VINTAGE REVIEW: The Adventures Of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert (1994) *****
Starring: Hugo Weaving, Guy Pearce, Terence Stamp, Bill Hunter
Director: Stephan Elliott
Sometimes, you just find yourself in the mood for an over-the-top film that has three defining characteristics: camp, camp and more camp. The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is exactly that film. A feel-good film that beautifully captures a sense of pride, strength and unity, this Australian 90s classic tells the tale of three drag performers as they travel across outback in the fabulously named Priscilla, a garishly lavender bus.
When Mitzi (Weaving) decides to take her act on the road, she brings the youthful drag queen Felicia (Pearce) and hardened trans queen Bernadette (Stamp) with her. Heading toward Palm Springs to perform at Mitzi’s ex-wife’s hotel, they travel by road and perform for locals in the towns and villages they pass. Getting into all sorts of scrapes and capers en route, the trio’s friendships are seriously tested along the way.
Released back in 1994, Priscilla made leaps and bounds in terms of LGBT+ representation. The first thing that might hit you is seeing these actors in roles you might not be used to from them. Especially watching these three straight men play camp queens or trans women. But don't let this cloud your judgement, Pearce and Weaving are fantastically believable in their roles, and exude all the confidence it takes to be a mid-90s drag queen. The real stand out is Stamp's Bernadette, who exudes a quiet sense of spirit and strength in each scene. You'll fall in love with each of them, and you'll be more than happy to join them on their journey, despite the road-bumps they hit along the way.
Naturally, this opens doors about the viability of cis-gendered men playing transgender women, and rightly so. From Boys Don't Cry (1999) to The Danish Girl (2015), it seems hard even now to come across a trans character played by a trans actor. We can only hope that by opening discussions around this, and encouraging companies to be more inclusive in their casting, that trans representation on screen will grow to be more authentic and valid in time. My mind goes to Jeffrey Tambor's speech at the 2016 Emmys, a cis male actor playing a trans woman in Transparent. Tambor called for more roles for trans people: “I’m not going to say this beautifully: to you people out there … please give transgender talent a chance. Give them auditions. Give them their story. I would be happy if I were the last cisgender male to play a transgender female.”
Remarkably, the film's true beauty lies in its realism. It feels grubby and familiar, and is laced with lavish opulence that captures the thrill of a low-budget drag show and ball culture all together. The over-the-top glamour that the three stars surround themselves in is so captivating and draws you in to a world of beauty and flamboyance. But that's not to say the film doesn't have its surreal moments too, where the glamour extends to new heights in dream scenarios, namely with the character of Mitzi. It's in contrast to the more gritty moments of the film, perfectly reflecting the turmoil ridden real lives of the characters, versus their fantasy worlds in which they are not just queens, but THE Queens.
It never feels like any one character's story takes over, instead we're given an exciting plot that shows growth and endurance from each and every one of the main cast. Mitzi gains a son, and his hardened heart is softened. Bernadette finds love, and a gentleman, and survives abuse and grief while supporting those around her. And Adam fights a hurtful past and grows in maturity (even if only slightly). What's most heart-warming about the film is it's positive representation and overall optimistic message about acceptance, even in accepting those that you might not understand. Seeing a queer, effeminate father be wholly and unquestioningly accepted by his young son, or a trans woman finding love in the arms of an old-fashioned man from the middle of nowhere is refreshing to see.
In addition, it's somewhat groundbreaking for its time. An early '90s release helping to bring positive representation of LGBT+ people to the mainstream world, this was a strikingly optimistic LGBT film released after an entire decade of the AIDS Crisis. With Hollywood releasing films like Philadelphia and Longtime Companion, Priscilla came as a breath of positivity from Down Under, showing that the sheer joy that drag embodies had not been damaged by the pandemic. Admittedly the film does have its sad moments, but overall its multitudinous moments of sheer elation give it the feel-good factor that makes the film a euphoric watch, which is probably why its stage adaptation has proved so popular in the West End. It's manic at points, comedic throughout and ever-so-quotable, with its charm and plot placing it firmly within queer film canon, worthy of its spot in The Pink 100.