The “road movie” is a subgenre that I think of as an American convention. They tend to involve younger people on a quest for something, perhaps a race (The Cannonball Run), a chase (Convoy), a new life (Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore), a vacation (National Lampoon’s Vacation), a mission (Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure), or or just getting laid (Losin’ It). They don’t usually involve gay men or drag performers or Australians for that matter, which makes The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert rather compelling for its subversiveness if nothing else.
True, the world had seen a road movie with gay characters before (My Own Private Idaho, which predates this one by three years, comes to mind) and Australians (Roadgames, Backroads). However, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is different. It’s every bit as fierce as Mad Max, but it’s fabulously fun—as though a team of drag queens tossed a bunch of glitter and disco (and CeCe Peniston) into the mix.
Anthony “Tick” Belrose a.k.a. Mitzi Del Bra (Hugo Weaving) is a drag performer in Sydney who accepts an offer to perform at a casino resort operated by his estranged wife, Marion (Sarah Chadwick), in remote Alice Springs—in the middle of the continent. He gets his buds Bernadette Bassinger (Terence Stamp), a recently widowed transgender woman, and Adam Whitely (Guy Pearce), an obnoxious younger queen whose drag name is Felicia Jollygoodfellow, to join him.
They hit the road in a huge silver tour bus that they christen “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” and embark on a journey through the desert. A clan of Aboriginals is very welcoming, allowing the three to perform for them. Not everyone is nice, though, which they soon discover when some outbackass bumpkins spraypaint “AIDS Fuckers Go Home” across the side of the bus.
The three contend with the bus breaking down, a homophobic gang, what appears to be an inescapable bar brawl, and secrets—quite a few secrets. Some of the stuff that happens is predictable, but writer and director Stephan Elliott manages to keep the whole thing fresh because he infuses some great conflict and character development into the narrative. Bernadette’s subplot, a soul searching midlife “where do I go from here” kind of existential crisis, is probably the most interesting part of the movie. The acting—Weaving and Pearce (who looks like a cross between Brad Pitt and Mark Wahlberg) for sure, but especially Stamp—is moving for something that appears to be heading toward frivolous and campy territory. It doesn’t quite stop there. What the characters all end up with is something maybe none of us saw coming: acceptance.
What makes The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert so great, still, is that it’s full of surprises.
With Rebel Russell, John Casey, June Marie Bennett, Murray Davies, Frank Cornelius, Bob Boyce, Leighton Picken, Maria Kmet, Joseph Kmet, Alan Dargin, Bill Hunter, Julia Cortez, Daniel Kellie, Hannah Corbett, Trevor Barrie, Ken Radley, Mark Holmes
Production: PolyGram Filmed Entertainment, Specific Films
Distribution: Gramercy Pictures, Roadshow Films
(DVD purchase) B-