MOVIE REVIEW | The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994)

In a nutshell, Bored & Dangerous says: “It’s like watching The Golden Girls if every single character talked like Sophia when she’s slamming Blanch for being a slut.”

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“Now listen here, you mullet. Why don’t you just light your tampon, and blow your box apart? Because it’s the only bang you’re ever gonna get, sweetheart!”

To me, 20 years ago sounds like a lifetime.  Until I remember that Nirvana’s Nevermind is closer to 25 years old than 20, and that Seinfeld finished 19 years ago.  Those sorts of things feel like yesterday and like nothing has changed in the years since.  But I just watched a movie that showed me just how much has changed, and for the better.  I just watched the 22 year old The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

Sydney drag performer Trick (Hugo Weaving) gets a call with an offer he can’t refuse.  A Casino in Alice Springs, the dead centre of Australia, has booked him for a show, but he can’t do it alone.  So Trick recruits the recently widowed, not so recently trans gendered Bernadette (Terence Stamp), and young flamingly flamboyant queen, Adam (Guy Pearce).  Through a little emotional blackmail, Adam scores $10,000 from his mother, buys an old bus that he nicknames Priscila, and the three head off to tackle Australia’s outback.

Along the way, the loud brashness of Adam clashes with the world weary fed upness of Bernadette, but the three generally get along.  A few days into their road trip, Bernadette and Adam are surprised to learn that Trick is married to the woman who runs the casino they’re headed to.  Not only that, Trick and his wife have a young son.  Not so surprisingly, the residents of the remote towns they pass through aren’t always the most open minded, and the homophobic taunts and attacks are never far away.  The exception to that is Bob (Bill Hunter), an old bushy and mechanic who helps keep Priscilla running, while forming a genuine bond with Bernadette.

Back in 1994, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert was a massive international hit, and seeing it now, it’s obvious why.  The story is crowd pleasingly uplifting, the conflicts are melodramatically satisfying for an audience, and the drag show premise means it’s never hard to find an excuse for a show stopping number or eye popping costumes.  But it’s all of that crowd pleasing pandering that kind of aggravated me.

I was surprised to learn that writer and director Stephan Elliot is himself gay.  So much of Priscilla seems like a clueless straight guy, trying to write gay characters, based purely on seeing annual stories on the news about the Sydney Mardi Gras.  Maybe it was progressive and a great way of opening conservative Australia’s eyes to LGBT ideas, but seeing it for the first time in 2016, it just seemed obvious and broad and hacky.

It’s also really over written.  I get that these characters are supposed to come from a world where ‘fabulous’ and ‘fierce’ are two highly enviable personality traits, but having the core three, especially Adam and Bernadette, deal almost exclusively in perfectly worded quips, makes it all just become too much.  It’s like Elliot was more concerned with every single line being a zinger that could be used in the trailer, than he was with his characters ever sounding real or natural.  It’s like watching The Golden Girls if every single character talked like Sophia when she’s slamming Blanch for being a slut.
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But there is an upside to watching The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert so long after it was made.  It’s great to see how far the world and attitudes about his kind of thing have come in the 20 odd years since its release.  The fact that there’s nothing shocking, and so much that seems a little on the nose, (hopefully) means that the world has moved on and become a whole lot more accepting in those years.

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
Directed By – Stephan Elliott
Written By – Stephan Elliott

Other Opinions Are Available.  What did these people have to say about Priscilla, Queen of the Desert?
The Guardian
The New York Times
Cinema Hochman

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