REVIEW: The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert [1994]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: R | Runtime: 104 minutes | Release Date: September 8th, 1994 (Australia)
Studio: Chapel Distribution / Gramercy Pictures
Director(s): Stephan Elliott
Writer(s): Stephan Elliott

“Bernice has left her cake out in the rain”

Based The road trip comedy is a staple in the cinematic world and I’m sure some would be quick to state how, “if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all”. However, I’d be surprised if those same people have ever seen anything as uniquely eccentric as Stephan Elliot’s foray in the genre. The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is a trek across the Australian desert with two drag queens and a transsexual making their way to the sleepy town of Alice Springs, smack dab in the middle of the continent, to perform. All three have grown tired of their existence in their home of Sydney—Tick/Mitzi (Hugo Weaving) is weary of the lack of respect given by attendees of her show, Adam/Felicia (Guy Pearce) yearns for some excitement to counter her excessive personality and itch for confrontation, and Bernadette (Terence Stamp) is lost in depression as her husband, 25-years plus her junior, has died in a freak accident. The trio needs to get away; they need to dress in their elaborate frocks and dance to forget their sorrows.

It’s a personality clash ripe for smart humor and neither Elliot’s script nor the actors’ performances disappoint. Weaving’s Mitzi is the center, trying her best to keep the peace and shroud the true motivations that have led to the journey. The show is hers and she needed her two best friends to help out, but the details on how the gig was landed—leading to a couple of the more dramatic moments of the film with realizations of familial connections you don’t necessarily associate with flamboyantly gay men—is only uncovered as the days go by and her face loses the ability to keep up the poker face needed for point blank questions. Possibly the most crazy of the bunch as far as letting her freak flag fly, Mitzi will go off into the wide expanse of Australia, fitted head to toe with the most hideous costumes ever imagined, and feel the music, gyrating to the rhythm. It is this fact that makes her the most contradictory character and also the most intriguing because, no matter how strong she pretends to be, the insecurities of the ‘he’ inside have yet to completely vanish.

Insecurity is not in the vocabulary of either Pearce’s Felicia or Stamp’s Bernadette, though. These two know who they are and are never afraid to show it, whether through stupidity with the former or seasoned savvy with the latter. Felicia is a brash girl with little regard for consequences and the trouble that inevitably causes becomes exacerbated when we find how non-accepting the country is to her life choices. What was thought a prison they needed to escape, it doesn’t take long to realize Sydney is in fact a sanctuary where they can be themselves and not suffer at the hands of bigots. Felicia tests this capacity for acceptance more each day and the results increase in violence in toe. There will always be someone with the grace to see past eccentricity and into the human being within, but the ratio is unfortunately tipped in the wrong direction. Not every un-closeted male has the life experience to take the punches and give them back like Bernadette and while the two clash often—and to wondrously riotous effect—you can’t help but see Felicia in her. The toughness possessed by the eldest of the group is well learned and her scowl possibly the last remnant of her own carefree, rumble/tumble youth.

So we go along for this wild ride of hard friendship—the best ones are always difficult—as these ‘ladies’ find themselves. There are many pratfalls, many breakdowns for their newly purchased ‘tour bus’ Priscilla, many almost and actual brawls, and a lot of introspection, questioning, and acceptance in who they are. It’s a heartfelt tale underlying the comedic gold and while it resonates the most, especially when the discoveries of Mitzi’s reasoning for going to Alice Springs comes to light, the one-liners and back and forth between Stamp and Pearce are what linger in my mind. These two live to rile each other up and there is no love lost since no love exists. It’s new queen versus old gender-transferred lady, the coarse lack of filter against a woman who values the etiquette of a gentleman and the sanctity of a lady’s privacy. But rather than write the roles as predator and prey, it is Bernadette who shows her teeth most often, taking the barbs thrown her way and returning with volleys more mean-spirited in their stoic, indifferent delivery. It’s all in good fun, though, and makes the movie a blast to enjoy with so many laughs.

But besides the great comic performances, you cannot deny the Oscar-winning costume design as well. There are a ton of song-and-dance numbers—some that go from start to finish and others that end abruptly either amicably or brutally—with the most memorable interludes coming from Weaving and Pearce, strapped atop the bus in metallic, shining garb, flowing fabric and/or colored smoke blowing in the wind behind. Seeing the three in drag with peacocks on their heads or with plastic wigs or with the ‘tack-a-ramic’ hats and dresses only glues your eyes to the screen more, enveloped in the lip-synched ditties streaming forth from their petite cassette-playing boombox. They are the perfect little escapes to revolve the story around, always getting more outrageous and never lacking in entertainment from both dancers and the often confused or disgusted faces in the crowds looking on. I applaud all three actors—and Bill Hunter, who’s hippie Bob becomes their savior, roadie, and biggest fan—for going the extra mile to embody these women, embrace the levity and the turmoil of living as such, and never give a false note. The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is one of a kind, much like this trio of characters it follows.

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