The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
Published on: June 9, 1998
During the early 1990s, Australian film underwent a number of significant transformations. The film-school directors of the Post New Wave were determined to create innovative, breathtakingly original films, freeing Australian cinema from the monotony of the social realist dramas and genre films of the late 1980s. One of the most recognisable trends was towards a kitsch brand of comedy that celebrated the "quirky" elements of the Australian way of life in a vibrant, dynamic manner. Baz Luhrmann's Strictly Ballroom (1992) and Romeo + Juliet (1996), P.J. Hogan's Muriel's Wedding (1994) and My Best Friend's Wedding (1997) and Stephan Elliott's The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) epitomise this sub-genre.
Elliott's film is a colourful exploration into the Australian gay culture, tracing the lives of three drag performers as they make a daring trip from the security of Sydney, Australia's gay capital, to the close-knit, small town areas of outback Northern Territory. Along the way, Mitzi (Hugo Weaving) challenges gay stereotypes by revealing that he has a wife and child - the wife's sexual orientation complicating matters further. He is accompanied by Bernadette (Terence Stamp), an ex-Les Girls performer and transsexual looking for love, and Felicia (L.A. Confidential's Guy Pearce), a flamboyant trouble-maker. The chemistry between the three characters is palpable at times as they bicker their way through the desert landscape in Priscilla, a run-down old bus.
Their passage, as in all road movies, is wrought with trouble as they battle the outback environment and human cultural differences. Their poetic isolation amidst the dunes and hills of the Australian outback is a cinematographer's dream, and Brian Breheny has revelled in it. The overwhelmingly gaudy costumes of the drag queens is juxtaposed with the rich reds of the sunburnt plains on a number of occasions, giving rise to glorious, saturated shots that recall the images of isolation presented by Nicholas Roeg in Walkabout (1971). Shots of the bus speeding along dirt tracks to the sounds of classical music as Guy Pearce sits atop a stiletto-throne with metres of silver fabric trailing behind him contrasts dramatically with the subdued outback tones, revealing the cultural rift that exists between this flamboyant minority group and the strong but narrow-minded peoples of Alice Springs.
These fish-out-of-water images continue as the group enter each small township, allowing for a series of biting comical sequences to eventuate. Interestingly, the trio is accepted by an Aboriginal community without apprehension, but is absconded by those in the major townships, perhaps an indicator that Aborigines understand the group's predicament. It is unusual in this context, therefore, to see an Asian woman, one of the few women in the film, treated as little more than a shallow stereotype.
Stephan Elliott's direction is assured and stylised, reflecting the lifestyle of the vibrant trio. The performances delivered by the major characters border on tour-de-force, especially from the skilfully restrained, bitter Terence Stamp. Mention must also be made for the amazing array of costumes designed by Lizzy Gardiner and Tim Chappel, which deservedly won the pair an Academy Award.
Priscilla has become an important film in the study of Australia's portrayal of sexuality on film, as it is one of the first films, along with Love and Other Catastrophes (1995) and The Sum of Us (1994), to celebrate homosexuality rather than to employ it as a shallow, humorous device. Its success led to America producing a similar off-beat road movie about drag queens, To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar (1995), which failed to tap into the same nerve that Priscilla did with its innovative subject matter and sensitive character portrayals.