DVD Review: The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (Extra Frills Edition)
By Frankie Dees Jun 6, 2007, 21:13 GMT
They came. They conquered. They looked fabulous. This wonderfully inventive, visually stunning and incomparably funny Australian import about three drag performers braving the vast, rugged outback won the 1994 Academy Award(r) for Costume Design. Veteran actor Terence Stamp (Star Wars: The Phantom Menace), Hugo Weaving (The Matrix), Guy Pearce (L.A. Confidential) all give hilarious ? and heartfelt ? performances in a three-fishes-outta-water story that\'s "one of the wildest movies ever ...more
A film not afraid to come encased in a bright pink slipcover with glittery silver font, ‘The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert’ combines the expected bitchy fun that one would find in a drag queen road comedy with a fair amount of warm heartedness to end up as a truly unique and heartfelt love letter to the drag queen community.
Written and directed by Stephan Elliott, who had a promising start with ‘Frauds’ with Phil Collins and Hugo Weaving in ’93 and then ‘Priscilla’ the year after, his career seems to have since stalled with only two features since, one the absolutely dreadful ‘Eye of the Beholder’ with Ewan McGregor and Ashley Judd. Yet that doesn’t take away from his accomplishment with this film, his day in the sun to be sure, with a bright, shiny, feathered frock no less.
Interviewed in the special features, Elliot was heard as saying that he wanted to bring back the musical, make it fun again. After all the musical debacles that crashed and burned in the late seventies/early eighties, it was about time somebody tried again. Although it’s debatable that this film could be labeled as a musical, I see what he means. The ridiculous budgets and towering pretensions of the musical genre in the late seventies sunk it…and it was time to rediscover the roots of the genre – fun dance numbers and over the top costumes and choreography, sounds perfect for a feel good drag queen comedy, yes?
Although the film has always been a favorite in the gay community (hey, I live close to West Hollywood…what can I say?) and provided some curious interest even then outside that demo with the casting of steely-eyed Terence Stamp, a man’s man usually cast as a heavyweight villain (General Zod in ‘Superman II’), as the aging transsexual Bernadette, it now provides even more interest with the then unknown talents of Hugo Weaving and Guy Pearce. Hugo Weaving, of course, went on to become a most effective villain as Mr. Smith in the ‘Matrix’ series as well as ‘V’ in ‘V for Vendetta’ and Guy Pearce has had a pretty nice run in Hollywood so far with great turns in ‘L.A. Confidential’ and ‘Memento’ among others.
Although this is by no means just a curio watch. I mean, if you check it out just to see Mr. Smith in Drag, fine, but I imagine you will come away having long forgotten what spurred you to watch it in the first place as the film has a fairly accomplished sense of coming timing, pace and heart, subject matter be damned.
A simple narrative, its the tale of three drag queen performers – two transvestites and one transsexual – who need a break from the big-city life of Sydney and decide to set out on a road trip across the outback to perform a gig at Alice Springs, a smaller community in the northern territory that’s right smack dab in the middle of the continent.
Terence Stamp plays Bernadette, the aging, once famous “Les Girls” performer who had a young lover recently die, and decides to take Tick (Hugo Weaving) up on his offer to get out of town for a little bit in the way of a road trip. To the chagrin of Bernadette, Adam (Guy Pearce), the youngest, most flamboyant and stereotypical of the three also hitches a ride.
Adam, or ‘Felicia’ comes in handy though when he procures the trio an old bus, with a little help from mommy, to make their road trip in. Naming the bus ‘Priscilla’ and decking it out with costumes galore, a cock tail bar, tanning bad and a huge prop, a heel for their show, that straps to the top of the bus, they take off on their journey amidst a parade of confetti and applause.
On their journey, they experience a number of adventures, some expected of a road trip in the outback including run-ins with some small-town prejudiced rednecks and a heavyset woman who thinks she can out-man Bernadette in a war of words and shot taking (she can’t) and the requisite bus breakdown which leads to a fun encounter with aborigines who delight in their performance of ‘I Will Survive’ (where one of them joins in).
Also horrid secrets are shared (well…at least within the gay community would these secrets be horrid) and an aging gentleman mechanic (Bill Hunter), whose mail-order Asian wife has left him because he won’t let her perform her…ahem, ping pong trick to the local bar audience, hooks up with the trio and seems to develop a quaint, sweet attachment to Bernadette.
The film doesn’t depend on the narrative of ‘Priscilla’ so much as the great dialogue shared between the three, the Oscar-winning, outlandish costumes and the strong performances of all involved. In a performance that I think is probably his best, if not his most badass (that would go to ‘The Limey’), Terence Stamp really gives Bernadette some depth. Saddened by the recent death, and maybe a little regret, her elegant, patient façade can also give away to masculinity when needed, however graciously. Hugo Weaving is good as the relatively “straight man” drag queen with a few secrets to hide and Tick reveals himself to do the plots heavy lifting towards the end of the film.
Guy Pearce does a great job as the childishly flamboyant ‘Felecia’ obsessed with Abba and the director says to this day that Pearce has trouble making people believe he is straight after they’ve seen this movie. It’s called acting, folks, and Pearce ran with it.
The Oscar-winning costumes by Lizzy Gardiner and Tim Chappel are intentionally ridiculous in all the right and wrong ways and the contrast with the costumes against the beautifully filmed landscapes of the Australian outback give them an almost alien feel. The soundtrack perfectly captures the appropriate feel and period of the film with music from Patti Page, Lena Horne, the aforementioned Abba and The Village People.
It might ‘drag’ a bit in places (heh, get it, drag?) and some of the more ‘message’y elements of the film feel a bit tacked on as if they felt they really needed to squeeze a bit of hardship in there, but it mostly stays upbeat and only delves into drama where appropriate. It’s certainly much better than the similarly-themed ‘To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar’ where Patrick Swayze and Wesly Snipes fail miserably at capturing some of the same beats that Terence Stamp and Hugo Weaving do in this film.
The film is presented in 2.35:1 widescreen and is enhanced for widescreen televisions. The ‘Extra Frills’ edition packs a few good extras in here easily improving on the old MGM non-anamorphic release. First up is an audio commentary with director Stephen Elliot that’s quite a bit of fun and informative about the hardships making the low-budget film. ‘Birth of a Queen’ is a decent making-of combining on-set footage with interviews that mostly focus on the director and Terence Stamp.
Unfortunately, it didn’t look like they could get Hugo Weaving and Guy Pearce to sit down for their retrospective thoughts. Deleted Scenes are just that – and don’t add up to much. ‘The Bus from Blooperville Outtakes’ provide your requisite on-set tomfoolery. ‘Tidbits from the Set’ provide a few selectable costume elements that take a viewer to a short interview or “tidbit” about the film with ‘Frocks, Frills and Fotos” being a still gallery. A teaser and theatrical trailer round out the extras.
Overall, the film is a unique drag queen out of water tale that provides quite a few laughs, a bit of pathos and some fun musical production numbers all set against a gorgeous Australian setting. I doubt that there will be many hetero males tripping over themselves to check this out once they learn the subject matter but the performances lend it a humanity that make our protagonists being drag queens irrelevant.
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (Extra Frills Edition) is now available at Amazon. As of yet, there is not a release date for this version of the DVD in the UK. Visit the DVD database for more information.