Priscilla, queen of the desert

For the stage musical of the same name, see Priscilla Queen of the Desert (musical).

Template:Use Australian English

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Stephan Elliott
Produced by Michael Hamlyn
Al Clark
Written by Stephan Elliott
Starring Terence Stamp
Hugo Weaving
Guy Pearce
Bill Hunter
Music by Guy Gross
Cinematography Brian J. Breheny
Editing by Sue Blainey
Studio PolyGram Filmed Entertainment
Specific Films
Distributed by Gramercy Pictures
Release date(s)Template:Plainlist
Running time 103 minutes
Country Australia
Language English
Budget A$1,884,200 (US$2 million)
Box office $29,679,915

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is a 1994 Australian comedy-drama film written and directed by Stephan Elliott. The plot follows the journey of two drag queens and a transsexual woman, played by Hugo Weaving, Guy Pearce, and Terence Stamp, across the Australian Outback from Sydney to Alice Springs in a tour bus that they have named "Priscilla", along the way encountering various groups and individuals. Containing elements of comedy, the film's title is a pun on the fact that in English speaking cultures, "queen" is a slang term for a male homosexual.[1]

The film was noted for helping to bring Australian cinema to world attention and for its positive portrayal of LGBT individuals, helping to introduce LGBT themes to a mainstream audience. The film has also been criticized for perceived racist and sexist stereotyping.

The film received predominantly positive reviews and won an Academy Award for Best Costume Design at the 67th Academy Awards. It was screened in the Un Certain Regard section of the 1994 Cannes Film Festival[2] and became a cult classic in both Australia and abroad. Priscilla subsequently provided the basis for a musical, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, which opened in 2006 in Sydney before travelling to New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Canada, and New York City's Broadway.


Anthony "Tick" Belrose (Hugo Weaving), using the drag pseudonym of Mitzi Del Bra, is a Sydney-based drag queen who accepts an offer to perform his drag act at Lasseter's Hotel Casino Resort managed by a female friend named Marion (Sarah Chadwick) in Alice Springs, a remote town in central Australia. After persuading his friends and fellow performers, Bernadette Basinger (Terence Stamp), a recently bereaved transsexual woman, and Adam Whitely (Guy Pearce), a flamboyant and obnoxious younger drag queen who goes under the drag name Felicia Jollygoodfellow, to join him, the three set out in a large tour bus, which Adam christens "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" for a four-week run in the Australian Outback town.

While on the long journey through remote lands bordering the Simpson Desert, they meet a variety of characters, including a group of friendly Australian Aborigines for whom they perform, and the less accepting attitudes of rural Australia in such towns as Coober Pedy, and are subjected to homophobic abuse and even violence, including having their tour bus vandalized with the words "AIDS f**kers go home".

When the tour bus breaks down in the middle of the desert, the trio meet Bob (Bill Hunter), a middle-aged mechanic from a small outback town who joins them on their journey. Before they arrive at Alice Springs, Tick reveals that Marion is actually his wife, as they never divorced, and that they are, in fact, going there as a favour to her. Continuing their journey, Adam is almost mutilated by a homophobic gang before he is saved by Bob and Bernadette. Adam is shaken and Bernadette comforts him, allowing them to reach an understanding. Likewise, the others come to terms with the secret of Tick's marriage and resolve their differences. Together, they fulfill a long-held dream of Adam's, which, in the original plan, is to climb Uluru in full drag regalia ("A cock in a frock on a rock") although the location was changed to Kings Canyon in the film (see below).

Upon arrival at the hotel, it is revealed that Tick and Marion also have an eight-year-old son, Benjamin (Mark Holmes), whom Tick has not seen for many years. Tick is nervous about exposing his son to his drag profession and anxious about revealing his homosexuality, though he is surprised to discover that Benjamin already knows and is fully supportive of his father's sexuality and career. By the time their four-week stint at the resort is over, Tick and Adam head back to Sydney, taking Benjamin back with them, so that Tick can get to know his son and Marion can have a long-earned break. However, Bernadette decides to remain at the resort for a while with Bob, who has decided to work at the hotel after the two of them had become close.



The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert had originally been conceived by filmmakers Stephan Elliott and Andrena Finlay who were at the time in production of a film called Frauds. They initially tried to pitch Priscilla to various financiers at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival, but were unsuccessful,[3] and so instead took the film's concept to PolyGram and, with the backing of the Australian Film Finance Corporation, were able to begin production of the film on a relatively low budget of 2.7 million Australian dollars.

