The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: I will survive
Priscilla, the bus, has broken down in the desert. An Aboriginal man (Alan Dargin) invites the three drag artists to his nearby camp, where they put on an impromptu show. Everyone joins in, including a didgeridoo player. Summary by Paul Byrnes.
There’s an obvious attempt at suggesting a ‘solidarity of the oppressed’ in this scene, but perhaps something else is at work too. The definition of ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ is constantly under review in the film, and this scene is a kind of subversion of that idea. The Aborigines, as ‘naturals’, might be expected to reject the ‘unnaturals’, but it doesn’t go that way. The terms become meaningless: everyone likes to dance and sing. The desert also has an impact on the drag act – by the time they get to Alice Springs, the show incorporates costumes representing various desert animals, such as the frill-necked lizard.
‘Tick’ Belrose, aka Mitzi Del Bra (Hugo Weaving), a Sydney drag artist, accepts an invitation from his ex-wife (Sarah Chadwick) to bring his stage show to the outback. Tick recruits two friends – a brash young drag queen called Felicia (Guy Pearce) and an aging transsexual called Bernadette (Terence Stamp). They set off for Alice Springs in a second-hand bus they dub ‘Priscilla, Queen of the Desert’. They turn heads in Broken Hill and get in a fight at Coober Pedy; they are rescued from break down in the desert by an open-minded mechanic (Bill Hunter). In Alice Springs, Tick meets the young son he barely knows (Mark Holmes). The three performers climb Kings Canyon in full drag, before making their stunning debut at the Alice Springs casino.
Priscilla curator's notes
Australian cinema in the 1990s was somewhat obsessed with attempts to broaden depictions of Australian society, to redefine ‘who we are’. The masculine stereotypes of the 1970s and 80s were a particular target in films such as Strictly Ballroom (1992), Muriel’s Wedding, The Sum of Us and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. These last three all came out in 1994, and although Muriel’s Wedding has no gay characters per se, it fitted into the new camp aesthetic that Strictly Ballroom had begun to explore.
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert went further than any of these in attacking the Crocodile Dundee mythology of the essentially harmless heterosexual outback male. These same types of men, usually depicted in bars in Priscilla, can be suspicious, violent, vulgar and extremely intolerant, especially when confronted with alternative definitions of masculinity.
The film’s cultural masterstroke was to impose an extreme aesthetic of artificiality (the drag queens) on a natural desert landscape of equal extremity. The surprise discovery for audiences was how well they matched. The film is intended as a rebirth of the musical, a road movie comedy, but its most unforgettable scenes work off the incongruity of seeing excessive costumes, on incongruous characters, in vast, humbling spaces. That’s why the film’s real climax is the climb up Kings Canyon in full drag, rather than the debut act at the casino. That’s also why the most welcoming response they get on tour is from a group of Aborigines, having a party around a campfire.
The film insists upon the naturalness of its characters, despite their ‘unnatural’ appearance, even more than the obvious idea that this is a union of two groups with a common oppressor. The demand for tolerance wasn’t uniformly applied though: the film was controversial for the way it depicted an Asian woman. Bill Hunter’s character may be the generous and open-minded face of the ocker male, but his mail-order wife, a Filipino prostitute given to drunken lewdness for the blokes in the bar, was denounced as a hideous stereotype, with good reason. She was never really a character to begin with – simply a way of suggesting the craziness of the men she entertains, who’d rather look at a heterosexual humiliation, than a homosexual exaggeration. Given the film’s fantastic sense of fun throughout, defining one character by racial stereotype was a blight on an otherwise broad sense of humanity. The film was a phenomenal success around the world, and particularly in Australia. The costume design, by Lizzy Gardiner and Tim Chappel, won an Oscar.
Notes by Paul Byrnes
This clip shows an Aboriginal man (Alan Dargin) inviting two drag artists – Anthony 'Tick’ Belrose/Mitzi (Hugo Weaving) and Adam/Felicia (Guy Pearce) – and a transsexual, Ralph/Bernadette (Terence Stamp), to join a party of Indigenous people around a campfire in the desert. The performers put on stage costumes to sing and dance, and the audience, after initial reservations, responds enthusiastically. The performers rope Dargin’s character into their version of 'I will survive’, and are also joined by a didgeridoo player.
