Australian Style, Issue 10 1994
Story by Catharin Lambert
Photographed by Peter Bennetts

Could a troupe of drag queens shaking their groove thing atop King's Canyon be the Australian film industry's saviour?

It's true, there are no sweaty shearers in sight, no brave diggers, no pretty girls -- not even many real girls. There is just a small budget, a simple theme, some great frocks and disco memories.

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is part of the 'good time' film movement that began with Strictly Ballroom. They glorify and gently mock the sort of fun that can only be had in Australia, without ever intending to warm the cockles of our nationalistic heart.

The film's worldwide success relies on the ironic humour of incongruities and the nervous fascination about seeing men in dresses that most women would only ever dream of wearing. There are only a few serious moments. One of the drag queens, Adam, is nearly 'gay bashed' by a burly bunch in Coober Pedy and a Filipino bride is so desperately bored she becomes what her new, inhospitable society expects her to be, though even she wins in the end. Australia's inherent sexism and violence are shown more effectively when dressed in boas and catchy tunes.

Any tense moments are fleeting in this film, rescued by melodrama and great visuals. Spontaneous filming captures small-town mentalities and genuine shock. Guy Pearce, who plays Adam, said the film could never be anything but funny.

"Most of the towns we went to had never seen anything like us," Pearce said. "When we went to Broken Hill and walked down the main street in drag, the cameras were put straight on the locals. They were all bedazzled by the whole thing. We were crossing over into real life territory."

"There is so much stuff made in this country specifically for an overseas audience because they obviously want to get that market and yet they tend to put down a lot of Australianisms and try to cater to an American or an English market.

"Stephan (director Stephan Elliott) was pretty strong saying, 'No,this is Aussie drag queens. Let's keep it like this,' which was really nice.

"Stephan pushed that Australian thing but he twisted it and turned it on its back so the audience will see the quintessential outback but there's drag queens in the middle of it. The only kangaroo in it has been shot dead in the back of a truck, the poor little thing."

The ironic twists are not only on the screen. Accomplished English producer Al Clark decided to work on the low-budget film just because he thought it would be fun. And the fine cast is known more for its drama than rollicking road movies.

Seeing the great English actor Terence Stamp transform himself into Bernadette, a delightful feminised transsexual, is wonderful in itself. It looks as though dresses and Hugo Weaving, who plays ring-leader Mitzi, were made for each other. And Guy Pearce, the original bloke's bloke and Neighbours heart-throb, turns queen bitchery into an art.

It had a lot to do with the make-up. But as Pearce said, "It's not just make-up, they actually re-structure your face -- get rid of your eyebrows and put them in a different place. They change the shape of your eyes, your lips.

"You sit there looking at yourself in the mirror for two hours in the morning while they are making you up and you think, 'This is the female version of me.' It's really complex because you can see yourself but it's female. I can really see my mother. I didn't feel like a woman as such, but getting into touch with your feminine side was really at the forefront. It was an amazing experience, it was actually fantastic, I really enjoyed it.

"But I'm not sure if I'm good-looking. I don't think I'd fancy myself if I saw myself walking down the street looking like that. I would probably look twice because I looked more odd than anything."

It's not just the lippie that changed the Ramsay Street pin-up into a cheeky boy tart. Pearce, Weaving and Stamp bar-hopped in Sydney's Oxford Street gay district before filming, for a taste of the drag experience. So in the film the mannerisms are perfectly mimicked: the tilted heads, snarling pouty mouths and a rythmical bottom sway.

"People ask what it was like playing a woman but I don't think I was actually playing a woman. I was playing an over-the-top queen who likes to dress up in drag and has his own insecurities and problems with women. Adam is a misogynistic little brat, anyway, so I wasn't playing someone who is openly a woman. He is less open about being a woman than I, Guy, could be.

"Often, when playing other characters, you look to your feminine side to find out what you might be wanting to play. But this is not a real perception of a female character, because it is an exaggerated, coloured, colourful view of a female."

Obviously his joy in making the film did not consist only of the chance to wear some gorgeous g-strings. Sitting on the outside of a helicopter which flew him and his colleagues to the top of King's Canyon, Pearce had to ask himself why? But he decided to bask in the warm breeze instead of answering.

"It was a very liberating experience for me. The boundaries were completely left at home and a lot of that was to do with the nature of Stephan Elliott. I think what he wanted to do was to bring along with him and with us this openness, this complete life experience rather than saying, 'This is the film crew, you are the actors and we are filming now.' It wasn't like that at all.

"Some of Stephan's direction was incredible. He would stop the camera, tell us we were awful and demand we ham it up. We had to get into a completely different way of thinking.

"But once we got on the merry-go-round, it was great. As an actor, you are constantly trying to get away from yourself, which is the same as trying to find yourself. This thing that you're trapped in, you get to leave behind, and do stuff that you would normally get arrested for."

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