Elliott and Priscilla's producers, Michael Hamlyn and Al Clark, the latter of whom was the husband of Finlay, all agreed to work for $50,000 dollars each, a relatively low fee for filmmakers at the time, while the lack of funding meant that the crew agreed to receive takings of the film's eventual profits in compensation for their low salaries.[4] Due to the involvement of the Australian FFC, only one non-Australian actor was allowed to appear in the film, and Clark initially considered David Bowie, whom he had known back in the 1980s, and later briefly thought of John Hurt, although neither of these actors were available.[5]

In May 1993, after travelling around the Australian Outback searching for appropriate sites to film in, Priscilla's creators attended the Cannes Film Festival to advertise their project, despite the fact that they had not yet confirmed any actors for the roles. Their primary choice for the role of Bernadette was Tony Curtis, who read and approved of the script, but eventually became unavailable. They then approached John Cleese who was not interested.

For the part of Tick, they had initially wanted Rupert Everett and for Adam they wanted Jason Donovan.[6] However, at a pre-production casting meeting held at Cannes, Everett and Donovan did not get on well with one another and were found to be openly hostile toward the production staff. In light of this, it was readily agreed that they would not be suitable for the parts[7]and the search for their three leading men would resume. However, Donovan would go on to play Tick in the West End musical adaptation of the film to great acclaim.

After unsuccessfully lobbying Colin Firth to play the role, producers eventually awarded the part to Hugo Weaving. Initially considering Tim Curry for the part of Bernadette, they cast Terence Stamp who was initially anxious about the role because it was unlike anything that he had performed previously, although he eventually came on board with the concept.[8] Stamp himself suggested Bill Hunter for the role of Bob, who accepted the role without even reading the script or being told anything about the greater concept of the film other than the basic character description, while Australian soap-opera star Guy Pearce was hired at the eleventh hour direct from award-winning Neighbours to portray the sassy, but sprite, Adam.[9]

"It is striking what an effect the disguise of drag is having on [the actors'] personalities. It makes Guy [Pearce] flirtatious, combative and loud. It makes Terence [Stamp] withdrawn and watchful ('Hello sailor,' he greets me warily with his back to the wall, looking like a fallen woman in a '50s melodrama.) It makes Hugo extraordinarily trashy."

Al Clark[10]

Many scenes, including one where Bernadette encounters a butch, bigoted, Australian woman named Sheila, were filmed at the Outback town of Broken Hill in New South Wales, largely in a hotel known as Mario's Palace, which Al Clark believed was "drag queen heaven".[11] They also decided to film at Coober Pedy, a rough-and-tumble mining town in Central Australia featured prominently in the film.[12]

Initially, they tried to get permission to film upon the geological formation formerly known as Ayers Rock or "the Rock", (Uluru), but this was rejected by organizations responsible for the monument, such as the Uluru Board of Management, as it would have been in violation of Indigenous Australian religious beliefs.[13] Instead, the scene was filmed in Kings Canyon.[14] Dialogue from the scene was rewritten slightly to accommodate the new location.

With filming over, the director and producers began editing the footage, repeatedly travelling to both London and to Los Angeles, which had then just been hit by the 1994 Northridge earthquake. On the advice of early viewers, the film was shortened and scenes such as Adam's flashback about his paedophilic uncle were edited down.[15]


Box office

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert took $18,459,245 at the box office in Australia,[16] which is equivalent to $24,888,888 in 2009 dollars.

Being an Australian film, not an American-produced Hollywood blockbuster, The Adventures of Priscilla was released as a minor commercial product in North America and other English-speaking nations.[17]

Director Elliot noted that the audiences viewing the film in Australia, the United States, and France all reacted differently to it, going on to state that "At a screening we had for an Australian audience, they laughed at all the Australianisms. The Americans laughed too, but at different jokes. There is a line where Tick says, 'Bernadette has left her cake out in the rain...' [The French audience] didn't get it, whereas the Americans laughed for ten minutes."[18] Tom O'Regan, a scholar of film studies, remarked that the film actually carried different meanings for members of different nationalities and subcultural groups, with LGBT Americans believing that the film was "the big one that will bring gay lifestyles into the mainstream", while Australians tended to "embrace it as just another successful Australian film".[19]


Critical reaction

On the film review website, Rotten Tomatoes, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert has a 93% fresh rating, indicating very positive reviews.[20] American film critic Roger Ebert felt that Bernadette was the key part of the film, stating that "the real subject of the movie is not homosexuality, not drag queens, not showbiz, but simply the life of a middle-aged person trapped in a job that has become tiresome."[21]

