The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert

Released: 1994
Director: Stephan Elliott

Starring: Hugo Weaving, Guy Pearce, Terence Stamp


Camp, kitsch, over the top – and surprisingly moving

I do love a good drag queen.  The hair, the lipstick, the clothes that no woman in her right mind would ever be found dead in and most of all the absolutely bitchy as hell attitude.  I once a the fatal mistake during a World Aids Day bingo game and got ripped to shreds by the host(ess) of the competition.  I learned a lot that night, both about bingo and about the dangers of getting on the wrong side of a drag queen.  How could I resist a movie about two drag queens and a transsexual traveling across the Australian outback towards Alice Springs on a rickety old bus nicknamed Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert .

Hugo Weaving plays Tick, who as Mitzi is a successful Sydney drag queen.  Following a call from his wife he sets out with Adam (also known as Felicia) and Bernadette to meet his 8 year old son and perform their cabaret act at an Alice Springs hotel and casino.  As you would expect there is plenty of snappy humour and vicious one-liners, camp costumes and over-the-top make up.  There’s even a delightful glittery stiletto atop a bright pink coach.  Where Priscilla surprises is in the more serious moments – when the bus is vandalised with homophobic graffiti, Tick’s lack of certainty about his abilities as a father and Bernadette’s search for love later in life.

The cast is brilliant.  Hugo Weaving is amazing as Tick/Mitzi.  He convinces thoroughly as both an acerbic, confident entertainer and an uncertain man worried about how his son will react to his unconventional lifestyle.  Terence Stamp is touching as Bernadette, although at times I wasn’t sure if it was Stamp or Bernadette who was contemptuous of the people around him.  Adam/Felicia played by Guy Pearce was the most over-the-top, camp and excruciatingly stereotypical gay man I’ve ever seen on film.  At first I found it quite painful to watch and the politically correct part of me tutted at such a representation.  Then I thought back to all the gay bars I frequented when I was younger – of course not every gay man is such a screaming, mincing caricature – but I’d be lying if I said I had never encountered an Adam or two in my life, cackle and all.

The moments which are most moving are the ones where the trio encounter vicious, cruel homophobia.  Despite being confident and secure in their sexuality, abuse from people that they believed had accepted them came as a hurtful and painful experience, and tells the audience that everything isn’t as easy for gay and transsexual people as you might initially believe.

Of course the best part of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is the humour and the performances of the drag queens.  There are so many of the lines which are memorable and quotable, and the occasional sweary word which has become part of my daily lexicon.  The musical numbers are fun, but I was kind of disappointed that the performances are lip synced rather than sung by the characters.  I haven’t been to see the stage show yet despite the theatre being a two minute walk from my husband’s office, but I know I’d be really annoyed if I got there and experienced miming to backing tracks.  The energy is real though and can’t be faked, particularly in the final joyous ABBA number.

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, is a sweet and fun journey towards acceptance.  Not just acceptance of those who are different but also about the importance of accepting ourselves which sometimes is the toughest thing of all.

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