From the Vault: The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994)

Editor’s Note: This article contains some swearing.

I will never forgot the moment, the first time I watched The Lord of the Rings, when the Fellowship first appeared on screen and I snorted my drink in amusement at the sight of drag queen extraordinaire Mitzi Del Bra dressed as an elf. While most people are, I imagine, tickled to see Elrond in a dress the first time they watch today’s archive choice, I was unaware of the Hugo Weaving role in LOTR; for me, he will always be Antony “Tick” Belrose from Stephan Elliott’s 1994 comedy-drama-drag-musical The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

From itsy-bitsy teeny-weeny budget cult movie to massively popular West End show, Priscilla is a camp classic that digs a little deeper under the surface layer of sequins, feathers and insane headpieces. For the uninitiated, a brief summary: Hugo Weaving, Guy Pearce and Terence Stamp are two drag queens and a transgender woman travelling across the Australian outback in a beat-up old bus they have christened Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Their destination is Alice Springs, where Tick (Weaving) has secured, through a mysterious connection, a three week run performing their drag act at a casino hotel. En route they break down, dress up, rehearse their show and gradually wheedle out of Tick how exactly he scored the gig in the first place.

One of the principle joys of Priscilla is its razor-sharp script, with ice-cold repostes and zingy one-liners dished out ten to the dozen. I have tried several times to count the number of fucks, shits and sundry other cusses, but to no avail. You just lose track. The only way to watch this film is to give yourself in to it completely, to just enjoy the madness. The road trip is a perfect vehicle, as in so many movies, for a look at issues around family and identity, but Priscilla stops short of descending into mushy sentimentality, another perfectly timed dick joke or Abba story there to bring it back down to earth. Where, for the most part, it stays. The costumes may be outrageous, the music fabulous and the jokes bitchy and hilarious, but at its heart Priscilla is a grounded tale of three friends who have an adventure and learn a bit about life in the process. Simple.

I have teased my aged Dad in the past that although he thinks he’s ok with gay cinema, that’s only when the stereotypes are easy to read – he loves Priscilla and La Cage aux Folles, but Brokeback Mountain made him uncomfortable. But although Priscilla is definitely a stereotypical gay film in certain respects, it doesn’t have to be defined by that label. It’s campy, drag show setting has undoubtedly helped it cross over into more mainstream territory, but it is largely an uncompromising film, far from the trite cliché it could have been. I hesitated slightly to write about it for this feature, given that it’s not quite twenty years old, but its cult status and the themes that run through the movie make it always worth revisiting. Camp and superficial in places it may be, but underneath there beats a heart of gold (lamé).

Harriet Cash

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