The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: Where are you blokes from?
After a drunken night at a pub in Broken Hill, the three drag artists – Mitzi (Hugo Weaving), Felicia (Guy Pearce) and Bernadette (Terence Stamp) – awake to find their bus defaced with an anti-gay slogan. They leave the city depressed and upset, but Felicia cheers the day by practicing her operatic miming on the roof of Priscilla, their bus. Summary by Paul Byrnes.
The night in the pub just before this scene shows the three drag artists finding acceptance in the hard-drinking world of a Broken Hill pub – but the shock of their defaced bus shatters any illusions they may have been developing. Outside their home community in Sydney, there is no truly safe place for these three friends. The script constantly reinforces the sense of their isolation and vulnerability. Their response to adversity is to frock up and become ‘even more fabulous’ – even if no one can see them on top of the bus in the middle of the desert. The film celebrates many different forms of courage.
‘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 two drag artists, Anthony 'Tick’ Belrose/Mitzi (Hugo Weaving) and Adam/Felicia (Guy Pearce), and a transsexual, Ralph/Bernadette (Terence Stamp), emerging from their hotel in Broken Hill, New South Wales, to find their bus, Priscilla, has been vandalised with antigay graffiti. Anthony speaks about the ongoing pain of victimisation, but Felicia brightens the mood by miming an operatic aria on the roof on the bus in full drag. The three discuss the tensions between them.
Educational value points
- The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert introduces three characters, two drag artists and a transsexual, who are depicted in the film as vulnerable and complex people rather than stereotypes. This scene reveals their human responses to the situations in which they find themselves, both in their reaction to the graffiti and as they respond to each others’ expressions of anger and grief.
- The scene in which the three drag artists are confronted by the homophobic graffiti painted on their bus captures the deep personal hurt that such hate crimes create. The outbreak of the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) ‘epidemic’ in Australia in the 1980s created great public anxiety that initially manifested as discrimination against the homosexual community.
- The scenes in the bus illustrate aspects of the road movie genre. Road movies involve characters undertaking a road trip in a vehicle, during which they usually make an emotional journey that parallels the physical one, encountering other characters and events along the way that often serve to facilitate personal growth. In these scenes, for example, Anthony reveals his vulnerability.
- Guy Pearce’s glittering performance as Felicia atop the bus, set against the backdrop of the vast outback, creates an iconic scene. Not only is the scene visually delightful and humorous, but the effect of juxtaposing the rich colours of the immense, empty landscape with the glamour of the drag artist provides dramatic relief after the central characters’ recent encounter with homophobic attitudes in the town.
- The aria being mimed by Felicia against the emptiness of the Australian outback is, ironically, from Verdi’s La Traviata. Verdi’s Violetta was a courtesan, loved for her body and her passion for life; however she was destined to die alone, outside the safety of mainstream society at the time. This may reflect the fears of the film’s marginalised central characters.
- The exuberant performance by Pearce 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.
- The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is one of the most popular and referenced Australian films. A huge stiletto shoe emerging from a bus was used as a feature in the closing ceremony of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, as a tribute to the film’s success and as a symbol of the broad cultural acceptance of its theme. The film’s popularity has resulted in a stage musical, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, which opened in 2006.
- 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 Felicia’s glittering silver outfit in this clip, are frequently seen as stars of the film along with the actors.
- This clip showcases the talents of the three actors, with an understated Terence Stamp, an exaggerated camp portrayal by Guy Pearce and a reflective performance by Hugo Weaving. Stamp (1939–) is a major British film actor and has appeared in over 70 productions. Australians Pearce (1967–) and 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 27 minutes into the feature.
Mitzi, Felicia and Bernadette walk out of their hotel and see their bus defaced with “AIDSFUCKERS GO HOME”.
Felicia enters the general store.
Shopkeeper Good morning.
We see Mitzi and Bernadette sitting in the bus.
Mitzi It’s funny, you know. No matter how tough I think I’m getting, it still hurts.
We see Felicia buying an indistinctly boxed item in the general store.
Shopkeeper I hope it still works. Don’t have much call for it out here. Where are you blokes from?
Shopkeeper Oh, good.
We hear on the soundtrack, 'Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly. I got to love one man till I die…’ (from song 'Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man’ by Trudy Richards) as Mitzi drives the bus down a desert highway.
Mitzi There. Left.
Bernadette I hope you know what you’re doing.
Mitzi If we stick to the sealed road, we’ll be at it for at least another two days.
Bernadette Take the shortcut.
We see Felicia atop the bus, dressed in a glittering silver outfit, miming to a Verdi aria.
Bernadette One more push, I’m gonna smack his face so hard he’ll have to stick his toothbrush up his arse to clean his teeth.
We see Felicia back in the bus, laughing hysterically.
Mitzi Just lay off. I told you not to use the 'R’ word. What did you go and do?
Felicia I was only having a bit of fun.
Mitzi Fun? What else do you do for amusement? Slam your fingers in car doors? What’s the point?
Felicia I like seeing people get hot-headed, OK? It gives me a kick.
Mitzi Is it true when you were born, the doctor turned around and slapped your mother? What sort of bent childhood did you have, Adam Whiteley?