The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
1994, R, 102 min. Directed by Stephan Elliott. Starring Terence Stamp, Hugo Weaving, Guy Pearce, Bill Hunter, Sarah Chadwick.
REVIEWED By Robert Faires, Fri., Aug. 26, 1994
This may be the only instance where three queens beat a royal flush. This frolic by Aussie writer/director Elliott sends a trio of “showgirls” – two drag queens and one transgender woman – out of the tolerant environs of big-city Sydney and deep into the wilds of Central Australia, where men are men and less inclined to be genteel to a fella in a hoop skirt and halter. Their mode of transport is a second-hand bus which they christen Priscilla and which has a nasty habit of breaking down in the least hospitable locales. It's essentially a road movie; episodic, with the leads discovering truths about themselves along the way and playing off the dramatic – and hon, I mean dramatic – contrast between the stark Australian outback and the flashy drag performers. Magenta and Mylar against rust and rock, arias against aborigines. The dissonance is played for fun, for the most part, with periodic reminders that not all the world loves a man in a dress. Where drag is concerned, though, the film does anything but drag; Elliott has no compunction about restraint, and Priscilla gushes with bitchy repartee, campy comedy, sappy Seventies pop (Abba! “Billy, Don't Be a Hero”! “Take a Letter, Maria”!), and production numbers so outrageous, they make the Divine Miss M's excess look like the efforts of a Baptist boys' camp. Lizzy Gardiner and Tim Chappel provide dresses made entirely of beach sandals, among other things, and the makeup by Cassie Hanlon, Strykermeyer, and Angela Conte sparkles mercilessly and virtually vibrates with intense colors. Making all this more than a gasp-provoking glamorama are the winning performances of the three leads: Guy Pearce as the hunky trickster Felicia; Hugo Weaving as the conflicted Mitzi, heading for a rendezvous with a lost wife and child; and Stamp as the artfully composed Bernadette, a transgender woman weary of life but ever graceful and resolute. Elliott is not immune to a tug at the tear ducts, a smidgen of schmaltz, but then, it wouldn't be a story about three queens without some drama, now would it? Besides, the sentiment is more than made up for by the dazzle and glitter and trash of Bernadette, Mitzi, and Felicia. You may have Gloria Gaynor's “I Will Survive” rattling through your head for a few days, but that's a small price to pay for an audience with true royalty.