All hail Queen Priscilla!

Celebrating The Adventures of Priscilla
 Miguel Gonzalez

Who would have thought, back in 1994, that an independent Australian film about three LGBTQ performers on a road trip from Sydney to Alice Springs would go on to become an essential part of the nation’s popular culture? Or that its characters’ journey of self-expression and longing for respect and acceptance would sadly still be a relevant issue 20 years later, instead of just a reminder of less enlightened times?

It could be its defiance of our nation’s cultural cringe – embracing and celebrating, deconstructing and amplifying elements of Australian culture – or perhaps its representation of subcultures in a way that made them non-threatening to mainstream audiences? There are so many things to love about The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert!

That’s why on 28 February 2014, the NFSA celebrated the 20th anniversary of Priscilla with a sold out six-hour extravaganza including a Q&A with Academy Award-winning costume designer Tim Chappel, a free exhibition of original costumes, posters and documents from the film, a session of 'Gender Bender Bingo' (with Penny Tration and Minnie Cooper), and an outdoor screening of Priscilla.

The exhibition gave the audience an opportunity to see some of the costumes up close (including the surviving elements of the emu dresses, and a couple of feather headdresses), a selection of posters including the stunning and minimalistic Polish version, and never-before-seen documents related to the film’s financing and production.

Terence Stamp still from Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert in 1994

Don’t let it drag you down. Let it toughen you up. I can only fight because I’ve learnt to. Being a man one day and a woman the next isn’t an easy thing to do.

Bernadette Bassenger (Terence Stamp). Photograph by Elise Lockwood

At 5:30 pm, NFSA Senior Curator Meg Labrum began a candid one-hour conversation with Tim at Arc cinema. He told the audience that Priscilla was his first film, and how director Stephan Elliott invited him because he’d seen his work for Sydney drag shows. Tim and his colleague Lizzy Gardiner won the Oscar (and many other international awards) in 1995.

He revealed many behind-the-scenes stories. For example, that the iconic thong dress was conceived following a failed experiment: a frock made of toast with vegemite (‘It didn’t work but the flies loved it’). Another costume, the wattle dress, even used prisoner labour to produce more than 100 pompons, which took about 80 minutes each to make.

Tim said that the cast and crew basically took the same journey as the characters, as the film was shot entirely on location. His main challenge was to keep the actors looking fabulous, despite the low budget costumes that weren’t built to endure the extreme conditions of the Australian outback. That’s why, he said, the costumes still smell ‘like hard work and glamour’.

The designer added that Priscilla made the concept of alternative families (with Hugo Weaving’s character being afraid to meet his biological son, only to be accepted and embraced by him) ‘palatable’ to mainstream audiences.

Following the Q&A, the audience relocated to the NFSA courtyard for the outdoor component of the night, starting with Gender Bender Bingo.

Penny Tration and Minnie Cooper started out with a Priscilla version of their successful show, but things took an unexpected turn when the audience showed an interest in the people underneath the wigs and the glitter. Penny and Minnie were touched by the opportunity to talk about themselves, not just as performers, but as individuals.

Their final words referred to a scene in the film when, after a fun night in a pub, the characters think they’ve been accepted by the local community, only to find their bus defaced with homophobic insults. Penny and Minnie explained that they must deal with similar experiences on a regular basis, and how hurtful that can be, encouraging the audience to really think about the impact words can have on people.

Penny and Minnie then performed a live interpretation of the film’s opening scene (Mitzy del Bra lip-synching to Charlene’s ‘I’ve Never Been to Me’) as the first images flickered on the screen.

We want to thank the film’s Executive Producer, Rebel Penfold-Russell for her ongoing support and her presence on the night, as well as Tim Chappel and Penny and Minnie for their stellar participation in our Priscilla party.

You can watch highlights from Tim Chappel's talk and rare collection items in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert online collection.

Main image: (L-R) Priscilla Executive Producer Rebel Penfold-Russell, Minnie Cooper, Costume Designer Tim Chappel, NFSA CEO Michael Loebenstein, and Penny Tration.