‘Tick’/Mitzi is contacted to perform a drag show in Alice Springs. Feeling disheartened by the boorish behaviour of his audience in Sydney, he decides to go. He contacts transsexual Bernadette about being part of the act and finds her bereaved and looking for some time away from Sydney. Loud and precocious Adam/Felicia makes up the troupe. The three travel into the outback and encounter both bigotry and acceptance along the way. They meet Bob, who decides to accompany them when his Filipino wife leaves him. In Alice Springs, Bernadette and Adam discover that not only is ‘Tick’ married, but that he also has a son, Benji. The film ends with ‘Tick’ accepting both himself and his new role of a father, Bernadette and Bob becoming even closer and Adam realising, through his new friendship with ‘Tick’s’ son, that he can be a positive role model for someone else.
Priscilla is a camp road movie that is often critically situated as part of a ‘Glitter Cycle’ of 1990s Australian films. This ‘cycle’ includes Baz Luhrmann’s 1992 film Strictly Ballroom and P. J. Hogan’s 1994 Muriel’s Wedding. ‘Glitter Cycle’ films celebrate Australian popular culture, are characterised by excess and seek to present a different representation of Australian identity than more conservative cinematic counterparts. In ‘Glitter’ films the outback can be liberating and even transformative for the individuals who are placed within it. Protagonists within these films reject cultural restrictions and offer a more fluid representation of gender and sexuality. These films are far removed from the hyper-masculinised drive that underpins the Mad Max films, for example. Priscilla fits all of the above criteria. It is exuberant, camp and excessive. In terms of Priscilla’s road movie credentials, it has a journey, protagonists on a trip of self-discovery, characters who are met along the way, who reflect an aspect of the main protagonists’ self-questioning and an end destination in which some degree of transformation is possible.
Drag as performance and performative is an important element within Priscilla. The costumes within the film are incredible creations that led to a best Costume Design Oscar in 1994. In the film, a distinction is made between the varying ways the characters use costume. For ‘Tick’/Mitzi and Adam/Felicia, getting dragged up is at once a job, but also a counter-culture challenge to social restrictions. It is these two characters that parade their drag performance through the streets of small town outback Australia in order to challenge the locals and what the two protagonists perceive the local values to be. Bernadette has ‘show’ costumes for her drag performances, but her day-to-day dress is much more conservative. Bernadette doesn’t perform a gender; she lives it. Whether it is the fullscale excess of the drag costumes or the more demure clothes that Bernadette wears, the costumes in Priscilla help the film to fulfil part of its agenda: to reject cultural stereotypes, archetypes and a white, middle-class, over-masculinised male agenda.
In terms of representation of gender in Priscilla, there has been much debate. As a film that explores the nature of identity, both how it is constructed and how fluid it can possibly be, Priscilla locates much of the more complex characterisation with its three male protagonists. Apart from Bob and possibly Marion, the other characters in the film are quite peripheral and function purely to allow the narrative to move forward. Outback white heterosexual males are invariably homophobic: either immediately so or after they realise that these aren’t actually ‘sheilas’. Adam is initially an object of desire at the ‘Roo’ BBQ until desire turns to aggression. The female character of Shirl voices the homophobia latent within her town, when she states, ‘We have nothing here for people like you. Nothing’ and is not silenced by those she is speaking for rejecting what she says as homophobic, but by the witty (and sexist) put down of Bernadette. Bernadette, Mitzi and Adam are then ‘allowed’ to stay in the bar in order to perform for the amused, but no less homophobic, locals. In Shirl the viewer finds a character that seeks acceptance through presenting herself as the mouthpiece of her town’s bigotry. Whether she is supposed to be gay or not is not fully explored. The men in the bar enjoy Bernadette’s verbal attack on Shirl. She cannot even redeem her status in the town by beating Bernadette at a drinking game. Shirl’s characterisation is blunt. She is a stereotype at best and a sexist stereotype at worst.
The other female character who has come under much scrutiny is Cynthia, Bob’s Filipino wife. In flashback scenes we see that she has manipulated him into marriage in order to escape a squalid life of stripping (and possibly prostitution). Cynthia is a performer, but hers is presented as the much less valid type. When Cynthia is able to liberate her ping-pong balls from a locked cupboard, she goes straight to the local bar to upstage Bernadette, Mitzi and Felicia with a sex show. When Cynthia exits the narrative, it clears the way for Bernadette and Bob. Her role as hyper-sexualised woman is representative of what Bob does not want and presents him as a victim of female manipulation. Critics of the representation of women in Priscilla have labelled Cynthia as not only a sexist stereotype, but also a racist stereotype.
In the brightly coloured world of Priscilla, Marion occupies the position of the ‘good woman’. She has brought up Benji (her son with ‘Tick’) to reject gender- and sexuality-based parameters. She is fluid in her own sexual behaviour. Benji states that his mother had a girlfriend but also implies that she might at some point have a boyfriend too. Marion is confident and has a strong voice that rejects Tick’s concerns and helps him to become a father. Marion is the instigator of the film’s road trip narrative and also the voice of wisdom often found at the end of a journey. Marion is more thoroughly drawn than any of the other female characters, but her legitimacy in the narrative does seem dependent on her voicing of counter-culture views on sexual identity. If she didn’t so completely share the film’s rejection of cultural stereotypes and its lauding of gender flexibility, would she, too, have been relegated to the position of stereotype?
