The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert [DVD]

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert [DVD]

Director : Stephan Elliott

Screenplay : Stephan Elliott

MPAA Rating : R

Year of Release : 1994

Stars : Terence Stamp (Ralph /Bernadette Bassenger), Hugo Weaving (Anthony “Tick” Belrose / Mitzi Del Bra), Guy Pearce (Adam Whitely / Felicia Jollygoodfellow), Bill Hunter (Bob), Rebel Russell (Logowoman), John Casey (Bartender), June Marie Bennett (Shirley), Murray Davies (Miner), Frank Cornelius (Piano Player)

You look fabulous, dah-ling! When Stephan Elliott's The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert became a surprise international hit in 1994, it marked the high point of the mainstream breakthrough of what critic B. Ruby Rich had dubbed “The New Queer Cinema,” a trend of politically minded gay films that had until that point been represented primarily by gritty, independent productions like Todd Haynes' Poison (1991). While Priscilla was by no means a big-budget blockbuster (it was made on a $2 million budget, half of which was put up by the Australian government), Elliott cannily gave the film the outward appearance of something slick and polished, with gorgeous widescreen photography, outrageous musical numbers, and costume design so eye-grabbing that the film nabbed an Oscar for them.

The Adventures of Priscilla is a smartly made hybrid in more ways than one. It mixes comedy and drama and elements of the musical all within the well-worn generic terrain of the road movie. And, because its three main characters are a transsexual and two drag queens, it is an unapologetically gay movie that gay audiences could fully embrace (to the point that some people say you haven't actually seen the movie unless you've seen it with a gay audience). However, it hedges its homosexuality just enough to keep straight audiences from getting too uncomfortable (i.e., there is no sexual contact of any kind). The film plays with gay stereotypes, but also undermines them, as well, by never sacrificing the characters' humanity. Priscilla is a comedy, and a frequently outrageous one, at that; but, it is also a moving film that seeks to bridge differences even as it reaffirms their existence.

Viewed 17 years after its release, one of the new pleasures of Priscilla is seeing now-familiar faces in unexpected places. When Terence Stamp was cast as the refined, aging transsexual Bernadette Bassenger, he was on the verge of retirement from the movie business, having been cast as the British villain one too many times (the fallout of his superior performance as the nefarious General Zod in Richard Donner's Superman films). It turned out that Stamp was the perfect choice for Bernadette, as he brings a sense of dignity and world-weary empowerment that is crucial to the film's underlying melancholy; for all its embrace of camp aesthetics and outrageous fashion, Priscilla never ignores the realities of prejudice, which can often spill over into violence.

The other two primary characters are played by Australian actors who were, at the time, complete unknowns in the United States. Before he was Agent Smith in The Matrix trilogy or Elrond in The Lord of the Rings films, Hugo Weaving played Anthony “Tick” Belrose, who performs in drag under the name Mitzi Del Bra. The film's catalyst is a call from an old friend who asks him to perform for a few weeks at a resort in the Northern Territory. His collaborator, Adam Whitley, who performs as Felicia Jollygoodfellow, is played by Guy Pearce, who at the time was a soap opera star in Australia, but was still several years away from his Hollywood star-making turns in L.A. Confidential (1997) and Memento (2000). Adam is the film's token flamboyant gay character, and Pearce inhabits the role with such gusto that he threatens to steal every scene he's in.

The majority of the film takes place aboard a ramshackle schoolbus, which Adam christens “Priscilla,” as the three performers make the long trip from Sydney to the Northern Territory. Writer/director Stephan Elliott has said that his primary inspiration to make the film was based on the image of a drag costume against the backdrop of the unforgiving Australian Outback, and this visual strategy defines the film and gives it its character. The sight of drag performers in full regalia--complete with massive feather boas, sequined gowns, six-inch heels, and pounds of eye make-up and lipstick--standing in stark contrast with the barren reddish landscape best known in movie circles as the terrain of Mad Max, is one of cinema's most indelible and instantly memorable images.

