Long before RuPaul’s Drag Race, these drag queens were racing across the desert in a big pink bus, frocks flapping in the wind.
It’s been 25 years since The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert hit theaters, and like my DKNY jeans from the era, the movie still looks good.
Yesterday was my city’s Pride Parade, so at the risk of OD’ing on drag queens and in honor of Pride month, I’m reviewing this classic queen movie.
The film starts in a popular drag bar in Sydney, Australia, with Tick (Hugo Weaving) performing I’ve Never Been To Me. The crowd is over it. And he’s over the scene. So he enlists his BFF, Bernadette (Terence Stamp), to make the schlep to a gig in the remote Outback. Adam, played by a young and ab-alicious Guy Pearce,
glams gloms on and procures a barely driveable bus to hold their wardrobes and make-up. They christen it Priscilla and off they go.
It’s a wild ride to be sure. The costumes: outrageous. The make-up: overdone yet never enough. The music: it’s like you’re in a drag bar in the desert. But Priscilla, QOTD is much more than DFF’s (Drag Friends Forever) traipsing through the Outback.
Movies aren’t usually heart warming and bitchy simultaneously, but Priscilla turns it into an artform. The banter on the bus, when they’re not belting out drag tunes, is hilarious and cutting. When they’re around the campfire they open up about loss and regret. Bernadette is on the trip because her lover just died. Tick has motiviations too that are slowly revealed as the movie goes on. Adam was assaulted as a child.
In a way, they allow drag to serve as their masks to the world, to each other, and to themselves. As they travel across the desert they take off their masks, but still look fabulous.
Save Room for Desert
The movie also serves as a reminder of how rampant homophobia was not so long ago. At one point they lament how Sydney is safe, but limiting. But once they venture into the Outback, they find a redneck culture that is not welcoming, easily judgmental, and often verbally and physically violent. They paint the bus bright pink after it’s vandalized with a wretched slur. They are initially denied service in a bar when they show up for cocktails in full regalia. Adam’s affections for a mine worker are harshly rejected. It’s a picture of small town thinking that translates across continents.
But also along the way they find acceptance, not just of and from themselvs, but from the most unlikely sources. They’re loved by a tribe of indigenous aboriginals. While Adam is hunted down by the angry object of his affection, Bernadette runs into her new love. And Tick finds what Whitney Houston would call the greatest love of all.
And through it all is amazing scenery. The desert is almost a character in and of itself. The flowing frocks against the rock formations (frock formations!), the opera number performed as Priscilla rolls through. And the climactic climbing of King’s Canyon in full drag is a moment to make you well up with tears.
Priscilla, QOTD was a surprise hit and has had a lasting impact. By being bitchy yet heartfelt, audiences connected with the characters. That allowed more movies to introduce gay themes to audiences that had been unaware of, or unwilling to accept such things.
The Critic’s Cocktail Recommendation
I was barely old enough to cocktail when Priscilla came out. So I will make up for lost time and have not one, not two, but three drinks. A Stoli and tonic, a Bloody Mary, and a lime daiquiri, exactly what the girls ordered when they sat down at a less than welcoming bar in the outback. They used their wits and wigs to get served and get by. That doesn’t happen as much today, but you can never go wrong with a strong wit and a fab wig.
Cheers & Happy Pride!