In 1995, the film won an Academy Award for Best Costume Design at the 67th Academy Awards, and was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Picture – Comedy or Musical. Meanwhile, for his role as Bernadette, Terence Stamp won the Seattle International Film Festival Award for Best Actor. He was nominated also for the 1994 Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy (but lost out to Hugh Grant for his role in Four Weddings and a Funeral), as well as the BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role, (where he again lost out to Grant), and the Australian Film Institute Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role, where he instead lost to Nicholas Hope. The film was ranked at #7 on Logo's 50 Greatest Films with an LGBT theme,[22] and #10 on AfterElton's Fifty Greatest Gay Movies list.[23]

Cultural impact

The Adventures of Priscilla, along with other contemporary Australian films Young Einstein (1988), Sweetie (1989), Strictly Ballroom (1992), and Muriel's Wedding (1994), provided Australian cinema with a reputation for "quirkiness", "eccentricity" and "individuality" across the world.[24] Both Priscilla and Muriel's Wedding (which had also featured a soundtrack containing ABBA songs) in particular became cult classics, not only in their native Australia, but also in the United Kingdom, where a wave of Australian influences, such as the soap operas Neighbours and Home and Away, had made their mark in the late 1980s and early 1990s.[25]

In 1995, an American film, To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, was released, featuring three drag queens who travel across the United States. According to Al Clark, the creators of Priscilla heard about the film while shooting theirs, and "for a moment [were] troubled" until they read the script of To Wong Foo, when they decided that it was sufficiently different to Priscilla to not be a commercial and critical threat.[26] To Wong Foo proved to be critically far less successful than Priscilla, only gaining a 36% fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes.[27]

During the Closing Ceremony of the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Priscilla was part of a parade of images of Australian popular culture. A refurbished and decorated 1980 Ford Denning (resembling bus used in the film) featuring a giant steel stiletto heel which extended from and retracted into the roof—inspired by some of the scenes from the film—was paraded around the Olympic Stadium. The bus was also accompanied by several stiletto heels tricycle floats and drag queens donning big wigs as a tribute to the film's international success and the local Sydney gay community.[28][29]

Racism and sexism controversy

The film has come under criticism for alleged racist and sexist elements, particularly in the portrayal of the Filipina character, Cynthia. Melba Margison of the Centre for Filipino Concerns stated that Cynthia was portrayed as "a gold-digger, a prostitute, an entertainer whose expertise is popping out ping-pong balls from her sex-organ, a manic depressive, loud and vulgar. The worst stereotype of the Filipina." She argued that, by portraying Cynthia in this manner, the filmmakers were "violently kill[ing]" the dignity of Filipina women, something that she feared would lead to "more violence against us".[30] An editor writing in The Age echoed these concerns, highlighting that "It is perhaps a pity that a film with a message of tolerance and acceptance for homosexuals should feel the need of what looks very much to us like a racist and sexist stereotype."[30] Similarly, in his study of bisexuality in cinema, Wayne M. Bryant argued that while it was "an excellent film", The Adventures of Priscilla was marred by "instances of gratuitous sexism".[31]

Producer Al Clark defended the film against these accusations, arguing that while Cynthia was a stereotype, it was not the purpose of film makers to avoid the portrayal of "vulnerable characters" from specific minority backgrounds. He stated that she was "a misfit like the three protagonists are, and just about everybody else in the film is, and her presence is no more a statement about Filipino women than having three drag queens is a statement about Australian men."[30] Tom O'Regan noted that as a result of this controversy, the film gained "an ambiguous reputation."[32]

In popular culture

Originally, this scenario happened in real life at the twin-screen drive-in theatre near Geauga Lake Amusement Park, Ohio in the summer of 1995.

Instead of Priscilla replacing Rocky Horror, it was merely the next film to be booked on the screen facing the other half of the park after attendance had fallen off, while Rocky Horror was still drawing in crowds.

On opening night, far from having a dance-and-sing-off, the crowds for both films was so rowdy toward one another that drive-in operators had to turn the exits on opposite sides of the park into the entrances to avoid any further mayhem.


The film featured a soundtrack made up of pre-existing "camp classics" (pop music songs that have a particular fanbase in the LGBT community). The original plan by the film's creators was to have a Kylie Minogue song in the finale, although it was later decided that an ABBA song would be more appropriate because its "tacky qualities" were "more timeless".[33] The film itself featured four main songs, which were performed by two or more of the drag queens as a part of their show within the film; "I've Never Been to Me" by Charlene, "I Will Survive" by Gloria Gaynor, "Finally" by CeCe Peniston, and "Mamma Mia" by ABBA.

