its three main stars gained recognition or cemented pre-existing critical acclaim out of it. And yet, it has everything working against it as a mainstream film simply because it celebrates gay and transsexual lifestyles, something that many big films are too scared to do.
And yet, this sense of oddity about the movie is what makes it so compelling. What we have is three straight actors (Hugo Weaving, Terence Stamp and Guy Pearce) playing two drag queens and a transwoman as they venture across Australia in a bus named Priscilla, on the way to perform at a cabaret show in Alice Springs at the request of, SHOCK HORROR, Anthony’s (Weaving) ex-wife. It’s a road movie at heart, only with men in dresses, and woman who used to be a man. It’s camp, it’s bitchy and, surprisingly, it’s highly entertaining.
I will confess there was a little wariness from me in relation to this film. Not because I have anything against stories touching on gay issues, but simply because I typically have an aversion to camp, flamboyant entertainment, and this movie’s filled with it. However, it didn’t take long before I realised that the flamboyance is woven intricately with a genuinely heartfelt and layered storyline. There’s more to this than just the sight of Agent Smith in a dress.
The film tackles a number of genuine homosexual issues, such as the prejudice faced by the gay community, represented through Adam/Felicity (Pearce) being attacked by homophobes in the rural towns of Australia, and the prejudices the gay community actually places on itself, such as the baffled reaction to Anthony/Mitzi once being married. And while the humour is bitchy, it never once feels overly cruel, and as a result the drama is backed with genuinely hilarious comedy.
The key to this success is the perfect performances from the three leads. Stamp plays Bernadette with both quiet dignity and a biting sarcasm that at times it’s easy to believe you’re watching an actual woman. Weaving’s performance is a genuinely moving portrayal of a man torn in many directions by his potentially questionable career and the prejudices of having one been married while living the gay lifestyle. And Pearce is the closest to a stereotype out of the three, and yet somehow it never feels like it because Pearce seems determined to not let that happen.
Of course, it won’t win over anyone who has some serious issues with homosexuality that just won’t shift. The movie does need to be watched with somewhat of an open mind due its subject matter. It’s rather sad that I even have to point this out, simply because Priscilla is a brilliant piece of cinema.
So the film is an anomaly on its success based on its subject matter, but in terms of its drama and its sense of humour, it’s easy to see why it won people over.
Starring Terence Stamp, Hugo Weaving, Guy Pearce & Bill Hunter
Written by Stephan Elliot
Produced by Al Clark & Michael Hamlyn
Music by Guy Gross
Cinematography by Brian J. Breheny
Edited by Sue Blainey
Favourite Scene: Bernie and Anthony/Mitzi have a heartfelt conversation over dinner, with Anthony explaining his fears over being a father. The key scene that made me realise this had some real depth.
Scene That Bugged Me: There is something unnerving about the Filipino mail-order bride Cynthia. She doesn’t feel outright sexist or racist as some people have suggested, but still a little unrealistic
Watch it if: You like a side order of human drama with your camp
Avoid it if: You’re likely to side the with rural hick homophobes