Yet, the film wouldn't work if it were all just glamorous surface, and Elliott maintains a strong balance between the comedy and the pathos. The journey across Australia provides plenty of opportunities for the characters to engage themselves, each other, and their place in the world. Tick is the central character in this respect, as his journey to the Northern Territory involves his coming face to face with long-gestating issues of family and responsibility. Adam, who is by far the most fulsome of the trio and fits most neatly into the swishing, singing gay stereotype, must at some point face the fallout of his own excesses. The glue holding them all together is Bernadette, who, as the oldest of the group, has been there and see it all, and thus must deal with her own growing cynicism about the possibilities of love in the world (she has also just recently lost her lover, an element of her predicament that is strangely underused).

Unfortunately, some of the comedy in Priscilla works against the film at times. For example, when the bus breaks down, the drag trio pick up Bob (Bill Hunter), a gruff-looking, but sensitive mechanic who secretly loves a good drag show. He is the film's portrait of what a decent, sensitive human being can and should be, so why is he saddled with an Asian mail-order bride who is not only hysterically unfunny, but also a potentially offensive stereotype? It's almost enough to sink the film right in the middle, but the rest of it is just too buoyant, too funny, and too genuinely poignant.

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert Extra Frills Edition DVD

Aspect Ratio2.35:1
  • English DTS 5.1 Surround
  • English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
  • French Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo
  • Subtitles English, Spanish
  • Audio commentary by writer/director Stephan Elliott
  • “Birth of a Queen: Directing a Drag Classic” retrospective featurette
  • Deleted scenes
  • “Tidbits From the Set” interviews
  • “The Bus From Blooperville” featurette
  • Stills gallery
  • Original theatrical and teaser trailers
  • DistributorMGM / 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
    Release DateJune 5, 2007

    The “Extra Frills Edition” is the third Region 1 DVD release of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, and it is a substantial improvement over both the previous MGM and Polygram releases. Most importantly, it replaces the dirty, nonanamorphic transfer with a beautiful new anamorphic widescreen transfer. Although the image is just slightly softer than you might expect, it is very clean and well-detailed, which suits the film's visual design. The numerous bright hues and sparkling lights positively pop off the screen, and the film's many sunset and sunrise shots are rightfully glorious. The previously available two-channel stereo soundtrack has also been replaced with the option of either DTS 5.1 or a Dolby Digital 5.1 surround. Both tracks are excellent, especially in opening up the film's numerous pop musical numbers.
    While the previously available Region 1 DVDs were largely lacking in extras, this new release culls supplements from the Region 4 DVD and adds some new ones. Ported over from the Australian 10th anniversary release is writer/director Stephan Elliott's screen-specific audio commentary, which he recorded in 2004. Elliott is an intriguing character who tells great stories, so his commentary is always informative and fun to listen to. Also from the Australian release are four deleted scenes, which are presented in nonanamorphic widescreen (one of the deleted scenes, in which we learn the amusing reason for Trumpet's name, was cut from international prints of the film because the producers felt audiences wouldn't get a reference to an Australian brand of biscuit).

    New to this disc is “Birth of a Queen: Directing a Drag Classic,” a half-hour retrospective featurette that is composed primarily of interviews with Elliott and clips from the movie. It's too bad they couldn't get any of the cast members to reminisce about their experiences making the film. However, all of the main cast members show up in circa-1994 interviews that are included on a section of the disc title “Tidbits From the Set.” There are 13 interview snippets, each less than a minute long, with Elliott, Terence Stamp, Guy Pearce, Hugo Weaving, producers Al Clark and Michael Hamlyn, and costume designers Lizzy Gardiner and Tim Chappel. It's a little annoying to have to click on each one individually, especially since they're so short, and one wonders why they weren't just edited into the retrospective featurette. There are also 9 minutes of on-set vide footage included under the title “The Bus From Blooperville,” as well as a stills gallery and two theatrical trailers.

    Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick

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