“Drag is the Drug,” the posters at Cannes promoting “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” announced, not without reason. The comic pizazz and bawdy dazzle of this film’s vision of gaudy drag performers trekking across the Australian outback certainly has a boisterous, addictive way about it.
But like any self-respecting drug, “Priscilla” comes with its own built-in hangover. Sharing screen space with the film’s raunchy humor and outrageous musical numbers is a strain of conventional sentimentality that would not be inappropriate on the Disney Channel. It doesn’t ruin the fun, but it certainly takes the edge off it.
One of the reasons writer-director Stephan Elliott has given for making “Priscilla” was a desire to bring back the vintage Hollywood musical, and, like the old MGM classics, this film is definitely at its best when its trio of performers are out there with a lip-synced song in their hearts.
Whether it’s Mitzi (Hugo Weaving) opening the movie with a torchy rendition of “I’ve Been to Paradise but I’ve Never Been to Me” or Felicia (Guy Pearce) belting out a Verdi aria in a silver lame gown on top of a moving bus, or the two of them plus Bernadette (Terence Stamp) going into synchronized versions of “I Will Survive,” “Shake Your Groove Thing” and almost anything by ABBA, all in outfits that beggar description, the musical numbers are sure-fire and irresistible.
While Mitzi and Felicia are more conventional (if that is the right word) drag queens who also answer to the names Tick and Adam, respectively, Bernadette is a hormone-ingesting transsexual who goes ballistic whenever her former given name of Ralph crosses anyone’s lips.
Despite having made a career out of being what Elliott calls “a heterosexual icon,” Stamp is the movie’s major surprise, gracefully convincing as Bernadette, a woman no longer trapped in a man’s body. Elegant and dignified with enough hauteur for an entire royal family, the resilient Bernadette is a creature of haunted and exquisite gestures, and Stamp doesn’t allow you to feel that even the smallest of them is false.
Though this performance is “Priscilla’s” most fully realized, the other two leads are also expertly done, partly because Elliott has written them with a well-adjusted liveliness and specificity that gives the actors a good deal to work with.
Tick is the most solid and stable of the three, an established performer and the catalyst for the trip as well. (Weaving, incidentally, was memorable in a completely different role as the angry blind photographer in Jocelyn Moorehouse’s “Proof.”)
Unknown to his pals, Tick was married before he became a fixture of Sydney’s gay scene, and out of nowhere he gets a phone call from his ex, who manages a resort in middle-of-nowhere Alice Springs and is desperate for entertainers. Can he make the trip and, more important, dare he tell his friends who asked him to perform?
Bernadette, grieving for a recently dead husband, is persuaded to come along for a change of scene. Adam, an amusingly malicious party animal, is always up for something new and even produces the money for the group’s bus, christened Priscilla. Besides, he confesses, he’s always wanted to travel to the outback and “climb Kings Canyon as a queen,” decked out in a Gautier gown, heels and a tiara.
The trio’s alcohol-drenched trip through the desert (which caused French critics to call the film “Florence d’Arabie”) takes up most of “Priscilla.” The best part of that is the ribald interaction among the three performers, all of whom, especially “cesspool mouth” Adam, have rude and dangerous tongues that can flay the flesh off the unwary.
Less unsettling, in fact regrettably predictable, are most of the adventures that these three run into on their pilgrimage. Not surprisingly, their appearance completely flummoxes the uncomprehending and often angry straight people at each of their stops, and the homophobic scrapes that result have a tendency to feel contrived.
And with the exception of auto mechanic Bob (veteran all-purpose Australian actor Bill Hunter), those met on the road who are not hostile, like Tick’s wife, are as unconvincingly cheerful and saccharine as Adam is blistering. Their glibness and compassion make an odd contrast with the bitchy talk on the bus, but, to its credit, whenever things get too treacly, “Priscilla” knows enough to break out those frocks and get the show in gear. That is entertainment for sure.
* MPAA rating: R for “sex-related situations and language.” Times guidelines: Its language is crude, raunchy and highly inflammatory. ‘The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert’
Terence Stamp: Bernadette
Hugo Weaving: Tick/Mitzi
Guy Pearce: Adam/Felicia
Bill Hunter: Bob
A Polygram Filmed Entertainment presentation, in association with the Australian Film Finance Corp., of a Latent Image/Specific Films production, released by Grammercy Pictures. Director Stephan Elliott. Producers Al Clark, Michael Hamlyn. Executive producer Rebel Penfold-Russell. Screenplay by Stephan Elliott. Cinematographer Brian J. Breheny. Editor Sue Blainey. Costumes Lizzy Gardiner, Tim Chappel. Music Guy Gross. Production design Owen Paterson. Art director Colin Gibson. Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes.
* In limited release in Southern California.