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

Image Source: MovieGoods

Synopsis: When Sydney drag queen Tick (Hugo Weaving) is invited to perform at a tourist resort in Australia’s Northern Territory, he invites fellow entertainers Adam (Guy Pearce) and Bernadette (Terence Stamp) to join him. Traveling on the cheap, the three glamorous queens must cross the unforgiving Outback in a decidedly un-glamorous dilapidated tour bus, which flamboyant Adam soon paints a vibrant lavender and christens “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.” But out in the high desert, the trio experience the perils of both rural homophobia and mechanical malfunctions. Taking on helpful mechanic Bob (Bill Hunter), the troupe finally make it to their destination, where even more shocking surprises await them.

Here on Garbo Laughs, I’m dedicating the entire month of June to the topic of Queer Cinema (LGBTQs, and depictions thereof, in classic film). This includes reviewing one relevant film from each decade from the 1910s to the 1990s. This is all leading up to my Queer Film Blogathon on June 27th. Won’t you join me in celebrating LGBTQ Pride Month by contributing a post or two (or three)?

My final film review for the Queer Film Blogathon is of a movie I’m going to have a helluva time being objective about. I’ve mentioned before my nearly-obsessive (at one point it was definitely obsessive) love for Stephan Elliott‘s Priscilla in passing, noting that I’ve seen the film close to, if not more than, 200 times. This is the movie that got me interested in movies. I was 12 or 13 the first time I saw it, having previously given no indication that it’d be the type of movie I’d be drawn to; but somehow, I was absolutely entranced. That first summer, I bought the film on VHS and found myself often watching it three times in a single day. I found a copy of the script online and printed out the entire thing to memorize. Once, when I was napping on the couch, my mother happened to stumble across the film playing on television and put it on, and I woke myself up by reciting the dialogue in my sleep. So yeah, I’d say I’m a pretty big Priscilla fan.

Bernadette Bassinger, Felicia Jollygoodfellow, and Mitzi del Bra.

I’ve loved this film so long that it’s hard for me to articulate exactly what it is that I enjoy about it. Maybe it’s the delicious blend of laugh-out-loud comedy and heart-wrenching pathos. Maybe it’s the outrageous camp elements, or the little moments of fantasy sprinkled throughout the film. Maybe it’s the brilliant and eye-popping musical numbers (not to mention the jaw-dropping costumes, which earned the film an Academy Award). But watching it today, what really stands out to me is the acting. I feel like this film is made accessible to a wide range of people due to the cult popularity of the performers who make up its core cast. Terence Stamp is known to most as General Zod from Superman II, but has had a long and successful career both prior to and after Priscilla. Hugo Weaving had done some film and television work prior to the film, but it was afterward that he really achieved cinematic success, appearing both as Agent Smith in The Matrix series and as Elrond in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Despite spending several years as a regular cast member on the Australian soap opera “Neighbours,” Guy Pearce was unknown internationally before Priscilla; now he’s appeared in everything from Memento to The Hurt Locker to The King’s Speech. These three men, who went on to assuredly masculine and very heterosexual roles, are all united in a beautiful, glittery mess of queer splendor in Priscilla. It tickles me to think of hardcore LOTR fans looking back in Hugo Weaving’s filmography and discovering this.

“Do you have The Texas Chainsaw Mascara?”

Although Stamp received top billing due to his pre-established fame, the story really belongs to Weaving’s character, and it is he who I think gives the most convincing and understated performance. If you ask me, he’s damn near perfect, and I’ve studied this movie a lot. Pearce comes off as slightly more amateurish, as does his character, and although from an acting standpoint he may not be at his peak, I believe his enthusiasm and flamboyance really make the character of Adam come alive, and lets him steal every scene he’s in. As for the dignified Terence Stamp, I don’t want to say he’s “unconvincing” as a woman – if there’s one thing I loathe, it’s gender essentialism – but I often find his lack of skill (effort? exuberance?) in the musical numbers distracting and disappointing. Then again, he’s playing a woman who’s been performing in shows like this for decades, so maybe his lack of energy is deliberate. Whatever the case, all three characters are well-written and deftly portrayed.

However, in re-watching this film, I noticed a lot of flaws that never bothered me when I was 13. There are certain racial depictions here which are appalling; I think I always knew they were appalling, but they detract a lot more from the film than I remembered. Furthermore, while I was never uncomfortable with Bernadette’s portrayal before, now that I know a little more about the transgender community, I find her characterization problematic. There are simply too many jokes at her expense and too little respect afforded to her gender identity; she’s treated as an “other,” as an “in-between” or as not fully female, which doesn’t paint a positive picture of the filmmakers’ view of transgender people. Maybe this is simply the truth of Bernadette’s life, but the film does nothing to condemn her treatment by the other characters, which comes across as an endorsement. In re-watching this film I really tried to view it objectively, and these were the elements which rubbed me the wrong way. We can love a film and still admit it has its problems; while it’s still one of my favorite movies, these days Priscilla is far from the epitome of cinematic perfection that it was to me at 13.

I’d kill to own one of these emu headdresses.

Still, the film is so entertaining and was such an integral part of my adolescence that I can’t bear to rate it any lower than 4.5. My judgment might be a bit clouded because of my history with it, but at the same time, I’ve seen it over 200 times and I still enjoy watching it. That’s gotta say something for Priscilla‘s staying power.


The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) – 4.5/5 stars

5 Comments

  1. It tickles me to think of hardcore LOTR fans looking back in Hugo Weaving’s filmography and discovering this.

    Eh. You can be both a hardcore LOTR fan and like Priscilla. It doesn’t seem to be an either-or situation, at least not for me, and I doubt I’m particularly unique.

  2. Don’t hurt me… but I always confuse this with ‘To Wong Foo.’

    So you’re gonna come to New York to see the Broadway musical version, right?

    • Two movies that came out the same year about drag queens on a road trip across the homophobic countryside? How could you ever confuse them? ;)

  3. Thanks so much for this historical overview of your own journey through this film. It may amuse the younger folks to know that Stamp was a major hetero heart-throb in the 60’s. So — what a thrill to see him older and looking fabulous in eye-makeup and a wig. He’s a beautiful actor with a gorgeous voice. I love the movie too, and through Stamp’s character I experience the film as an “it’s never to late to discover performance and self-expression and a sexuality that isn’t easy or reducible” celebration.

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