This is my favorite movie ever. Priscilla is the yardstick by which I measure all things fabulous. I like it even better than such spectacular spectaculars as Moulin Rouge, Tank Girl, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. As these favorite films of mine suggest (and I note in my Hedwig writeup), I go in bigtime for movies featuring fabulous protagonists with excellent hair, over-the-top costumes and kickin' soundtracks I can sing along to. Amorphous gender and sexuality are also always a plus. Needless to say, Priscilla combines all these elements and more. Don't tell me you weren't warned.
"Oh, Felicia. Where the fuck are we?"
Our odyssey begins in a bar in Sydney, Australia, to the sweet strains of "(I've Been to Paradise But) I've Never Been to Me", as performed by the lovely and talented Mitzi del Bra (Hugo Weaving). Shortly thereafter, we meet one of Mitz's costars, the spectacularly smartassed Felicia Jollygoodfellow (Guy Pearce). Mitz and Felicia's drag troupe is a familiar act, and there's an old cliché about that, so it's almost a relief when Mitz gets a life-changing phone call in the dressing room after the show. Wandering the Sydney streets in straight clothes, Mitz's alter ego, Anthony Belrose, affectionately known as Teek, calls his friend Bernadette (Terence Stamp) for help. In so doing, he becomes the first to learn of her very recent personal tragedy, which makes for a most dramatic introduction to the third but not quite final participant in my favorite filmic road trip of all time. (Felicia's grand entrance actually takes place after Bernadette's, but who's counting?)
A desert holiday, let's pack the drag away
You pack the lunch and tea, I'll bring the Ecstasy
Fuck off, you silly queer, I'm getting out of here
A desert holiday, hip-hip-hip-hip-hooray!
---Felicia, to a tune I know only as "Ta Ra Ra
Mitzi has been made an offer s/he can't refuse --- a gig at a hotel in far-off Alice Springs. Bernadette at first replies to the proposal that she come along with the oft-quoted (at least by me) "You've got to be fucking joking", decides that getting out of the city will be a welcome distraction from constant mourning ("My mascara keeps running", she complains of the tears, "I look like a fucking raccoon." I think Bernadette gets most of the really good lines, but I digress.) Felicia,
otherwise known as Adam Whitely, convinces his wealthy and overprotective Mummy that "a trip to the Outback might help [him] get over this little phase" he's "going through", and ends up securing funding for their transportation. With that, our intrepid transvestite (and transgender) trio sets off across the Australian Outback in a dilapidated ex-schoolbus Felicia impulsively baptizes with a devastating waste of perfectly good champagne:
"I hereby christen this budget Barbie camper 'Priscilla, Queen of the Desert'."
A random note about names and personal pronouns: In the movie, drag queen names are the affectionate default terms of address among the protagonists. Male names, especially full proper names, are used for scolding and other expressions of displeasure, as proper full, middle, and last names are in many families. In this writeup, characters are described by the names that best fit whatever they're wearing in a particular scene. This is the protocol used in the Priscilla screenplay, which I have seen in book form as procured at Shakespeare and Company in Greenwich Village by a friend as a gift for a mutual acquaintance who may be the only person more obsessed with this movie than I am.
"That's just what this country needs: a cock, in a frock, on a rock."
Not for nothing did Priscilla win an Academy Award for Best Costume Design, oh no. Hell, Lizzy Gardiner deserves an award simply for accepting her Oscar in a dress made of American Express Gold cards (she shared the credit with Tim Chappel). As it turns out, this was one of the designs that never made it onto the big screen, because AmEx (who later bought the dress used to such great effect at the awards ceremony) declined permission for Hugo Weaving's character to appear in the film wearing a similar creation. Perhaps as a result of this, Mitzi's big scene-stealing appearance, early in the film, involves a frock that must be seen to be believed (it and a matching purse are made of thong sandals/flip-flops). Other sources of inspiration for costumes included uniquely Australian sights such as the indigenous wildlife (emus, monitor
lizards) and famous architectural sites (can you guess? I'm trying not to make this writeup a total spoiler...)
"I've said it before and I'll say it again: no more fucking ABBA!"
The Priscilla soundtrack rocks my world. In its abridged form (i.e. minus a few extended disco remixes, most of which are not as fabulous as the original songs) I can listen to it almost indefinitely.
