In my review of The Big Lebowski, I mentioned how the term “cult film” is thrown around very loosely. Very few films that are dubbed “cult films” actually are. Cult films are oddities, and are so unique and far-removed from the mainstream canon, they can never truly be considered crowd-pleasers, and therefore a big slice of audiences will want to stay away from some of them. Take The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert for example – three drag queens travelling across the Outback in a big pink bus may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it actually turns out to be one of the most wonderful, most sincere films ever made, and quite possibly the crowning achievement of Australian cinema (sorry, Mad Max).
Looking back on when the film was made, you have your three leads who are pretty much the last three actors you’d expect to play a trio of drag queens. You have Terence Stamp, one of the finest actors of his generation, who grew so jaded with being typecast as maniacal villains, he almost quit acting altogether before stumbling upon the script of this film, where he would be required to play Bernadette, a transexual former showgirl who is now fading from her glory days and dealing with the death of her boyfriend. Of course it was a complete change of pace for the quite sinister Stamp, and it was a risky choice that paid off incredibly well – it remains the greatest performance of his career.
Tagging along with Stamp is Hugo Weaving, playing Tick, the main character in the film. He has made his career as a drag performer in Sydney, but is slowly becoming jaded and despondent, and when his wife, who manages a casino across the country, phones him to ask him to perform at the casino, he jumps at the opportunity and brings along old friend Bernadette and brand new nuisance Adam, played wonderfully by the now very dour and serious Guy Pearce. All three actors have gone on to play characters in some of the biggest blockbusters of all time, but their finest performances lie in this very sweet independent comedy.
This film is very special because it has heart, and although it does have the occasional message about acceptance, it never dares to become preachy or overly dramatic. These characters are not suffering, hopeless people, but just a trio of odd, idiosyncratic personalities having fun as they make the journey across the country in their big pink bus. Another way this film succeeds is the surrealism of it – in very few movies can you see three men dress up in colorful ballgowns and climb up a mountain in the middle of the Outback. I think this may be the only one where that happened to be honest. The incredibly strange but wonderful costumes that the characters wear throughout the film add so much life to the story and really elevates it more than it already was.
This film is special to me because it is one of the few films that are undoubtedly rewatchable. I have seen it a few times over the last few years, and even though you know where the jokes and sight gags and story will eventually end up, it is strangely never predictabe. On every viewing you find something new you never noticed before, you laugh at a joke you didn’t understand the first time around and you grow such affection for these three characters, and even though they are bitterly nasty to each other, of course in the funniest and most endearing way possible, they feel like family, and someone you really would like to spend some time with. They go on a physical journey across Australia, but they also go on a spiritual journey of trying to find their idenities, come to terms with new losses and discoveries and try and gain a new perspective on their lives. We go on that journey with them, seeing these characters and their raw emotions and feelings expressed in their faces as they glare out to the vast open lands of the Outback.
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is a seriously underrated film. Frequently hilarious, touching and one of the most enjoyable films you’ll ever watch. You’ll never feel the same about “I Will Survive” after seeing this. Just warning you