Movie Review: The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) #AtoZChallenge


I’m participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge by watching and reviewing some of my favorite movies of all time that I haven’t watched in a long time. This post contains SPOILERS!

Title: The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
Release Date: August 10, 1994
Director: Stephan Elliott
Production Company: PolyGram Filmed Entertainment | Specific Films
Synopsis:

Mitzi (who also goes by Anthony and “Tick”) is a performer in drag queen cabaret in Sydney portrayed by Hugo Weaving.  He gets a call from his wife, from whom he’s been separated for several years but never officially divorced, asking for a favor to bring his performance to her casino resort in Alice Springs. Mitzi invites Bernadette (Terence Stamp), a older transgender woman who was a legendary drag performer, to join him as she grieves the death of her partner.  They are joined by a third drag performer, Felicia (a.k.a Adam), a young, narcissistic, and acerbic gay man.  Felicia uses his parents’ wealth to acquire a bus for their journey across the Australian Outback which he christens Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

The basic plot is the clash of three different personalities in a bus together on a several days journey, made even longer because the bus keeps breaking down. Along the way they meet rural Australians, some who are welcoming, some who are hostile, and on one occasion brutally violent. They pick up an auto mechanic, Bob (Bill Hunter), who keeps the bus running and forms a romance with Bernadette. Arriving in Alice Springs, it’s revealed that Mitzi also has an 8-year-old son, Benjamin (Mark Holmes) he hasn’t seen since Benjamin was a baby.  But Benjamin’s very cool mom, Marion (Sarah Chadwick), a queer woman herself, has raised Benjamin to be accepting of his father.

After performing for two weeks, Bernadette decides to stay in Alice Springs with Bob (who has found work at the casino) and Benjamin travels to Sydney to get spend time getting to know his dad better.

When Did I First See This Movie?:

My senior year of college, my friend John acquired the soundtrack to this movie which included several disco era hits, including the epically bad and unintentionally hilarious “I’ve Never Been to Me” by Charlene. John’s room was a popular hangout in our dormitory so a lot of people heard the soundtrack and were deeply curious about the movie that went with it.  When the movie finally came to our local art house movie theatre it was a group outing.

What Did I Remember?:

I remembered all the basic plot details and some of the dialogue, including Bernadette’s response to Felicia’s desire to climb King’s Canyon in a drag outfit: “That’s just what this country needs: a cock in a frock on a rock.”  I also remember the dance numbers and costumes are excellent.  And most beautiful of all is Felicia on the roof of the bus, singing an aria, as shiny fabric trails behind the bus.

What Did I Forget?:

I remembered the details of Mitzi’s storyline well, but not as much of Bernadette’s. Perhaps because I’m older, her story (and Stamp’s performance) feel more poignant.  I completely forgot about Bob and their romance, which on this rewatch I found the sweetest part of the movie.

When I watched this movie in the 1990s, I didn’t know who any of the actors were.  Terance Stamp was already an established “tough guy” actor for decades at the time, although I suppose there would be no way I’d remember him as General Zod in the Superman movies.  Weaving would go on to play parts in The Matrix, Lord of the Rings, and Captain America franchises, among other things. And Guy Pearce would also find fame in L.A Confidential, Memento, The King’s Speech, and Iron Man 3.  Watching this movie knowing the actors from their other parts rather than assuming they’re Australian “unknowns” makes for a different viewing experience.

What Makes This Movie Great?:

This was one of the first major movies to offer a sympathetic portrayal of gay and transgender people (and coincidentally gave a boost to Australian cinema in foreign markets).  It’s strikes a perfect balance among road movie with striking humor, romance, a sensitive story of family, and great dance performances and costuming.

What Doesn’t Hold Up?:

Even 25 years ago, the big problem with this movie is the character of Cynthia (Julia Cortez), a Filipina woman married to Bob (presumably through some sort of mail-order arrangement to gain Australian citizenship) who is also an exotic dancer. There is a possibility of comparing Cynthia to the Priscilla crew as different type of outsider in the Australian desert, but her character is portrayed in the most virulently stereotypical fashion in the few moments she’s on screen.

All three lead characters are portrayed by straight, cisgender actors.  I think in the 1990s it was possible to defend this as an act of solidarity to have cishet actors offer a sympathetic portrayal.  But if this movie was made today it would be rightly called out for denying parts to LGBTQ actors.

The movie also features the use of the term “tranny” and deadnaming Bernadette as jokes. I was ignorant of this in the 1990s, but today I know these are horribly hurtful things to say.  Granted, most of this is done by Felicia, a character who admits to being deliberately obnoxious to get a rise out of people. I don’t think the movie so much defends doing this as it is showing that some gay men, even drag queens, are prejudiced against transgender people.  Either way it’s an unsettling part of the movie.

Is It a Classic?:

Yes, definitely!

Rating: ****

WARNING: This trailer actually makes the movie look bad.

5 more all-time favorite movies starting with A:

  1. Airplane! (1980)
  2. Aliens (1986)
  3. Amelie (2001)
  4. Anne of Green Gables (1985)
  5. Apollo 13 (1995)

What is your all-time favorite movie starting with A? What do you guess will be my movie for B?  Let me know in the comments!

Classic Movie Review: Wild Strawberries (1957)


Title: Wild Strawberries
Release Date: December 26, 1957
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Production Company: AB Svensk Filmindustri
Summary/Review:

The Nordic countries are generally ranked among the happiest nations on Earth, but the movies are depressing AF.  Well, this is actually only the second Ingmar Bergman film I’ve watched (I saw The Seventh Seal long ago), so maybe this is a rush to judgement.

Wild Strawberries is about the elderly and misanthropic physician Professor Isak Borg (Victor Sjöström) taking a journey to receive an honorary medal for 50 years of service.  Accompanying him on the road trip is his daughter-in-law Marianne Borg (Ingrid Thulin) who is estranged from her husband and makes it clear early on that she doesn’t like Isak much.  Along the journey they pick up three young hitchhikers, two men and a woman named Sara (Bibi Andersson), whose exuberance is a contrast to Isak and Marianne and others they encounter on their journey.  These include a vitriolic married couple who crash their car and Isak’s cold and unsentimental mother (Naima Wifstrand).

The journey is interspersed with Isak’s dreams and flashbacks to his youth. He’s particularly nostalgic for his childhood sweetheart Sara (also played by  Bibi Andersson), who ended up marrying his brother.  Both the journey and the dreams and visions help Isak confront what he’s lost in his past, his present loneliness, and mortality.  He also forms a bond with Marianne and the hitchhiker Sara. For all the grim realism of the film, it surprisingly has a happy ending. The movie is well-filmed and well-acted and worth a rewatch for a deeper analysis.

Rating: ****