Track List (unabridged):
- (I've Been to Paradise But) I've Never Been to Me - Charlene
- Go West (original mix) - The Village People
- Billy, Don't Be a Hero - White Plains
- My Baby Loves Lovin' - Paper Lace
- I Love the Night Life (Disco 'Round) (original version) - Alicia Bridges
- I Can't Help Loving That Man - Trudy Richards
- I Will Survive (original mix) - Gloria Gaynor
- A Fine Romance - Lena Horne
- Shake Your Groove Thing (original mix) - Peaches & Herb
- I Don't Care if the Sun Don't Shine - Patti Page
- Finally (7 Choice Mix) - Ce Ce Peniston
- Take a Letter, Maria - R.B. Greaves
- Mamma Mia - ABBA
- Save the Best for Last - Vanessa Williams
- I Love the Nightlife (Disco 'Round) (Real Rapino 7" Mix) - Alicia Bridges
- Go West Original 12" Mix - Village People
- I Will Survive (1993 Phil Kelsey Classic 12" Mix) - Gloria Gaynor
- Shake Your Groove Thing (Original 12" Mix) - Peaches & Herb
- I Love the Nightlife (Disco 'Round) (Phillip Damien Extended Vox) - Alicia Bridges
The Priscilla soundtrack, available from Polygram Records, does not include any of the original music written for the film by Guy Gross. More unfortunately, it does not feature Felicia or Bernadette's renditions of "I Don't Care if the Sun Don't Shine", Felicia's "desert holiday" ditty (cited above), or the joyful, raucous rendition of "Hava Nagila" begun with Tick and Adam's "Have a hangover" teasing of Bernadette to the same tune. Other missing gems include an Aboriginal chant and digiridoo- accompanied rendition of "I Will Survive" featured in a late-night corroborree scene (the added instrumentation works really well, and the overall effect was very moving after a summer of wandering, feeling lost, and immersing myself in Bruce Chatwin's The Songlines, but that's another writeup). The saddest omission of all, however, may be that of the excerpts from Giuseppe Verdi's La Traviata used as the backdrop to some of the most hilarious and visually stunning sequences of the film.
"It never ends, does it? All that space..."
Speaking of visually stunning, Priscilla is simply rife with random bits that would not be out of place in a nature video. Director Stephan Eliot and cinematographer Brian J. Breheny make great use of the contrast between the drag queens' carefully cultivated glamour and the stunning, if desolate, natural beauty of the Australian landscape --- the overall effect highlights exactly how far out of their element the three queens really are.
"It's funny. We all sit around mindlessly slagging that vile stinkhole of a city, but in some strange way it takes care of us. I don't know if that ugly wall of suburbia's been put there to stop them getting in or us getting out...."
"I can only fight because I've learned to. Being a man one day and a woman the next isn't an easy thing to do."
So. To make a long story short (too late!), Priscilla rules. The three lead actors all turn in performances that guarantee you'll never see any of their movies the same way again. (I, for one, can't watch the Lord of the Rings movies --- or, to be completely honest, read any of the books --- without thinking that Elrond is looking particularly fabulous.) There's great, engaging supporting performances from Bill Hunter, Sarah Chadwick, and Mark Holmes, each of whom give life to characters responsible for major plot points. All told, Priscilla is hilariously funny, heartwarming family fun, with an emphasis on family. Sure, there's the queer-friendly meaning of family, but on a deeper level, this is a movie about the fact that friends are family and vice versa if you're doing things right. It's about finding a safe space in which to be yourself, or making one out of nothing at all. And it's about love, in case I didn't make that obvious already.
"You know, there's two things I don't like about you, Felicia --- your face. So how about shutting both of them?"
Ok, I'm really done now. The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert was written and directed by Stephan Eliot, and produced by Al Clark and Michael Hamlyn. Executive producer Rebel Penfold-Russel was literally a running joke. As mentioned before, it features original music and score by Guy Gross, and Oscar-winning costume designs by Lizzy Gardiner and Tim Chappel, as well as choreography by Mark White. Robyn Lee was the film's official "tranny trainer." 1995's To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, starring Wesley Snipes, Patrick Swayze, and John Leguizamo is sometimes considered a Priscilla remake.
Sources: The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. 1994, PolyGram Filmed Entertainment, Australian Film Finance Corporation, a Latent Image/Specific Films production. DVD copyright Metro Goldwyn Meyer Home Entertainment, 2000. Also the Internet Movie Database for soundtrack details.