THE ADVENTURES OF PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT (1994) has garnered a reputation for its campy humor and irresistible musical numbers. Situated as an achievement within queer cinema for bringing drag culture to the popular moviegoer, the film has been consistently revived as a musical adaptation since 2006. PRISCILLA’s ostentatious appeal was even awarded an Academy Award for best costume design in 1995, a title that comes as no surprise given the intricate and wild cabaret costumes, which range from flip-flops to lizards. Apart from the immediate allure, however, the film’s narrative functions as subtly political intrigue. Positioned within a unique era of Australian cinema, in which conventional notions of masculinity are tested, PRISCILLA incorporates aspects and furthers previous traditions of subversive filmmaking. The film itself is explicit in its critique, often to the dismay of women and minorities. Even in the face of such insecurities, however, PRISCILLA entertains.
Directed by Stephan Elliot, PRISCILLA follows the road-trip story of two drag queens and a transsexual woman who travel from Sydney to a remote hotel and resort in the northern territories. Their method of transport, from which the title derives, is a lavender bus christened ‘Priscilla’. Tick (Hugo Weaving) initiates the trip following his acceptance of a new gig, but he reveals his more personal intentions when he discloses the identity of the venue’s manager; Tick decides to travel to visit his estranged wife (and son), a secret not only to the viewer but to his closest friends, Bernadette and Adam. Bernadette (Terence Stamp), a recently widowed transsexual woman, hesitantly joins the group as a means of emotional distraction. The third member of the group (and the most prodding), Adam (Guy Pearce) follows along so that he can hike to the top of King’s canyon in his drag attire, thereby conquering a site normally closed to such marginalized communities.
Adam’s goal to conquer the Australian landscape is but a symbolic assertion of his assault on conventional conceptions of masculinity. In making this an underlying task within the film, PRISCILLA marks a period of Australian film in which changing ideologies surrounding masculinity materialize in the space of the big screen. Like STRICTLY BALLROOM (1992) and MURIEL’S WEDDING (1994), PRISCILLA employs the role of a protagonist who actively pursues methods by which to deviate from the exclusionary norm. These instances of subversion are more explicit in the often-unwelcoming Australian landscape, where Tick, Adam, and Bernadette are met with rampant homo- and transphobia. They must consistently assert themselves or risk getting hurt. In one instance, their bus is vandalized with profanity that perpetuates the homophobic discrimination of the AIDS crisis. More frequent examples are shown in small-town bars, where the three are met with critical gazes and, in light of Adam’s bad judgment, a gang of violent homophobic men.
If PRISCILLA functions as a method of subversion that alters representations of masculinity through its direct parody, it follows a tradition of the Australian new wave two decades prior. The raucousness of PRISCILLA’s performers draws a direct connection to “ocker” comedies of the early 1970s such as STORK (1971), THE ADVENTURES OF BARRY MCKENZIE (1972), and ALVIN PURPLE (1973). These films, themselves a direct result of the formation of the Australian Film Development Corporation (A.F.D.C.), depict vulgar and uncouth males (ockers) as means of crass subversion. They are a reflection of larger Australian sentiment that sought cultural independence from British and American influence. While ocker comedies failed to provide critical leverage in the international scene, the fortunate realignment of A.F.D.C. funding garnered successful films like PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK (1975), THE CHANT OF JIMMIE BLACKSMITH (1978), and BREAKER MORANT (1980) the necessary international attention.
As is shown in the crude comedy of PRISCILLA, the influence of the ocker comedies was not lost at their critical reception. For example, PRISCILLA’s most surprising moment comes when Adam shows off an “ABBA turd”, a relic of his from the famed Swedish pop group. This is not dissimilar from a scene within BARRY MCKENZIE, in which the protagonist vomits upon the head of his psychiatrist. While PRISCILLA’s unusual humor and flamboyancy alters filmic masculinities, its agenda comes at the cost of misogynistic and racist cues.
In highlighting the anxieties of the queer male, the film denigrates its female characters—especially Ol’ Shirl and Cynthia. In the first bar of Priscilla’s adventure, Ol’ Shirl, a frequenter of the bar, accosts the group, voicing the sentiment of the men around her. Her rough image and slurred speech insinuates her socioeconomic abjection. Bernadette’s comedic yet hostile retort at Ol’ Shirl humiliates the woman, rendering her a product of the bar’s masculine ridicule. Likewise, Bob (Bill Hunter), a small-town mechanic, is at first represented with his nagging wife, Cynthia, a Filipina woman restricted from performing her own trick. Bob’s censorship, as well as his admired affair with Bernadette, situates the viewer in opposition to his Cynthia. Although PRISCILLA accommodates a queer relationship, it consequently deprives itself of an interethnic one—a limitation that favors one marginalized community over another.
In any case, the adventures on which the ladies embark shed light on a utopian landscape, albeit a dry and arid one. As Adam lip syncs ‘Sempre Libera’ from Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata atop a massive silver stiletto affixed to the top of the moving bus, his song of freedom echoes throughout the film’s own themes. Through the road trip, each member of the crew achieves his or her own personal goal, and all without the restraints of a heteronormative society—marriage, family, and monogamy. A final shot of the vast Australian outback dotted by cabaret feathers is fitting. Their vision of queer possibility goes on forever.