Costume as landscape
Priscilla: Queen of the Desert (1994) starring Hugo Weaving, Guy Pearce, and Terence Stamp is an Australian road film about two drag queens and a transsexual travelling to Alice Springs for a drag show. Directed and written by Stephan Elliott, the film centres around the drag group’s journey in Priscilla, their camper bus, from Sydney across the Australian outback to Alice Springs. During their journey, the bus breaks down in the middle of the outback, with dominating landscape shots to show the group’s isolation. However, a small town mechanic, Bob, helps the group, taking a particular liking to Bernadette (Terence Stamp). Meanwhile, Bernadette and Adam/Felicia (Guy Pearce) find out the drag show is organized by Tick/Mitzi’s (Hugo Weaving) wife, whom they did not know existed. After facing the hardships of prejudice in small towns, they make it to Alice Springs to find that Mitzi also has a small boy, who he has not seen in many years, and who Mitzi is worried will react poorly to his drag lifestyle. After their shows, the group reaches their cohesive climax by completing the goal of climbing King’s Canyon in full drag, with Mitzi’s son and wife, Marion. Finally, when the group is ready to return to Sydney, Bernadette decides to stay in Alice Springs with Bob, while Mitzi and Felicia return to Sydney with Mitzi’s son, who accepts and appreciates his father’s drag life fully.
This quirky Australian comedy road drama does not fit one genre completely, but it’s unique, edgy comedy makes fun of the “everydayness” in life while still addressing serious issues such as the social acceptance of drag, homosexuals, and transsexuals. Despite representing uniquely Australian themes such as focusing on landscape, strong mateship, and being anti-Hollywood, the themes translated abroad because the over arching story is about “the life of a middle-aged person trapped in a job that has become tiresome,” (Roger Ebert). Although not overtly fighting Americanisation, the film helped prove that a movie can have both uniquely Australian themes while still appealing to the larger North American audience. A massive hit in the local box office, grossing $18,459,245 in Australia, the film still became a cult classic in countries like the United States (“Box Office” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Priscilla,_Queen_of_the_Dessert). I believe this is due mainly to the easily relatable stories through the film as Ebert exemplified, as well as it’s relatively independent, alternative feel to American Hollywood movies. This independence of Hollywood is critical to attracting American distribution companies, as Professor Dolgopolov explained in class. Additionally, Reid, in the article, “More Long Shots: Outside Hollywood”, describes how “the apportioning of creative control is one of defining qualities of the way films are made in Australia.” In Priscilla, Stephan Elliott was able to directly construct the image of the movie in his mind because he both wrote and directed the film, and I believe this independence of big production companies of the U.S. helped make the film more authentic in the audience’s mind.
Landscape also dominates the movie, adding an Australian stylistic quality to the film. As a post-Mabo movie, the dominance of landscape does not strictly represent the same themes as in the traditional sense. Rather, it is a re-imagined landscape that is no longer threatening, shown by when Bernadette strides off into the bush only to find a car driving by who can help the group whose bus has broken down. When this source of saviour falls through, an aboriginal group comes to their aid, and also embraces their drag show. The outback is a source of new friendship rather than loneliness. In my mind this scene represented an overarching theme of the Australian bush’s acceptance of drag and homosexuality. This idea is perhaps at its height when the group hikes King’s Canyon, an Australian icon, symbolically letting city folk, two drag queens and a transsexual, conquer the Australian outback, a setting normally reserved only the most moral, manly, purely Australian men. In fact, this movie allows these three unorthodox characters to provide an alternative to the normally male dominated Australian myths like mateship (which is given a whole new meaning through homosexuality), the bush, and tough city blokes. Symbolically, the landscape allows the film to comment how if these three characters can conquer the Australian landscape, which is synonymous with Australian culture and being in many ways, than perhaps homosexuality and drag should be acceptable in the Australian culture. The picture helps illustrate this point in the last scene. It is the drag costumes and men featured in the foreground, not the landscape, which is what is traditionally the focus of the shot. The film begins with vast landscape drowning Priscilla, but ends with drag at the centre of the shot to show the evolution of the acceptance of their lifestyle by the group and perhaps Australian culture as a whole. I believe this theme came about at a very relevant time in history with the Sydney Mardi Gras Gay Parade only gaining more attention.
Additionally, landscape acts as a fourth main character and that is also represented by the mechanic, Bob. When the landscape starts to visually surround the bus in the first shots once they get outside of Sydney, problems and tensions arise within the group, and Priscilla breaks down, symbolizing the breakdown of the group. Only after battling through and navigating the Outback and the landscape does Bob fix Priscilla and ease the group’s tensions. Bob, a more traditional representation of a bushman, accepts the group and invites them to face their critics through performance. The outback, according to Freebury when commenting on Australian national cinema, is seen to create the “best Australians.” Therefore, I do not think it is an accident that Bob, a man of the bush and the outback, a “best Australian”, stresses acceptance of the unconventional group.
As the film progresses, this confrontation with the Outback turns to harmony as the beautiful costume design in the drag costumes mimic the spectacular scenery, suggesting that these individuals are perhaps equally majestic in moral character and virtue as the Outback. The Bush Paradox helps explain the characters as they are in a sense untamed. They are contrary to popular society in almost every way as cross dressers. However, they are also marvellous and wildly popular as performers because of this “flaw”. Like the landscape, their inability to be tamed into conventional society creates their beauty as characters. Gibson’s comments, “Society en masse can’t make a mark on the land, so individuals set about carving niches for themselves.” In other words, Australian society at the time did not agree about the place of homosexuality in culture. The drags and transsexuals could not dominate or universally make homosexuality acceptable in culture, like Australians cannot universally tame the wilderness. Therefore, this group of three men in the film set about creating a niche of acceptance within Australian culture, represented by their bringing drag into the bush and landscape of Australia. Priscilla: Queen of the Desert embodies manly uniquely Australian themes, yet still manages to appeal to a larger audience. Its ability to remain an “Australian film” allowed it to be wildly popular domestically, but its overarching themes and story allowed the film to be still popular abroad. In fact, the Australian themes, such as landscape, help the movie have an independent, quirky style that appealed to foreign audiences looking for alternatives to Hollywood.