Two drag performers and a transgender woman travel across the desert to perform their unique style of cabaret.
Before: I’ve seen the show on stage a couple of times but haven’t watched the film. I’ll looking forward to watching it and seeing the difference. But also in seeing how it’s aged, it’s only a year younger than me.
After: There are some bits that are deeply problematic and haven’t aged well but the queer bits are mostly fine and can be loved. Its clear why this became such a queer favourite.
I love this idea and I’m impressed by the fact it was made 26 years ago. It’s such a loved film and gay and trans rights were hardly in the public consciousness in the 90’s. Of course the fact that it was made over 25 years ago means there are bits that really haven’t aged well and are uncomfortable viewing and I’ll get into that in a bit. The basic idea of this film was to bring queer culture to the public eye and to look at what it meant to be queer and what acceptance means.
It really highlights the fun and the skill in drag shows, all 3 of the performers clearly love what they do and are talented at it. The crowds are having fun too and as a viewer you can’t help but smile along too as the overacting miming to 80’s classics as performed in front of you. At one point they are literally dressed up as lizards prancing on the stage with massive collars/capes. It’s so easy to see why the costumes were nominated for awards because they are amazing and so varied. You never see any of the costumes more than once and each one has it’s own quirky style and brilliance showing each of the three performers character – Mitzi has a costume made of flip flops/thongs.
Like I said no matter how good a film is there are always going to be bits that haven’t aged well; in some films it’s the effects or the costumes, things that actively detract from enjoyment and that you can’t just skip past. In Priscilla there are three things that stood out for me, two of them you are literally able to skip those scenes and not lose any plot but the third is more problematic and emblematic of the times and how queer rights have changed.
- The ‘Asian’ bride whose “also a performer” but whose performance is shooting ping pong balls out of her ‘downstairs’. It’s ridiculously cringey and an uncomfortable scene to watch. The accent is ‘generic Asian’ and there is no pretence that she’s any specific race. It plays into every bad stereotype and frankly I’m amazed that it is still in the stage show. This bit should be cut out, burnt, and have the ashes thrown into the deepest part of the sea.
- The Aboriginals. It’s one five minute scene (if that) which just shows them as unintelligent, barely able to speak, drunks dancing around a fire. At least with the Asian bride we’ve moved on as a planet to be able to find it uncomfortable, Aboriginal rights are still not there yet – and a lot of that is because people don’t know enough. The cultural battle over their rights is still being fought in Oz and the rest of the world just isn’t involved or even really aware of the battle. It’s the same with First Nation rights in America. I’m really glad it’s not in the stage show but I think that’s because it has literally no impact on plot.
The third one is much more problematic. There’s a man playing Bernadette, the make up is great but it’s still a man playing a trans woman. That’s something that just wouldn’t be done now, if this film was ever remade (and I hope to god it’s not) you’d have a trans woman in the part and there would be massive arguments to even the idea of the role being played by a man. #OwnVoices. This is a really progressive film for the time but it shows just how far we’ve come in the past 26 years that the queer rights it’s pushing for feel outdated and like it doesn’t go far enough. At the time I don’t know if there were any out trans actresses who would have played the part and I think that could have been a step too far. And yet it still hurts, Terrance Stamp does a really good job in the role and playing that part, but it’s not his part to play and the fact that he was nominated for awards is another stab in the gut.
I don’t want to make it sound like I think this film is deeply flawed or that it’s not a great film. It is great and the job that it wanted to in parachuting queer issues and rights into the public awareness. But as much as I love it I think I’d being doing the cause it championed a disservice if I didn’t also point out what’s wrong with it.
This film, much like many of the others I’ve reviewed, has a really simple plot. 2 drag queens and a trans performer travel from Sydney to Alice Springs (middle of nowhere Australia) to perform their drag show. The face a number of challenges along the way from the bus (Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) breaking down to homophobia and transphobia at varying levels. Even between themselves there is a level of of transphobia with Adam/Felicia dead naming Bernadette, which hurts more than almost any other parts of the homophobia and transphobia because Adam should know better.
They also discover more about themselves on the way. It turns out that the gig is for a casino where Mitzi/Tick’s wife runs the entertainment. When they get there they discover he has a son who he (Tick) is desperate to please and tries to be a ‘normal’ dad too. Eventually his son returns to Sydney with them and Bernadette (and Bob the mechanic) they pick up on their way stay in Alice.
