Friday, May 9, 2014

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert

Written and directed by Stephan Elliott

     Hollywood enjoys getting cheap laughs out of men dressing up as women, whether it's simple crossdressing or drag queens or...well, let's not even get into the others. And yes, I do say laughs, as it's so rarely that a movie actually tackles it with any sort of drama in the issue. The Adventures of Priscilla looks at the drama, without forgetting the comedy and camp.
     Mitzi Del Bra/Tick Belrose (Hugo Weaving) and Bernadette Bassenger (Terence Stamp) are drag performers in Sydney who, shortly after a friend's death, end up getting a gig across the country in Alice Springs. Bring along the extremely campy Felicia Jollygoodfellow/Adam Whitely (Guy Pearce), they attempt to make it through the desert in a bus that they named Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, performing their show along the way.
     I have to instantly point out the best performance of the trio of actors, and that is Terence Stamp's Bernadette. While the other two are simply men who perform drag, Bernadette is a transgender woman. Now, there is the obvious problem here of a cisgender man playing a transgender woman. What is appreciated here is the pure class that Stamp brings to the role. Bernadette holds her head up through the many problems that the group encounter along the way, keeping a quiet dignity that can instantly turn into pure fury if somebody gets on her bad side. And most importantly, her transgender status is never treated as a joke or shock value along the way. Instead, she is a character you like and care about, and her relationship with Bob Spart, a man they pick up in a small town along the way, is one you want to see end happily. Sadly, the movie does flinch in this part. Despite being in the midst of gay culture, the movie never shows two of its male actors having any sort of physical affection. It's all dialogue and hints, while a straight relationship is prominently featured towards the end. Bernadette and Bob are a straight couple. Why can't they hug or kiss or even hold hands?
     A movie about drag performers wouldn't be complete without plenty of performances along the way. The movie won an Oscar for its costuming, and it shows. Each costume is elaborately over the top. I confess that I haven't seen a live drag performance, so it's hard for me to give them any sort of veracity for authenticity. But it's purely enjoyable. You don't know what song they're going to lip sync to, or what costumes they're going to come out wearing, but you know it's going to be fun. And this is harshly contrasted with the reception that they get, which is extremely cold outside of their native Sydney. They want to bring their culture to people that haven't seen it before, and they get a shrug in response. The one aversion in the movie doesn't even take place in a town, but for a group of Aboriginal people, where one group of oppressed people openly embraces other oppressed people.

     The Adventures of Priscilla is thoroughly enjoyable, with plenty of fun moments right next to harsher scenes that are worth considering afterwards.

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