Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
Director: Stephan Elliott
Starring: Terence Stamp, Hugo Weaving, Guy Pearce, Bill Hunter

At its core, you’ve seen the story of Priscilla before. It’s fundamentally a mash-up of a classic road movie and a classic outcast movie, with all the expected scenes and tropes popping up. But thanks mostly to Terence Stamp, the fabulous (in every sense of the word) costumes, and an irrepressible sense of joy and optimism, Priscilla elevates above its predictable narrative.

Professional drag queen Mitzi (Weaving) gets a call from his long-abandoned wife, now a casino manager, asking him to be her new cabaret act. He enlists his co-worker Felicia (Pearce) to get in on the act, and friend and transsexual Bernadette (Stamp) needs the distraction after the death of her younger lover. The three set out on a bus (which they name “Priscilla”) to make their way to the desert casino, meeting people and causing scenes along the way.

Straight off the bat, I have to admit that I got a great deal of jollies out of the sheer fact that I was watching Guy Pearce, Hugo Weaving, and Terence Stamp tramp around in gaudy costumes and makeup. As for the three main characters, Guy Pearce, he who has gone on to have perhaps the most successful Hollywood career of the three, is THE most flamboyant character in the movie. Everything Felicia does is ludicrously over the top. And it just constantly cracked me up, because I kept thinking, “Good lord, that’s GUY PEARCE!” I suppose this is something that can only be enjoyed in retrospect; in 1994, only Stamp was well known. But now, all three are famous, and, hell, it’s funny.

Of the three, it’s Terence Stamp who, though his Bernadette is the least flamboyant, provides the great emotional core of the film, as well as many unexpected laughs as he sarcastically curses at the others and unenthusiastically participates in dance numbers. As the only transsexual of the group, Bernadette is always Bernadette; the woman is not a character for her, it’s not an act. She IS a woman; she doesn’t pretend to be one. Along the road trip, she meets mechanic Bob (Hunter) in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere. Bob is a little bit older, but he is kind and caring. When he joins the group on their trip in order to keep the bus running, a very gentle and sweet romance blossoms between he and Bernadette, and she doesn’t quite know what to think about it. Stamp does an amazing job of portraying someone who’s been hurt before slowly and carefully opening herself up to the possibility of finding love (and pain) once more. Guy Pearce is a mere cartoon character, but Terence Stamp is a real person.

In terms of Priscilla as a combo road trip movie/outcast story, there are many scenes that you expect to see that inevitably crop up. There is the time they stop in a town and run into problems at the bar. Their bus gets covered with vulgar graffiti. There is a violent encounter with homophobic rednecks in the middle of the desert. The bus breaks down in the middle of nowhere, calling their very survival into question. Really, if you didn’t anticipate these scenes, then I want to know what rock you’ve been living under that you have somehow managed to avoid seeing ANY road trip/outcast movie EVER.

But despite a certain level of predictability, Priscilla manages to include a few surprises. When they run into problems at the bar in the small town, the problems quickly dissipate with a well-timed insult, and the ladies make friends with the locals instead. An impromptu bonfire party with some Aborigines is a hoot and a half. And the expected tension between Mitzi and his wife AND their son is completely nonexistent. While Mitzi is nervous telling his son how he earns a living, the son is honest and open and completely accepting.

To me, that is what sets Priscilla apart. There is optimism in this movie, an optimism about the future, that you typically don’t find in an outcast movie. While the film admits that there are problems in the present (mostly shown through the encounter with said rednecks), Mitzi’s son represents the future. Times are changing. The future is coming, the next generation is not the current generation, and we are moving towards more acceptance, not less. Celebrate, find the joy, be yourself. This is the message of Priscilla, and it’s lovely to see such an uplifting message in an outcast movie.

In terms of the road trip angle, there are obviously several scenes that involve the ladies making their way through the threatening and harsh Australian Outback. Many Australian films that I’ve seen have somehow, in some way, referenced the conflict between society in Australia and unforgiving natural world. Therefore, I was not surprised in the least to see that same theme pop up again in this movie – nature versus society – but Priscilla takes it on with tongue planted firmly in cheek. The “society,” in this case, are flamboyant drag queens in full-on makeup and costume. It made me laugh.

This is one of the first films that I remember catching me by surprise at the Oscars. It won a well-deserved award for Best Costume Design, and I still remember designer Lizzy Gardiner accepting the award in a gown made of gold credit cards. The drag queen costumes are so much fun, they are guaranteed to put a smile on your face. Hugo Weaving’s dress made of flip-flops, complete with matching accessories, is memorable, as is Guy Pearce, clad entirely in silver sequins, sitting atop Priscilla lip-synching to Verdi while an enormous silver flag flies out behind him. Wisely, the film does not have our characters constantly prancing about in crazy drag costumes, instead saving them for punctuations of comedy every now and then. By keeping things more or less “ordinary” the majority of the time, the parade float costumes get that much more chance to shine.

There are worse ways to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon than watching a movie with costumes that made me smile and characters who made me laugh. Ultimately, though, I appreciate Priscilla’s message of joy and hope most of all. There’s a lot of cynicism in the world, and a great deal of cynicism in film. It’s nice to come across something that manages to be happy without being saccharine.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10.


  1. Agreed that Terrence Stamp is the heart of this movie. The only thing about it I don't love, in fact, is the Guy Pearce character. He's the only one of the three who doesn't noticably change, although I think he really is important to the way everything works out.

    This is a really fun film, and fun to watch if you know homophobes.

    And really, how can you not love something that includes a dress made out of flip-flops.

    1. Pearce is easily the least loveable character in the film, for the reason you said. But I was very much amused by him.

      The costumes... what fantastic costumes!!! That flip flop dress was FABULOUS.

    2. Whenever I see a picture of that dress, I think in Tim Gunn's voice, "But what is Nina Garcia going to say about it?"

    3. Do you also hear Michael Kors cackling like a hyena over it? Because I hear him making one of his crazy analogies.