Long live the queens: 20 years of Priscilla
Twenty years since it first hit the big screen and Priscilla continues to inspire and enthral, writes Colin Fraser.
A lot of people hang off Priscilla's technicolour party frock. From iconic hotels in Sydney's inner west to misguided fancy dress parties across the country (indeed, the world), men continue to wrap themselves in the warm embrace of a feather boa and belt out (with varying degrees of success) disco classics. Some made a career out of it, others built their empire around it. But whichever way you look at it, milk still pours from the giving cash cow that is The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.
It starts like a bad joke – two drag queens and a transexual drive into the desert – yet the film touched a nerve with audiences gay and straight. Twenty years on and Priscilla still resonates.
“At the end of the day, Priscilla had a very simple message of tolerance,” said writer/director Stephan Elliott. “The effect it had was massive, it really touched on something I didn’t expect. I still get masses of fan mail from people all over the world who say how much the film means to them.”
Not that Elliott set out to tell this story exactly. At the time he was looking for an excuse to make a musical and in the aftermath of Mardi Gras, it hit him.
“We were all completely trashed walking up Oxford Street and there was this mass of feathers which had blown off a drag queen’s head.” Like tumble weed in a Sergio Leone western, it rolled down the street and Elliott had his eureka! moment. “It’s in the movie, you can see this mass of feathers rolling through the desert. And at that moment I suddenly said to myself, ‘drag queens in the desert’. Bingo! A couple of weeks later all the pieces hit and I chucked down the script.”
Of course, drag bars aren’t the only one to wrestle undue mileage out of Priscilla. While The Palace Hotel in Broken Hill has more than one tumbleweed of its own rolling down the corridor (business is seldom brisk), the owner’s still trade on the memory of celluloid’s most retina damaging moment. Mario’s gaudy paintings that dominate the hotel were a stunning counterpoint to a man in a dress made of thongs and while the townsfolk ‘don't like your sort’, actually, they do. The DVD is still on sale in reception, The Priscilla Queen Ensuite is a snip at $195 a night (sleeps five).
And let’s not forget Elliott’s own hands that were firmly on the milking machine. After Priscilla, a near-death skiing accident jolted him out of self-imposed early retirement to focus on what he loved most: music. The result: Priscilla: The Musical. “It didn’t stop me,” he said of the accident. “It woke me up. You can do a lot on morphine” he added with a smirk. “I don't remember any of my mid-life crisis, apparently I was spectacular.”
Priscilla: The Musical was also a spectacular success. It opened to rapturous reviews in 2006 with the famous, battered bus now on a revolve and costumes re-imagined by the Oscar winning duo of Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner. The show soon moved to Melbourne, New Zealand then London with Jason Donovan who, ironically, had turned down the original film role. Next stop for Priscilla was a two year run on Broadway before she headed home and, appropriately, into the outback. The bus, now with a 360 degree swivel and scissors lifts, was donated to the city of Broken Hill. “When I did the maths, I realised that almost half the film was shot there,” said Elliott.
The irony is that Elliot's career was launched by a film no one wanted him to make. “The studio’s love Priscilla, they adore Priscilla. But [at the time] no one would touch it with a 50 foot pole. It’s a perfect Catch-22: they won’t let you try to do it, but love you because you did.”
A special 20th anniversary screening of Priscilla will be held on Thursday, August 14, at Dendy Newtown. Starts 6pm, film 6.45pm. After party at the Imperial Hotel, Erskineville. Tix $25 from dendy.com.au.