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Cinophile – Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert

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Not so long ago Top Gear proved that overweight, out of shape middle-aged men can reach the North Pole. But their achievement is not nearly as impressive when you consider that in 1994 three queens crossed the Australian outback – and were totally fabulous while doing it. Along the way it changed cinema history. There is no doubt that one film not only made transvestites popular, but made you wish you knew a few…

The titular bus. Due to the cramped space, sharp eyes can actually catch the movie’s crew hiding in shots quite often – especially inside the bus.

Contrary to popular belief, Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert is not named after one of its three main characters. ‘Priscilla’ is actually the moniker of the bus they use to travel towards a cabaret performance in Alice Springs, perhaps the best known middle-of-nowhere spot in Australia other than Uluru. Along the way the three drag queens meet interesting people, get into trouble and put on a few fabulous lip-synced performances to bewildered hill billies. It is wry, funny, sad, beautiful and pretty much everything we’ve come to expect from Australian films.

Priscilla Queen Of The Desert
Yes, that is who you think on the far left. He wouldn’t have appeared in the film – originally his role was offered to Tim Curry, who probably still regrets turning it down. Other actors approached to star in Priscilla were John Cleese and David Bowie.

Priscilla was a huge change for tranny cinema. Prior to it the genre was mainly underground and deeply controversial. The most upstanding example (other than Rocky Horror Picture Show) was arguably stuff made by John Waters – and this wasn’t material you could show in polite company. Priscilla was different: it made crossdressers real characters that you root for and laugh with. This is in no small part thanks to the main actors: Terence Stamp (the original General Zod), Hugo Weaving (yes, Agent Smith) and an absolutely irrepressible Guy Pearce. Really, this film was probably one character away from casting Hugh Jackman! And the movie itself creates a great, intense and colourful world, full of fun people and surreal situations. Granted, it’s not as flashy as similar themed productions would be later on. And Terence Stamp is much better at playing a woman than a dancing cabaret star. But you can gloss over these things, because if anything this film proves that the Australians tell a story better than anyone.

Priscilla Queen Of The Desert
This is Hugo Weaving in a flower hat. His character was based on a living person, the famous Sydney drag artist Cindy Pastel. Before making the movie, the three leads, in full drag, were taken out by the director to see how they would fare. Terence Stamp apparently forgot he was cross-dressing and started hitting on women. Guy Pierce acted like he would later in the movie. Hugo Weaving got plastered and passed out under a table.

The Adventures Of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert broke a major taboo in cinema by taking trannies mainstream. A year after this we saw To Wong Foo and the year after that The Birdcage. Today gay and crossdressing characters are as accepted as Marlon Wayans pulling a stupid face. And it all goes back to the three queens and their bus named Priscilla.

Cinophile is a weekly feature showcasing films that are strange, brilliant, bizarre and explains why we love the movies.

Last Updated: November 4, 2013

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