Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: It’s the start of Pride Month, so we’re looking back at some major or influential highlights of queer cinema.
Being a “cult classic” is a badge many films wear with pride, though it is usually a consolation classification for low-budget movies with significant kitsch factor that failed to find critical and/or box-office success, often because they centered on characters not accepted by general audiences. With kitsch to spare, The Adventures Of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert is widely considered one such cult classic—though, in reality, it was instantly embraced by Aussies, Americans, and the Cannes Film Festival before grossing almost 15-times its $2 million budget and becoming the movie of choice for TV programmers around the globe in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Not bad for a film about three drag queens traveling through the Australian desert.
Priscilla really shouldn’t have worked. The opulence of gay culture found a small foothold in pop culture in the late ’70s and early ’80s, but any celebration of gay lives was instantly overshadowed by the catastrophic AIDS epidemic. By the early ’90s, the devastating impact of HIV (rightfully) began coloring all depiction of gay life on screen. But just two months after Tom Hanks won the Oscar for his work in Philadelphia, Priscilla offered a breath of fresh air at Cannes ’94 with its unabashed celebration of Australian drag culture. (At the time, American drag was most known for female-celebrity impersonators and ball culture, while the Aussies infused drag with more of the performance-art aspects now so widely associated with the art form.)
The film centers on Tick (The Matrix’s Hugo Weaving), Adam (Memento’s Guy Pearce), and Bernadette (Superman II villain Terence Stamp, playing a transgender woman), a trio of Sydney queens traveling in a bus named Priscilla to rural Australia for a gig (and to meet Tick’s son). At one point, Adam is attacked after going to a tailgate party in drag and the queens are met with a cry of “AIDS fuckers go home.” But they are ultimately embraced by many of the rural locals and find a peace on their own journeys of self-acceptance. Despite the hardships, the film is just damn funny, offering an early dose of the quick-witted banter that would come to define gay media like Will & Grace and RuPaul’s Drag Race in the decades to come.
Australia wasn’t ahead of its time in welcoming LGBTQ culture with open arms. But the national government actually financed half the film’s budget as part of its organized campaign to break away from the art-house identity that the Australian Film Commission had created for itself in the ’70s and ’80s. Like Strictly Ballroom and Muriel’s Wedding, Priscilla was intended to be commercially viable—and it was. A major factor for its success lies in the universality of the story. Tick is just a man finally accepting his role as a father, and moving past his fears that his son will not approve of his profession; Adam is a young soul using his childlike energy to mask a childhood of pain; and Bernadette is a woman grieving the loss of her partner, struggling to figure out what’s next. (When reviewing Priscilla, Roger Ebert wrote, “The real subject of the movie is not homosexuality, not drag queens, not showbiz, but simply the life of a middle-aged person trapped in a job that has become tiresome.”)
The safe bet would have been to expect Priscilla, despite its critical and financial success, to be relegated to midnight showings and Pride celebration viewings. Instead, the film found a new life as post-Sept. 11 comfort viewing. In a featurette on the Priscilla Blu-ray, writer-director Stephan Elliott remembers how surprised he was when his film was chosen by programmers in more than 55 countries as the type of “feel-good” movie audiences needed at the time. And Priscilla continues to impact viewers decades later: The Bette Midler-produced Broadway production Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert, featuring a lot of songs off the excellent film soundtrack, debuted in 2011. And look no further than the marketing for HBO’s recent (and fantastic) docuseries We’re Here to see how the film has had a lasting influence on drag.
Fun fact: That AmEx dress you may remember from the 1995 Academy Awards was worn by one of Priscilla’s Oscar-winning costume designers, Lizzy Gardiner. She’d wanted Weaving to wear a credit-card dress in the film but couldn’t get anyone to donate the cards and putting one together on their approximately $10,000 costume budget wasn’t practical, so they made one out of flip-flops instead. You read that right, $10,000 budget. Guess that’s the one thing Dolly Parton is wrong about: It doesn’t take a lot of money to look this cheap.