There’s a massive contrast in this film about being queer in the city and being queer in the outback/small towns.
When they leave Sydney there’s a crowd to wave them off with cheers, banners, glitter, and the works. They are clearly loved and there is a large group of people supporting them and wishing them well. They know that they might face trouble along the way but they also know they have people who watch their back, it’s easy to be brave in a crowd. In the first town they meet Tick loses a bet to Adam and has to go out into the town in full drag and although they get a few odd looks to begin with they are generally appear to be accepted and everyone has a fun night drinking and socialising with the townsfolk. It’s only when they wake up the next morning and go to get back on Priscilla let they learn that their bus has been vandalised calling them f*ggots. The bravery and the fun of alcohol has gone and the three of them have their first harsh reminder of what the world outside the city and their support group looks like. It’s not that they’ve not experienced that kind of abuse before but that doesn’t stop it hurting. At every town after that the reaction gets continually worse to the point that Adam/Felicia gets physically attacked and they fear what will happen in Alice.
Mitzi/Tick – Ostentatiously the main character as the whole plot is because he gets them the gig in Alice he’s also the character I care least about. His story is about personal acceptance of his past as well as his present. Even when he admits that it’s his wife who got them the gig he doesn’t tell anyone about his son until he literally has no choice and the others meet him in the casino. Tick had plenty of time to tell them about him but didn’t, not because he’s ashamed of his past but because it completely contrasts with who he is now and because he doesn’t want to disappoint his son. His son who completely doesn’t care and finds it fun and cool that his dad is a drag queen.
Felicia/Adam – Adam is the young buck who is aggressively queer and refuses to hide it, even when it gets him literally attacked. It’s really obvious that he grew up in a different time and culture to Tick and Bernadette and is used to the protection of the city. He’s impacted the most by the homophobia, and doesn’t have the walls that the other two have built. It’s a sense of naivety that they can’t hurt him because he’s owning it. Which isn’t true, no matter how much you try to pretend that you’re ahead of the game it’s not going to stop the words from hurting you. While Tick and Bernadette try to hide in the crowd Adam is ready to stand out at any second. He’s happy as both Felicia and Adam but Felicia has the courage to get away with things that Adam couldn’t.
Bernadette – she’s the oldest of the trio and while she doesn’t hide the fact she’s trans she tries to hide in the crowd a lot more than the other two. She has a gentle resignation that the best she can expect is people tolerating her and that any partner while only want to be with her because having a trans girlfriend is “a queer status symbol.” The fact that Bob likes her for her is a complete turn up for the books and she doesn’t know what to do with that information. It her who speaks to Felicia when she gets attacked and gently reminds him that although it doesn’t feel like it there’s safety in the walls of the city and that it’s not to keep them in but to keep the country folk out.
Bob – Ah Bob. The exception to the outback in that he loves drag and saw some acts when he was younger, he understands the talent and skill. Plus apart from once asking Bernadette why he doesn’t question any of them. And his asking isn’t from a place of harshness it’s him simply trying to understand more about her. When Adam turns up as Felicia in the pub where he’s drinking he originally pretends that he doesn’t know her but when things get violent he steps up and pushes them away to try and keep her safe. He doesn’t blame Adam for it in the way that Tick does, he simply accept that part of him and helps as much as he can. Also he and Bernadette are a really cute couple.
The soundtrack is full of queer iconic music, there was less of it then I was expecting though. But I think that’s because I know the stage show.
Oscars– WINNER: Best costume design
Golden Globes – NOMINEE: Best actor in musical/comedy (Terrance Stamp). Best film musical/comedy
BAFTA – WINNER: Best costume designer. Best make up/hair.
– NOMINEE: Best actor (Terrance Stamp). Best cinematography. Best original screenplay. Best production design.
Did I enjoy it? Yes
Am I glad I watched it? Yes
Would I watch again? Definitely
Would I have watched it if not for this challenge? At some point but as I’ve already seen it on stage it wasn’t high on the list.
Next week’s film is ‘An Affair to Remember’ (1957). Yet another one that I know absolutely nothing about so it should be interesting.