I was feeling a bit down last night. All the despairing news had gotten the best of me. So luckily, I decided to watch Stephan Elliott’s “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” – which I hadn’t seen since it was released in 1994. This outrageously funny and truly uplifting road movie of personal validation and discovery had me smiling and just feeling warm in no time. Underneath all the mascara and hysterical one-liners, I was taken aback by the immense tenderness of this movie. This was exactly what I needed– laughter, joy, celebration of individuality and ABBA.
This little film from Australia (the costume budget was 10k) follows Tick – a drag performer – who is offered a four-week gig at a resort in Alice Springs – a remote town in Central Australia. He persuades Adam – an obnoxiously flashy performer – as well as Bernadette – a transgender woman who recently lost her husband – to join him on the journey. They pack all their costumes and embark in a big tour bus – which gets christened “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.”
All three of them have personal issues to overcome. Tick was previously married with a son and doesn’t know how to reconcile his chosen career and lifestyle with society’s expectation of masculinity. Adam was a victim of abuse as a young kid – and Bernadette is struggling with her recent loss. They lean on each other – and soldier on. As they travel across the desert they encounter homophobia and bigotry – and yet they continue moving forward undeterred. Someone sprays a slur on their bus – and Adam goes to a store and finds lavender paint to defiantly redecorate it. Poignantly – the only people who are kind and accepting to our outrageous trio – is a group of Aborigines. One of the highlights of the film is their joint performance of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.” The positive portrayal of all of these previously marginalized characters was ahead of its time.
There are moments in their trip that they take turns riding atop the bus in a big high heel shoe in a glittery outfit with a long train blowing in the winds while classical arias are performed. This flamboyancy in stark contrast with the aridness of the countryside is quite a striking visual – an enormous metaphor – a plea for beauty and love amongst the ruins.
Appealingly, Hugo Weaving plays Tick and Guy Pearce plays Adam. Both will go on to famous roles in bigger Hollywood fare. Terrence Stamp – the brooding English actor – is a surprise as Bernadette. His delivery of terrific one-liners – the flicker of his long tresses – his looks as he dances – are only the surface of an extraordinary character who won’t let all the heartache bring her down. His Bernadette is the heart and soul of “Priscilla.”
As you could imagine, by the time they reach their destination, our characters have accepted and embraced who they are. They go to a mountain top and proudly hold hands together. PRIDE means understanding and embracing who you are and being joyful about it. Nobody should ever be able to make you feel ashamed of who you are.
Tick: AREN’T WE FAAABULOUS?!
Available to rent on Amazon Prime, YouTube, Vudu, and Google Play.
Directed by Stephan Elliott
Written by Stephan Elliott
Starring: Hugo Weaving, Guy Pearce, Terence Stamp
A Glamorous Idea
The idea for the film occurred to writer/director Stephan Elliott when he was walking along Oxford Street, Sydney’s “gay strip,” just after the annual Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. The wind was blowing a plume of feathers along the abandoned street, and to Elliott it looked like tumbleweed in an old western. His mind began to race with thoughts of how members of the tightly knit gay and transvestite community would cope in a largely alien environment.
For Elliott it was an opportunity to revive a grand old film tradition. “The film was a great excuse to bring back the Hollywood musical. Drag queens are emblematic of all the style, the glitz, the glamour and the pain of those extravaganzas,” says Elliott.
The combination of performance and glamour, underlined with real humanity, brings an entirely new dimension to the art of performance drag in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. “What this film does for the drag scene is what Sean Connery did for the secret service,” says producer Michael Hamlyn. “It glamorizes it.”
“It’s more than dressing up in women’s clothes or strict female impersonation,” says Lizzy Gardiner, one of the film’s wardrobe designers. “It’s theater. Drag is our version of Kabuki.” (rockymusic.org)
A Journey Into The Outback
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert was shot in 40 days in various locations in and around Sydney, Broken Hill, Coober Pedy, Kings Canyon and Alice Springs. In all, the cast and crew travelled 3,334 kilometers from the metropolitan heart of Sydney to the stark but beautiful desert of central Australia.
The production often took on the guise of a road-train forging its way through the outback, camping out in remote and primitive areas with communication virtually cut off except by radio.
There was a reason for such verisimilitude. “To make the film appropriately epic,” says producer Al Clark, “we had to make the same journey that the characters do in the film. There was no sense of belonging, so instead there had to be a sense of mission.”
The locations were chosen precisely for their remoteness, providing realistic problems for the cast and crew who had to contend with the dust, the heat and primitive road conditions which wreaked havoc on the equipment, wardrobe and make-up.
“Once we left Coober Pedy, that was it,” says director of photography Brian Breheny. “We had to make sure that we had enough stock and stand-by equipment to last us until we got to Alice Springs.”
The intense heat and rough conditions were ruinous to many of the 38 individual drag outfits that were designed for the film, including extravagant head-dresses and wigs. This kept the wardrobe and make-up departments in a constant state of fixing and patching up. Then, in the midst of the wilds, the production’s stock of condoms disappeared, causing unforeseen problems in giving the three central characters convincing bosoms. (The condoms were blown up and allowed to settle for a day to give them a realistic pendulousness). (rockymusic.org)
About Writer and Director Stephan Elliott
Stephan’s career kicked off shooting hundreds of weddings from the age of 13 to 18 and now he turns green with the first bars of a bridal waltz. He entered the film industry as an assistant director/editor on a series of dreadful Australian films before stepping up to the director’s chair at 26 with the comedy caper Frauds. This first feature was selected for competition at the Cannes Film Festival 1993. He announced his second feature – a script to be churned out in 12 days en route to the south of France. The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994). Priscilla went on to become one of the most successful Aussie films of all time, racking up an Academy Award, BAFTA and AFI awards for Best Costume Design and a Best Make Up/Hair. Other nominations include a Writers Guild Award and Golden Globe for Best Comedy/Musical.
Stephan then committed career suicide when he was talked into screening his unfinished black comedy Welcome to Woop Woop – in Cannes 1997. It was booed out of the festival. The film has since grown into a massive underground cult. He countered with a change of genre – the thriller Eye of the Beholder (1999). The film premiered at Venice that year winning the Brussels sci-fi and fantasy festival – an award also shared by Frauds.
Stephan then took an interesting career turn by looking for inspiration in the French Alps – and promptly skiing off them. He broke his pelvis and fractured his legs and back. After 4 years of recuperation, Stephan got back on the horse with Priscilla The Musical and a Noel Coward film adaptation, Easy Virtue.
Stephan then shot his first Australian comedy in almost two decades – a ‘wedding gone wrong disaster movie’ aptly titled A Few Best Men in conjunction with the team who created Death At A Funeral.
In 2014, he released RIO I Love You – the follow up to the hugely successful PARIS, je t’amie. His last film was Swinging Safari in 2018. (oztheatrical.com)