[These are excerpts from a paper I wrote last semester... Yes, I do frequently write about movies and drag queens, my undergrad experience is awesome.]
Casting a movie involves incredibly conscious decisions about actors, decisions that can be heavily influenced by politics and economics. The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) and To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar (1995) are two films that since their release have attained a cultural “classic” status as movies about friendship and drag queens. At a very basic level of analysis, both films are important for featuring elements of queer theory in the plot, and refigure how audiences think and talk about gender, sexuality, and expression. Both of these films are also significant because the lead actors, who play drag queens, are all well-established actors who are known for more traditionally macho roles, mostly in action movies.
(Begin at 1:12)
“I did it not so much because I have a thriving, burning passion to be in a dress, but because nobody would expect me to do it. Frankly, I’m a little concerned about me being perceived as just an action guy."-Wesley Snipes“The process of trying to turn macho Patrick into a woman was a little scary. It was interesting to go from a narrow minded, limited heterosexual point of view into a much more open-minded point of view”-Patrick Swayze
At this level, both Priscilla and To Wong Foo are important films for those interested in queer theory for two reasons. The first is because the movies’ use of macho actors to play drag queens both challenges hegemonic masculinity and gender roles by showing that ideas of traditional gender performance and subversive gender performance are linked through performance. Additionally, at a meta-level, the use of traditionally masculine actors in roles playing drag queens is a conservative choice because audiences are expected to be aware of the actors’ filmographies and that their roles as drag queens are a cinematic departure with grand comedic value. How these films relate beyond the text of the film to queer theory is significant in the development of queer narratives in mainstream film.
Writer and director of Priscilla, Stephen Elliott, called the casting choices in the movie a “surprise element” and told Terrance Stamp, who played the transsexual character Bernadette that he was perfect for the part “Because nobody would ever think of you doing this."
Drag performance is about bending expectations regarding gender, and relies heavily on the camp of exaggeration. Additionally, drag confronts certain cultural norms and stereotypes, and plays with them in spite of the fact that much of the stereotypes about gay men come from society's devalorization of femininity. Regarding Judith Butler’s scholarship on gender performance, drag is a subversive text that challenges the way we perceive gender and who can embody or “perform” it. Priscilla is much more focused on the actual performance of drag, while To Wong Foo looks at drag queens magically passing as women in small-town America. Breaking conventions by using macho actors made the films more accessible to a wider audience, and at a deeper level, critiqued the idea that gender and gender performance is fixed.
Much of the comedy in To Wong Foo and to a lesser degree in Priscilla relies on the audience’s knowledge of the drag queens’ actual identities as men, both in the film and as actors. In To Wong Foo, Vida, Noxeema, and Chi Chi arrive at a small-town motel during their cross-country adventure and are immediately ushered into a women’s basketball convention, where biological women who match their height and stature surround them. Following this, Noxeema joins the women in a pick-up basketball game, where she aggressively scores a point. The comedy of this scene is reliant on the audience being “in” on the joke that Vida, Noxeema, and Chi Chi are certainly not women’s basketball players, but also that Wesley Snipes is more often seen in more athletic roles. CHECK THE CLIP.
(Start at 9:55)
Priscilla ultimately has the more progressive view on sexuality and expression. While the drag queen characters in To Wong Foo remain mostly chaste, in Priscilla, not only does Tick (Hugo Weaving) have a son and ex-wife but Bernadette (Terrance Stamp) also begins a romantic relationship with a man. Swayze addressed this difference frankly by saying, “Look, you [put] sex… in a drag queen movie and you’re gonna alienate 98 percent of your audience”. And even though Priscilla is more open about the character’s sex lives, Bernadette’s relationship with Bob is more referenced to than shown outright, and Tick’s developing relationship with his son is something that ultimately appeals to conventional family values.
To Wong Foo and Priscilla represent two very important texts about drag. First, their popularity has secured them canonical status in LGBT film. What’s more, the drag queen characters are actually gay characters, and not straight men wearing drag to escape from the law—a popular trope in film about cross-dressing. But most importantly, they are interesting films for thinking about the boundaries of gendered performance and how politics and economics influence art. Had actual drag queens been cast in the roles of Felicia, Mitzi, Bernadette, Vida, Chi Chi and Noxeema, the two movies would have been undoubtedly very different. The use of well-known macho actors and comedians adds to the films’ marketability, however it also functions to critique how fixed gender and gender performance is thought to be in greater society. Although both films make use of stereotypes that detract from the messages of the films, ultimately the two movies succeed in being very mainstream introductory texts on gender and queer theory.