Stephen Elliot’s 1994 comedy The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert was an unexpected hit across the globe, and was lauded for its positive portrayal of LGBTQ individuals at a time when visibility was limited in mainstream media. The film which starred Guy Pearce, Terence Stamp and Hugo Weaving brought LGBTQ themes to a mainstream audience and will go down in history for its impact on LGBTQ culture. Let’s take a look at what made the film so good, discuss some of its themes and the influence it still has, and ponder which other films have achieved the same thing.
It Brought LGBT Themes to a Mainstream Audience
Prior to the release of Priscilla, drag queen and drag king shows were considered somewhat niche entertainment and were not that well known. But the road trip adventure from PolyGram Filmed Entertainment was met with a strong critical reaction, which brought it to mass audiences. The film has an impressive 94% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and well known critics also gave it their seal of approval. Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly said she “wasn’t prepared for the generosity and gorgeousness with which Aussie writer-director Stephan Elliot (and costume designers Lizzy Gardiner and Tim Chappel) turn this most unlikely road picture into something arresting – if a tad sentimental – in its naive vision of a perfectly tolerant world.”
The low budget production from Gramercy Pictures took $24 million at the box office (adjusted for inflation) and picked up five BAFTA awards that year. Chappel and Gardiner also won the Academy Award for Best Costume Design. The fact that the movie was at the Oscars shows what reach it had, and how it went beyond purely being for niche audiences. Elliot’s original offering led to the Priscilla, Queen of the Desert musical, which still tours across the globe to this date. This has also helped the movie achieve cult status.
The Setting is Also Important
In Priscilla, Queen of the Desert the three protagonists travel to a remote casino in the middle of the desert. Anthony “Tick” Belrose, played by Weaving, accepts an offer to perform his drag act at the gambling house which is run by his estranged wife.
A large portion of the film occurs in the Australian Outback, hence the desert in the title. Vast open deserts have also served filmmakers well over the years, as they provide a different kind of escapism for people who live in the city or suburbs. Some fantastic desert films from years gone by include 1962’s Lawrence of Arabia and the 1971 Australian offering Walkabout, which was also set in the sprawling outback. It’s quite appropriate that the casino is the final destination for this film, as the long-running establishments have focused on lavishness and grand entertainment since their inception. The word casino stems from the Italian for “little house” but specifically refers to a place which has been built for leisure – dancing, music and gambling, according to Betway. Music and dance performances have become synonymous with gambling locations worldwide. The glitz and glamour of Las Vegas is a prime example of how casinos have helped make extravagant performances the norm. In the American gambling hub, there are numerous drag performances taking place nearly every night of the week. People are going wild for this unique art form, and one of the most popular offerings at the moment is Frank Marino’s Divas Las Vegas, which features Beyoncé and Tina Turner impersonator acts. In fact, according to the above link, casinos were the precursors to bars and nightclubs.
Perhaps Elliot realized how important casino culture was to helping LGBT themes reach mainstream audiences, which is why he chose it for the setting of his picture. He could have also chosen it because it is a spot that everyone would recognize, with gambling being one of the biggest forms of gaming in the world. There are certainly many other films, which have been able to attract large audiences by using the casino as a setting. Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven, Tod Phillips’ The Hangover, and Martin Scorsese’s Casino are three famous offerings which spring to mind. At the same time, the choice of the Outback made the film wonderfully Australian and gave it a more realistic feel, with the desert juxtaposing the ladies’ extravagant makeup and wigs.
What Other Films Have Achieved what Priscilla did?
People outside of the LGBTQ community may find it hard to understand the culture, but films like Priscilla have definitely helped. So what other movies have had the same effect and achieved what Elliot’s 1994 offering did?
Tod Haynes’ Carol from 2015 is up there with some of the best lesbian films ever created. It received outstanding critical acclaim and has a score of 95 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett were praised for their exceptional performances, but the film went largely under-recognised in the awards season. This, according to Rhidian Davis, indicates that there is still a long way to go for LGBTQ films in the mainstream.
Brokeback Mountain is another well-known offering, which brought homosexuality to large audiences. Ang Lee’s picture is arguably the most successful LGBTQ film of all time, and it received critical and commercial success. The Western romantic drama received eight nominations at the 78th Academy Awards, and won three – Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Score. It was also favoured to win Best Picture but ultimately lost out to Paul Haggis’ Crash. Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal provided unforgettable performances, and the movie has gone down in history as a classic.
In terms of its outrageousness and the joy it brought to viewers, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert has to go down as one of the best LGBTQ films of all time. It led to a hugely successful musical, which is still helping to bring LGBTQ themes to mainstream audiences. More offerings like this would be of great benefit to the LGBTQ community.