It’s been over ten years since I first saw this film, and twenty years since its release. Priscilla (I’m not typing out that lengthy title again) is now considered a cult classic among many, especially among gay people, and is one among a handful of Australian films that had breakout success in and around the early nineties. It’s a fun trip, emotional, campy, disco-y, sometimes crude.
But who is this Priscilla figure, and of which desert is she queen?
What could this film be about?
Drag queens. This film is about drag queens. Two drag queens and a transsexual to be exact, and their trip across the Outback which brings them all face to face with their pasts, themselves, and their futures.
There’s Anthony “Tick”/Mitzi, whose estranged wife and son reach out to him for opportunities in both work and personal life. His fellow queen, Adam/Felicia dreams of doing some drag hiking if his youthful arrogance and impishness don’t get the best of him first. Finally, there’s Bernadette, former performer and now widow who lost her lover to an early death, and fears her life as an aging transsexual will be bereft of joy.
There road trip to the center of the world (i.e. Alice Springs, Australia, which apparently is surrounded by horrid bad lands) takes center stage, and does so with comedic flair. The whole experience is campy without being grating, and even when the humor is crude, it’s not too tasteless. The scene with ping pong balls comes to mind, and causes quite the pussy riot…
More than humor, we get a dramatic look at the pasts and motivations of the characters. These aren’t just flashy drag queen piñatas full of glitter and candy. No. These are people with pain and hopes. Fears and strengths.
Despite his confidence in make up, we see a man confront his sexuality and consolidate his private life with his estranged family. He emerges without shame and with more vigor for his career than ever. That’s Tick (Hugo Weaving).
Bernadette (Terence Stamp) is jaded, mourning her lover, and still sensitive about her former identity as a man. It’s taken her a lifetime to develop the resilience to withstand against the world’s persecution of her identity. Not only does she come alive while fending off a fearsome homophobic assailant by deftly dropping him with a knee to the groin, but she finds love in an unlikely country man.
And what of Adam (Guy Pearce)? He’s a little prick most of the movie, though a funny one, but that just makes it all the better when you see that he begins to grow up by the end of the film. He too feels shame after having been abused as a child, but figures out that he doesn’t have to be so frikin’ abrasive.
These are characters that make a movie for the ages. They’re memorable, varied, and they hit you in the heart. It doesn’t matter if they’re men, women, or something in between.
Much like its comedic Australian contemporaries Strictly Ballroom from ’92 and Muriel’s Wedding also from ’94, Priscilla weaves between heavy-hitting material and campy levity. While Strictly Ballroom bounces around frantically, and Muriel’s Wedding lingers a bit too long in the deep end of grave emotions for it’s comedy to keep it afloat, Priscilla masterfully balances your emotions like a queen’s good wig. It may look larger than life, but it ties the ensemble together so you can pay attention to the performance without distraction.
The film’s legacy is still a strong one. It’s main actors are all successful and respected, and the film itself has even been adapted to Broadway. I still remember seeing Hugo Weaving in the opening scene with my friends the first time, and even just watching it recently, the celebratory ending featuring music by Abba still splits my face in half with a smile.
This film takes you on a journey. Whether you find what you never expected at the end of it, or if you wind up back home happier than ever, you’re going to have a fabulous time.