Sometimes you know in advance that you need to approach a movie with an open mind. The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert is such a case. Telling the story of a trio made up of two drag queens and one transsexual, making their way across the Outback in a barely operable van in order to perform at one drag queen’s wife’s casino, the subject matter may be fringe material for some and outright challenging for others.
Thematically, I have no problem with Priscilla. Its considerations of inclusion, shame, self-respect, fear, homophobia and expansion of personal boundaries are important issues that deserve to be and need to be discussed. It would hardly be possible to tell a story about people living the life these characters are without at least mentioning its inherent difficulties. The film, however, chooses to dwell for just a few minutes on each theme before moving on, either taken care of by a pep talk or the knowing glance from another character. There are so many important issues brought to light that it’s not possible to give them all proper, thorough consideration while still making room for semi-witty banter and all of those drag numbers. Priscilla does a great job of getting us to start thinking, but every time it does, it stops thinking itself and tries to have fun.
The problem with this choice is that what’s fun for the characters in the movie is not always fun for everyone to watch. For instance, while I can certainly marvel in the aesthetic phenomenon that make up the costumes of the movie, I barely enjoyed any of the drag performances. Something about watching men (as in the actors, not the characters) lip-syncing to overly-familiar music, while stumbling through awkward choreography doesn’t strike me as entertainment. I haven’t seen enough (see any) live drag shows to know whether bad dancing is a convention or whether the movie’s heroes are just not at a professional level of performance, but either way, I started to zone out every time a dance number started.
Moving back to the film’s admirable qualities, let’s talk a bit about the characters. As mentioned, there are three protagonists on the bus, each indebted to a different motivation. Guy Pearce’s Adam/Felicia fulfills every aspect of the loud-mouthed, obnoxious gay stereotype. He’s nearly always in drag, and when he’s not, you had better believe he isn’t wearing a shirt. He is more than willing to push himself into others’ comfort zones in order to keep himself in the dominant position, even when he can expect violent retaliation in response. Even when he isn’t in drag, Adam/Felicia is always performing, assuring everyone that he is fine with who he is, even if you aren’t.
Then there’s Bernadette (Terence Stamp), a haggard transsexual who knows exactly who she is, but after decades of the same life, isn’t sure if she likes that person very much after all. Bernadette is honest about her self-delusion but even in her world-weary state, isn’t afraid of taking on new adventures in the hopes that they will bring her something that has been missing all along.
And lastly, there’s my favourite, Tick/Mitzi. Hugo Weaving does a phenomenal job of straddling the “line” between male and female, hetero and homo. I’m sure Tick/Mitzi is there, at least in part, to help straight men get introduced to drag and gay culture. He spends the most amount of time dressed out of drag, sometimes only wearing half of a costume, or strutting around in a gown without a wig. He is the one most readily and constantly identifiable as male, but he is still often catty, sassy, and handily in touch with his so-called “feminine” side. Out of everyone, Tick/Mitzi is the one most open about his discomfort with his fringe status. Having a wife, partially endorsing a conventional, traditional family, he is dually invested in what appear, on the outset, to be opposing worlds. But again, as the film doesn’t ever dwell too long on anything challenging, Tick/Mitzi’s worlds eventually come together flawlessly without any mention or suggestion of future discomfort. It creates a wonderful, but hollow feeling that everything is right in the world, that inclusion and open-mindedness are the human standard, rather than fear and discomfort.
I heard it said, when we finished the movie, that The Adventures Of Priscilla: Queen Of The Desert should be required viewing for all children. I don’t necessarily disagree, as long as there’s someone there afterward to have the discussions in order to help differentiate the important messages from the often weary movie.