The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert - Extra Frills Edition
Time usually flies (that high school reunion keeps adding decades), and yet it’s hard to believe that "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" has only been with us a little over a decade. It is, after all, the quintessential drag movie; at once a gay classic, the epitome in many personal lexicons of all aspects of the word "fabulous." In a sense, "Priscilla" is the type of movie you either adore - or to which you are simply immune. The distinction between immunity and dislike is important here; it is, after all, a film that speaks to the conjoined strength and frailty of the human condition (albeit with fabulous frocks thrown in), and it might be argued that an unappreciative response is liable to be kin to the expressions of the outback locals who, in the film, encounter the intrepid drag queens on their way to the center of Australia: they just don’t get it.
The ploy synopsis for the film on Amazon.com is written thus: "Two drag queens and a transsexual get a cabaret gig in the middle of the desert." On the surface, "Priscilla" sounds like just another gay movie: characters defined by their gayness, doing gay things in search of what it means to be gay. Go ahead and try it: that last sentence fits most recent gay-centric media phenomena from "Another Gay Movie" to "Will & Grace."
Instead, this low-budget Aussie gem turned the cinema world on its beaded derriere. After causing a sensation at Cannes during the year of its theatrical release, the film became an Academy-award winning, internationally-adored box-office superstar. And most of us can never look at ping-pong balls the same way again.
The story follows Anthony "Tick" Belrose (Hugo Weaving) a.k.a. drag queen Mitzi Del Bra, transsexual Bernadette Bassenger (Terence Stamp) and Adam Whitely (Guy Pierce) a.k.a. drag queen Felicia Jollygoodfellow as they cross from Sydney to Alice Springs, Australia, for an out-of-town drag show. Their transportation is the titular character: a used tour bus repurposed and christened as "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" for their use. Along the way, they encounter mechanical and emotional breakdowns, sexual bias and degredation, violence, and ultimately, personal redemption.
The star of the show - even after all these years - remains the celebrated costumes, their vibrant colors flying off the Australian landscape even more vividly thanks to the remastering of the film. That’s quite a statement, really, given the pedigree of the performers; Stamp, Pearce and Weaving managed to navigate not only the daunting waters of straight men doing drag on screen, but also an exploration of gay stereotypes in a non-stereotypical way. The film is funny, but never at the expense of its characters, which are lovingly-crafted, replete with flaws - and its gay sensibilities comes not from situational comedy, as with so many lesser films of today, but from the fearless, open adoration of our community’s many apparent contradictions: simultaneously scorning and celebrating the likes of women, sexual deviance and the music of Abba.
A featurette with Stephan Elliott, the director, provides insight into the remarkable making of the film - which took place largely on the bus itself with such a low budget that the infamous flip-flop dress was created for all of seven dollars thanks to a crewmember’s affiliation with K-Mart. In general, the anecdotes told here are re-told during the director’s track; so my advice is to watch the documentary and listen to the film intact, without the intrusive voice-over.
You’ll find a few deleted scenes: most notably, the genesis of the nickname for Bernadette’s recently deceased boyfriend (he was not called "Trumpet" because he played a musical instrument) and a few expansions of existing dialogue in the film; they’re largely superfluous but fun to watch for those ardent fans (guilty as charged).
The best part of the special features is the outtakes reel, produced almost as wonderfully as the film itself - not only does it offer up glimpses of on-set antics, but it expands in minute ways the experience of watching the film, particularly for those who have memorized each frame (again, guilty as charged) - and makes the viewer wonder if at any time during the arduous process of filming the individuals involved enjoyed a prescient glimmer at the effect this film would have as its inexhaustible charm won hearts for the last thirteen years - just as it still wins them today.