Marion gives agency to the male protagonists by providing them with a modern day quest. Initially, the quest is ‘Tick’/Mitzi’s, a journey towards meeting his son and becoming a father. However, as with the road movie format, any other protagonists who join the journey then embark on their own transformative journey. Figuratively and literally, Alice Springs is in the middle of nowhere and thus provides an appropriate destination in which to make a self-discovery. The three main characters’ journey is from urban to outback. They encounter intolerance and tolerance on the way, and come to a greater understanding of their own roles within both their friendships and own lives. The narrative is punctuated by scenes of performance, sometimes accompanied by music and sometimes not. These performances in the desert are not just for decoration. They are visually striking, pitching the expansiveness, monotony and natural beauty of the desert against the sparkles, spangles and artificiality of the costumes. However, it is the fact that the visual differences are so stark and the attendant implication that, therefore, this environment will be most transformative for the central protagonists that creates the depth within these scenes. As with most fictional journeys, however, the journey only really ends when the newly ‘transformed’ character goes back to where they started, with a new understanding of themselves, their situation and the value of the home they left in the first place. As the character of Bob states, he spent ‘30 years wandering around the world, only to find that I was better off where I started’.
En route to Alice Springs, ‘Tick’, Adam and Bernadette encounter Aboriginal culture. As is the structure of a road movie, scenes that occur along the way are individual vignettes that have their own thematic purpose and do not need to be linked to each other. After the three main characters have been stranded in the outback, a young Aboriginal man who takes them to his camp and involves them in a party helps them. The ‘encounter’ is brief, but its significance comes from the contrast between the acceptance they find with the Aborigines and the bigotry that they have encountered from mainstream white Australia so far on their journey. Priscilla seems to be presenting equivalence between two marginalised groups and an almost wordless understanding of the similarities between their experiences of dominant cultures. This ideological connection is relatively unexplored, however, and has received criticism over its reductive nature.
This is a film in which both individual and national identities are explored. Australia in the 1980s came alive in terms of gay culture. Sydney, especially, flourished as a gay centre and clubs sprung up all over the city. The director, Stephan Elliott states in the DVD extras to the film that the Australian drag scene is different from that of the USA or Britain, because it is more theatrical. Priscilla presents an Australia that in the mid-1990s still has a burgeoning gay culture, especially in Sydney, but is home to some extremely reactionary attitudes outside the city. The fact that Australian drag culture might lean towards the more theatrical and excessive allows for even more contrasts to be made with small town attitudes in outback Australia. These attitudes are perhaps most brutally expressed in the graffiti that is daubed on the bus, Priscilla. The three protagonists exit their hotel to find ‘Aids fuckers go home’ painted down the bus’s side.
Priscilla’s casting is an essential element within its overall success. For Guy Pearce the film constituted his breakout film after years acting in the Australian soap Neighbours. Pearce’s Felicia is uber-camp and the film’s character most likely to indulge in excess. Felicia is a far cry from the dull and reliable Mike in Neighbours. Pearce effectively shattered his association with Mike through the high camp of his performance as Felicia. Hugo Weaving had worked with Stephan Elliott before and was a trusted collaborator for the director. His portrayal of Tick/Mitzi effectively presents a character who is about to encounter a new identity. Terence Stamp’s portrayal of Bernadette is a subtle and dignified portrait of a ‘woman’ recuperating her sense of optimism.
In terms of the visual spectacle of Priscilla, the impact is never greater than when the three drag queens perform in the desert. The scale and grandeur of the setting, evoking not only road movies of the past, but also more epic Westerns, is a fitting stage for the visual excesses of the drag costumes the characters wear. When, at the end of the film, Mitzi and Bernadette help Felicia to fulfil ‘her’ lifelong ambition of climbing to the top of King’s Canyon in full drag, the full impact of placing drag queens in the outback is realised. As an iconic counter-culture moment, this scene is very powerful. The moment has an Abba soundtrack and, to use Bernadette’s initial ‘reading’ of Adam’s dream, presents ‘a cock, on a rock, in a frock’. It is camp spectacle, but it is also an exuberant finale to a journey right to the heart of 1990s Australian culture and an investigation of the conflicting values that can be found within it.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: Australia. Production Company: Polygram. Director and screenwriter: Stephan Elliott. Cinematographer: Brian J. Breheny. Music: Guy Cross. Editor: Sue Blainey. Costume designer: Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner. Cast: Hugo Weaving (Anthony ‘Tick’ Belrose/Mitzi Del Bra), Guy Pearce (Adam Whitely/Felicia Jollygoodfellow), Terence Stamp (Ralph Waite/Bernadette Bassenger), Bill Hunter (Robert ‘Bob’ Spart), Sarah Chadwick (Marion).]
Jack Babuscio, ‘Camp and the Gay Sensibility’, in Harry Benshoff and Sean Griffin (eds), Queer Cinema: the Film Reader, London and New York, Routledge, 2004, pp. 121–36.
Philip Brophy, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert [Australian Screen Classics], Strawberry Hills, Currency Press, 2008.
Ian Craven (ed.), Australian Cinema in the 1990s, London & New York, Routledge, 2000.
Kelly Farrell, ‘(Foot)Ball Gowns: Masculinities, Sexualities and the Politics of Performance’, Journal of Australian Studies, 23 (63), 1999, pp. 157–64.
Emily Rustin, ‘Romance and Sensation in the “Glitter Cycle”, in Ian Craven (ed.) Australian Cinema in the 1990s, New York, Frank Cass Publishers, 2001, pp. 131–48.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.