Educational value points
- The humour and joy of this clip are achieved through the contrast between the initial meeting with the Aboriginal people, when Anthony, Adam and Ralph are dressed in ordinary clothes, and their later transformation into drag artists. Their dramatic, stylised performance in outlandish costumes at first stuns and bemuses the audience, before they join in with a spontaneous expression of the mutual love of dance and music shared by both cultures.
- The campfire performances illustrate how music underscores the film’s themes. The bright disco pop, from the decade when HIV–AIDS became an escalating tragedy, belongs to the drag artists, while the Indigenous people are portrayed playing both Indigenous and Western acoustic instruments: guitar, didgeridoo and clap sticks. The two groups, both of whom have experienced marginalisation, collaborate in a joyful, poignant anthem to survival.
- The exuberant performance suggests why The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert contributed to the revival of Australian film in the 1990s, sharing many of the features of other international hits of the period such as Strictly Ballroom (1992) and Muriel’s Wedding (1994). These films use humour, saturated colour, larger-than-life characters and lively music, often from the 1980s, to convey a sense of energy and optimism.
- Costume designers Lizzy Gardner and Tim Chappell won an Academy Award for Best Costume Design in 1995 for their outrageous and vibrant designs, which reflect the film’s sense of fun. The costumes, including the drag artists’ outfits shown in this clip, are frequently seen as stars of the film, along with the actors.
- This clip showcases the talents of three actors. Terence Stamp (1939–) is a major British film actor and has appeared in over 70 productions. Australians Guy Pearce (1967–) and Hugo Weaving (1960–) have both succeeded in Hollywood roles – Weaving in the Matrix films and Pearce in LA Confidential (1997) and Memento (2000).
- Writer and director Stephan Elliot (1963–) also directed Welcome to Woop Woop (1997). The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert was nominated for nine and won two Australian Film Institute Awards in 1994 and was nominated for seven and won two British Academy of Film and Television Arts Awards in 1995.
Education notes provided by The Learning Federation and Education Services Australia
This clip starts approximately 41 minutes into the feature.
We see Bernadette, Felicia and Mitzi nervously joining some Indigenous people at an outdoor party in the desert after their bus has broken down.
Person 1 Welcome to my office. Have a seat.
Felicia Bernice, I don’t know what could have possibly possessed you to wear that to a corroboree.
Bernadette Shut your face.
Mitzi waves and smiles at an Aboriginal man. They listen to the music being played and then clap in appreciation.
Mitzi Well girls, I guess it’s our turn.
We see Bernadette, Felicia and Mitzi have all changed outfits for their own performance, miming to ‘I Will Survive’ by Gloria Gaynor.
At first I was afraid
I was petrified
Kept thinking I could never live without you by my side
But then I spent so many nights thinking how you did me wrong
And I grew strong
And I learned how to get along
And so you’re back
From outer space
I just walked in to find you here with that sad look upon your face
I should have changed that stupid lock
I should have made you leave your key
If I’d have known for just one second you’d be back to bother me
Go on, now go
Walk out the door
Members of the audience are now clapping along and dancing to the music.
Just turn around now
'Cause you’re not welcome any more
Weren’t you the one who tried to hurt me with goodbye?
You think I’d crumble?
You think I’d lay down and die?
Oh no, not I
I will survive
Oh, as long as I know how to love
I know I’ll stay alive
I’ve got all my life to live
And I’ve got all my love to give
And I’ll survive
I will survive
One of the Aboriginal men begins playing the didgeridoo in time to the song.
Mitzi Hey, take a look at that.
Mitzi I’ve got an idea!
It took all the strength I had not to fall apart
Kept trying hard to mend the pieces of my broken heart
An Aboriginal man, now dressed in drag, joins their performance.
And I spent oh so many nights just feeling sorry for myself
I used to cry
But now I hold my head up high
And you see me
The Indigenous onlookers at the party are all joining in now, dancing, singing along and playing instruments.
I’m not that chained-up little person still in love with you
And so you felt like dropping in
And just expect me to be free
Now I’m saving all my loving
For someone who’s loving me
Go on, now go
Walk out the door
Just turn around now
'Cause you’re not welcome any more…
We see the whole camp dancing around the fire and the sun rising behind them.