‘All dolled up and nowhere to go’ in the Outback
“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: no more fucking ABBA,” Terence Stamp’s Bernadette Bassenger remarks to Adam and Tick partway through Stephan Elliot’s dramedy “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.”
Set in Australia, the film follows two drag queens, Adam “Felicia Jollygoodfellow” (Guy Pearce) and Tick “Mitzi Del Bra” (Hugo Weaving), as well as their transgender compatriot, Bernadette, as they journey across rural Australia to perform a cabaret show at a hotel run by Tick’s estranged wife, Marion (Sarah Chadwick). Their journey is not dissimilar in nature to that of “To Wong Foo,” as they encounter backwoods of intolerance and a few progressive gems in the mix, including Bob (Bill Hunter), who takes to Bernadette. What will set this film apart from other entries in this series is how much it gets right, as it delves deep into the gay and transgender experience.
Their destination proves of little consequence, a common trope in “road trip” films that allows a focus on character development and group relations. Adam, a jovial, obnoxious youth, is seeking recognition for his identity in all the wrong places (he goes to a backwoods “meeting of the teamsters” while high and narrowly avoids being beaten). He wants to shock people with his bravado and sexuality, parading it in front of individuals who disapprove. Whether this is good or bad is difficult to comment on, but it must be singularly infuriating to be chastised and abused on the grounds that you are merely being your true self. While Adam’s associates disapprove of his outlandish behavior, he can’t be faulted for his efforts to define the world on his own terms.
Tick is perhaps a more recognizable archetype for viewers to interpret: a man marries a woman, has a child and has the epiphany that he is homosexual. Tick is largely content with his identity through the film, but has a crisis when his estranged son sees him in drag. He tears himself apart with the fear that his son will reject him, a sentiment that points to why Tick chose to sever ties from his wife in the first place. His worry is unraveled by the genuine acceptance of his son, who despite the fretting of the grown-ups casually inquires of his father “will you have a boyfriend in Sydney?” referring to their soon-to-be residence. “I hope so,” replied Tick. His son nods amicably and continues skipping stones on a lake, treating the entire matter with an air of normalcy unseen in society today.
Where the film finds triumph is in Stamp’s Bernadette, a middle-aged transgender woman disaffected with her life. Her lack of interest translates to some fine barbs and rebuttals, perpetually reading her fellow travelers and berating their lack of grace. She fights against homophobia with a bemused expression, one that sees her abusers as oafish hillbillies incapable of rational thought (she at one point challenges a homophobic woman in a bar, drinking her swiftly under the table). What’s wonderful about Bernadette is that she does not care about others’ opinions. She doesn’t balk at criticism and does not attempt to correct misinformation, nor should she need to. The underlying notion in society that individuals belonging to the LGBTQ+ community should constantly be expected to explain their lifestyle to prying onlookers is erroneous. They should be allowed to just exist, should they so choose.
“I Will Survive,” Gloria Gaynor’s 1979 disco track that Latrice Royale called “the ultimate drag anthem,” makes an inevitable appearance here, encapsulating the optimism that radiates throughout this picture. If one is looking for a proper example of a faithful representation of gay, transgender and drag experiences, “Priscilla” is a natural choice. Even the casual viewer just looking for some ‘reads’ that were contemporary in 1994 will not be disappointed.