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Has there ever been a better queer film than The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert? (Spoiler: no, there has not, and there never will be.) It is unabashedly fun, touching, appealing to a broad audience without being bland, and utterly rewatchable.
But as magical as it is, the film is not without its flaws. Are its charms enough to outweigh its sins? Much like we did with its American cousin To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything! Julie Newmar, let’s take a deep dive into what makes Priscilla work so well, and then examine its mistakes as delicately as we can.
1. Drag 101
If you come to this movie knowing nothing about drag — as I did, as a baffled teenager in the 1990s — you could ask for no better teacher. Of course, it’s not a completely accurate depiction (few queens can afford quite so many elaborate wigs) but the film’s affectionate rendering of drag makes it instantly clear why it’s such a vital art form.
And good God, the music of this movie. Even when it’s just a fleeting reference without the actual song, as when someone simply says “Bernadette left her cake out in the rain,” the movie is one big signpost to the music that connects queer people together.
2. The Fellowship
Like all subcultures, gays can wickedly turn on each other. But then gays in this movie enjoy a companionship that is, for the most part, stable and healthy and admirable. They support each other through difficulty, and despite being occasionally at each other’s throats they’re able to forgive.
3. The Kid
Hugo Weaving does a fantastic job of capturing the shame and anxiety of a young gay man afraid to come out. But the movie achieves an impressive reversal: rather than a kid coming out to his parents, he’s a parent coming out to his kid. After fretting about his son’s reaction from one side of Australia to the other, his son’s eventual acceptance is a thing of beauty. The movie manages to innovate with its coming-out story before coming-out stories had become passe, and even longer before they were finally driven into the ground by Glee.
1. The Wife
Oof. This caricature is an incredible mark of shame on an otherwise beautiful film. Bob’s wife is depicted as such a broad stereotype that she seems to have invaded from another story — and indeed from another decade. In fact, women in general get fairly short shrift in the movie; though Bernadette is a major character, she barely has an opportunity to interact with any other women.
2. Deadnaming Bernadette
Back then, it wasn’t so jaw-dropping to deadname a trans person — hurtful though it was, few people had given much thought to the harm they do by tethering trans people to the identities they’d left behind. And the fact that it’s employed by the movie as a joke is unbearable.
3. The Movie it Almost Was
Though the film is generally a delight, it was very nearly something quite different. Producers sought various actors to play Bernadette before landing on Terrence Stamp. Imagine if they’d been able to go with their first choice, Tony Randall — he’s have been a broad scene-stealer instead of understated and world-weary. Their second choice, John Cleese, would have been fascinating … but definitely not good. Priscilla‘s a fabulous film with a few mis-steps — thank God they didn’t compound them with comedic casting.