Friday, April 18, 2008

Friday Film Night with Julie Cohen

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert

When the PHS asked me to blog about a film that inspired my latest Harlequin Presents, I had no hesitation in picking one. It’s the film I watched at least twice while I was writing the book. I based the hero on one of the actors in it, a total hottie who spends much of the film not wearing a shirt. And like my book Mistress in Private, I believe that it’s a funny, touching and unusual story about finding out who you really are, discovering what friendship really means, and falling in love.

The catch is, of course, that it’s a film about two drag queens and a transsexual trekking across the Australian outback in a bright pink bus.

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is one of my favourite films of all time. I love the costumes, I love the music, I love the jokes, I love the scenery, but most of all I love the actors. The lead, Hugo Weaving, is most famous for playing Agent Smith in The Matrix films, and Elrond in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, in both of which roles he is grim, determined, and otherworldly. In Priscilla, he is a transvestite called Tick who by day sells a cosmetic range called Wo-Man, “for the more heavy-duty woman in all of us”, and by night dresses up in elaborate frocks and lip-synchs to Abba on stage.

The guy who looks like the hero of my Mistress in Private (though doesn’t act like him), is Guy Pearce, who is acclaimed for his complex, often disturbing roles in Memento and Two Brothers. When Priscilla was filmed, he was fresh out of Aussie soap Neighbours and was so buff you can’t help licking your lips every time he comes on screen. He plays Adam, aka Felicia, a rich boy who is camper than a row of tents, craves attention, and likes to wear plastic g-strings in public.

The real prize in this film though, for me, is Terence Stamp, an English actor who, in his heyday in the 1960s, was breathtakingly beautiful, truly one of the most angelic-looking actors in the world. Here, he plays a post-op transsexual called Bernadette. The way Stamp acts in this film is extraordinary. He does not talk like a woman. He dresses like Katherine Hepburn, but he does not look like a woman. However, he moves with studied grace and womanliness, even when flooring someone with a killer right hook.

The story is a classic road trip, about three people who don’t really know each other and aren’t really suited, who gradually learn more about each other and themselves. It is full of great one-liners, absolutely filthy humour, Abba music and truly breathtaking frocks. Our heroes confront prejudice and their own doubts about who they really are. There is an interesting and underplayed romance between Bernadette and Bob, the outback mechanic who leaves his mail-order Thai bride to help the “girls” on their tip to Alice Springs. Bob is a true gentleman and it’s heartwarming to watch him open his mind about his attraction to Bernadette.

But the real romance in this film is one that I didn’t even notice the first couple of times I watched it, because it’s so subtle, so true to life, that the characters themselves don’t really notice it’s going on until it’s right upon them. Tick and Adam spend a lot of the film bickering, disagreeing, driving each other crazy. They touch and then shy away. They tease each other about their shortcomings, instead of talking them through, and they look at each other when they don’t think they’ll be seen. It’s a relationship just trembling on the verge of friendship, waiting to see if it can tumble into the scary waters of love. We don’t see how it ends; we barely see it beginning. The only real hint we get of it is when someone important to Tick asks him, near the end of the film: “Will you have a boyfriend when we get back to Sydney?” And Tick smiles and says, “Maybe.”

In a film so unusual, so outlandish and bright and garish and rude, it’s a quiet, touching emotional truth.

And that’s what we’re looking for in our books, isn’t it? Even if both the protagonists are wearing sequinned gowns and stilettos?

For more about the Julie, her books, and her taste in movies, be sure to check out her website or her blog!


  1. I know. And the awesome thing about him in this film is, he's supposed to be a former show girl, and he can't dance for toffee. He constantly looks like he's going to fall over. But it WORKS for him.

    I made an error, above, when talking of Terence Stamp--it's not a right hook he fells an adversary with, it's a sharp knee to the groin. Go Bernadette!

  2. Julie,

    You're sooo right about this film - now just remind me, which one of them is it that carries around a little tiny bit of Agnetha's poo in his necklace??? Don't they sing I Will Survive in their bell-bottoms by a campfire while being accompanied on the didgeridoo as well. You see, haven't we all wanted to do that at least once in our lives.

    Heidi (who's just finished her revisions on Book 4 and has gone a little stir crazy)

  3. It's Adam, AKA Felicia, with the Abba poo. And yes, they do do "I Will Survive" to a didgeridoo.

    My favourite dance number, though, is the last one when they dress up as various Australian attractions including the Sydney Opera House and dance to "Finally" by Cece Peniston. Sometimes I just put on that scene to make me happy.

    I wanted to give some samples of the jokes but they were all too filthy!

    Hooray for revisions being done!