The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
It's an unusual premise for a movie – two drag queens and a transsexual embark on a road journey across Australia in a second-hand bus (Priscilla of the title). They're driving halfway across the country, from Sydney to Alice Springs, to star in a cabaret show, but each has/her own reasons for doing it. Mitzi (Hugo Weaving) has family matters he has to confront, Bernadette (Terence Stamp) is grieving the death of her partner, and Felicia (Guy Pearce) has always wanted to 'travel to the center of Australia, climb Kings Canyon, as a queen, in a full-length Gaultier sequin, heels and a tiara.'
Take it with a pinch of salt (Felicia's endless preening gets a little old), and Priscilla will reward you with a spectacular – and very colorful – tour of the Australian desert. Though the characters leave from Sydney, we don't see the city – the star of the movie is the vast expanse of dust and sand that makes up so much of the country. At about four hours into their drive, the trio stop the bus and stare out at the endless road ahead of them. Perhaps they should have flown.
Inevitably, as the miles pass and the tale unravels, there is a lot of self-discovery. The desert is hostile in more ways than one. The bus breaks down. The locals don't know what to make of the drag queens, and occasionally things get a little ugly. From bar-room brawls to camp-fire performances with sympathetic Aboriginals, however, they run the gamut of Australian culture – and scenery.
This is a film that, like the drag queens themselves, pays a great deal of attention to detail. The desert may be endless but it takes many forms, from canyons, to fields of small domes, to barren trees rising from ghostly lakes. The three queens play their parts against this backdrop, performing in unfeasibly colorful and audacious costumes. The scene when Felicia performs astride a giant silver stilleto (itself on top of the moving bus), decked out in silver with a vast streaming train behind her, is a cinematic classic. Frivolous, but visually stunning.
Reading the production notes on Priscilla gives a great insight into the filmmakers' experience. The movie was shot over seven weeks, on location in Sydney, and the smaller towns of Broken Hill, Coober Pedy and Alice Springs, as well as at Kings Canyon. The cast and crew traveled three thousand kilometers, making the same journey that the fictional characters do. Apparently the dust, heat and bumpy roads took quite a toll on the camera equipment, the costumes (many fell apart en route) and the makeup (heat and lipstick, not a good combination). And the journey from Cooper Pedy to Alice Springs was particularly harsh.
Said producer Michael Hamlyn, 'We had the annual rain fall of Coober Pedy in a week, and three years worth of rain in one day at Kings Canyon, making conditions treacherous.' This meant impassible roads, a bogged-in bus, and seriously disrupted shooting schedules. However, said director of photography Brian Breheny, 'Everyone was up – the music was pumping, costumes outrageous and situation bizarre.'
According to director Stephan Elliott, 'Some of the more macho members of the crew came to the movie thinking it was going to be quite hysterical. By the end they got into it and every one of those boys quite happily put on a dress for the crew photo.'
The characters do eventually make it to Kings Canyon, and Felicia gets her moment – though it's not in full-length Gaultier. And as the camera pans across the canyon, focusing on the trio in full drag, you're treated to the incredible natural beauty of the Australian desert and the glitter of three showgirls ending the journey of a lifetime. Priscilla may not be everyone's cup of tea, but it's a visual treat, and offers a rare chance to travel through the Australian outback. Let's face it, not a journey many of us will take in this lifetime.