Queer Film Fest 2020: ‘Priscilla’ and ‘Wong Foo’

OK folks, today we hit the road: Pack your best frocks, your biggest wigs and your highest heels! Even the unspeakable pain of tucking sounds like a vacation considering everything else that’s going on.

A note about … all this: I wouldn’t even pretend to have any answers to the unfathomable mess we’re living in. All I know is that I will listen to Black leaders and my Black friends, and that I will continue to pursue this passion project as an escape for me and hopefully others. Meanwhile, I will continue to study this list of anti-racism resources for white people, complied by Sarah Sophie Flicker and Alyssa Klein in a handy Google Doc, and I’ll be reading Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist. And I will be voting in November.

Now, onto some cocks in frocks on rocks.

I cannot for the life of me remember how I first encountered The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. I vividly remember Lizzy Gardner taking the stage in her fabulous gold American Express gown at the 1995 Oscars to accept her trophy (with Tim Chappel) for Priscilla‘s divine costumes.

Seeing that dress made me gay. (Not really — just a fabulous gay.)

Likewise, I couldn’t tell you when I first encountered drag queens in popular culture. I can, though, tell you exactly when I first encountered them in the wild. It was at The Ritz, the long-gone Amarillo gay bar, on a weekend close to Halloween 1995 — my first time ever to set foot in a gay bar. I had … a lot going through my mind that night, but I do remember thinking something like, “Oh shit, those are real drag queens.” It was an eventful night. (Y’all, I saw men two-stepping with men that night. It was a big night, I tell ya.)

Clearly, though, I knew what a drag queen was. I don’t know that I knew the difference between actual drag queens and guys just getting gussied up for Halloween — or, in pop culture terms, the difference between a drag queen and guys dressing up as women for the sake of a plot, like in Tootsie, Some Like It Hot or Bosom Buddies. (Fun fact: Bosom Buddies was forbidden in our house.)

But this was long before the time when drag queens had reached their current place at the top of the cultural pyramid, so it’s not too surprising that a small-town Texas kid didn’t know much about drag. I’d imagine Priscilla and its lesser American knockoff To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar introduced countless other gays-in-chrysalis to a glittery new world. And I’m sure, because these films were so formative, that I might piss someone off by dissing To Wong Foo even slightly.

Still true.

Priscilla, though it too is a road trip movie, has real grit and complicated characters. Tick (Hugo Weaving) goes through a real journey in overcoming his own inner homophobia and learning to accept himself as both a drag queen and a dad. Felicia (Guy Pearce) grows up some too, but never outgrows her ABBA obsession. And through Bernadette (Terrence Stamp, divine), we get an empathetic depiction of a trans woman — one of the earliest I can recall that allows a full measure of humanity and even touches (a little problematically, to be sure) on the issue of deadnaming. Yes, it would have been ideal if an actual trans woman had played Bernadette, but Stamp fully committed to the role and gave an indelible performance.

What doesn’t still play well is the subplot about Cynthia (Julia Cortez), the Filipina wife of otherwise amiable bloke Bob. Yes, I’ve laughed at Cynthia’s … trump card, but if only everything about her wasn’t just a lousy stereotype, the kind that the rest of the film strives to avoid.

At least the rest of Priscilla‘s characters are better drawn, something that can’t be said about To Wong Foo. As in Priscilla, three queens set out across the country — in a convertible, though, not a fabulous pink bus, and across the U.S., not the Australian outback. But Priscilla’s characters are given the room to grow in a film that takes chances. To Wong Foo, down its casting, plays everything safe: Of course we’re going to root for Patrick Swayze. Of course we’re going to root for Stockard Channing. But every beat of the story is predictable and maddeningly safe. Vida (Swayze) and Noxeema (Wesley Snipes, not for a second convincing) seem to be utterly sexless; Noxeema does grab a guy’s crotch (Michael Vartan’s, actually), but only to make him stop being rude. John Leguizamo’s Chi-Chi Rodriguez at least bats her eyes at Jason London’s Bobby Ray, but he’s too dim (or the script’s too chicken) to recognize Chi-Chi for who she really is.

I know it’s not fair to compare a 25-year-old movie to something made in our mostly more enlightened era, but if you want to see how this story should be told, check out HBO’s We’re Here.

Or just watch Priscilla again. The drag montage is more fabulous than anything To Wong Foo could hope to achieve.

Up next: Carol and Disobedience

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