On 23 August 1994, Fontana Island released the soundtrack on CD.

  1. "I've Never Been to Me" – Charlene
  2. "Go West" – Village People
  3. "Billy Don't Be a Hero" – Paper Lace
  4. "My Baby Loves Lovin'" – White Plains
  5. "I Love the Nightlife (Disco 'Round)" – Alicia Bridges
  6. "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" – Trudy Richards
  7. "I Will Survive" – Gloria Gaynor
  8. "A Fine Romance" – Lena Horne
  9. "Shake Your Groove Thing" – Peaches & Herb
  10. "I Don't Care if the Sun Don't Shine" – Patti Page
  11. "Finally" [7" Choice Mix] – CeCe Peniston
  12. "Take a Letter Maria" – R. B. Greaves
  13. "Mamma Mia" – ABBA
  14. "Save the Best for Last" – Vanessa Williams
  15. "I Love the Nightlife (Disco 'Round)" [Real Rapino 7" Mix] – Alicia Bridges
  16. "Go West" [Original 12" Mix] – Village People
  17. "I Will Survive" [1993 Phil Kelsey Classic 12" Mix] – Gloria Gaynor
  18. "Shake Your Groove Thing" [Original 12" Mix] – Peaches & Herb
  19. "I Love the Nightlife (Disco 'Round)" [Phillip Damien Extended Vox] – Alicia Bridges

Home media

  • On 14 November 1995, the film was released on VHS.
  • On 7 October 1997, it was released on DVD with a collectible trivia booklet.
  • In 2004, a 10th Anniversary Collector's Edition was released on DVD in Australia with the following special features:
  • In 2006, it was re-released on DVD in Australia with the following special features:
    • Feature-length audio commentary with writer/director Elliott
    • "Birth of a Queen" (featurette)
    • Deleted scenes
    • Tidbits from the Set
    • "The Bus from Blooperville" – Gag reel documentary
    • Photo gallery
    • US theatrical and teaser trailer
  • On 5 June 2007, it was re-released in the US as the "Extra Frills Edition" DVD. This edition includes the same special features as the Australian 2006 re-release.
  • On 7 June 2011, it was released for US Blu-ray.

Stage adaptation

Main article: Priscilla Queen of the Desert (musical)

The film was adapted into a stage musical, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, and premiered 10 October 2006 at the Star City Casino, Sydney. The opening cast was as follows:

The stage show features live performances of the songs featured in the film including "I Love the Nightlife", "I Will Survive", "Finally", "I've Never Been to Me", "Shake Your Groove Thing", and "Go West", as well as some new additions, such as "Confide in Me", "Downtown", "What's Love Got to Do with It?", "Hot Stuff", and "MacArthur Park".

The beauty of the outback appears on stage with over 20 full-scale production numbers and the famous battered bus itself 'Priscilla', which is on a revolving stage. The costumes of Bernadette, Mitzi, Felicia, and the entire cast were re-imagined by Academy Award-winning duo Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner.

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is produced by Back Row Productions, a UK-based company owned by Australians Liz Koops and Garry McQuinn, best known for Dein Perry's Tap Dogs; two-time Tony Award-winning impresario John Frost, Michael Hamlyn of Specific Films, an original producer of the film; and acclaimed screenwriter and playwright Allan Scott, well known for the Julie Christie/Donald Sutherland psychological thriller Don't Look Now. It is directed by New Zealander, Simon Phillips.

The show ran in Sydney, Melbourne, and New Zealand between 2006 and 2008, and moved to London in 2009, opening in the West End on 24 March 2009 at the Palace Theatre. Jason Donovan played the part of 'Tick' / Mitzi Mitosis. Tony Sheldon once again played Bernadette and Oliver Thornton played Felicia.[34]


An entirely new production of Priscilla Queen of the Desert was mounted for an open-ended Broadway run. The production began by playing 12 weeks (12 October 2010 to 2 January 2011) in Toronto at the Princess of Wales Theatre, then began Broadway previews at the Palace Theatre on 28 February 2011, with the Broadway opening on 20 March. The Broadway production closed on 24 June 2012.

Leading the cast were Will Swenson (Berger in the 2009 revival of Hair), Tony Sheldon, who has played Bernadette in the Australian and London productions, and Nick Adams (the original Angelique in the current revival of La Cage aux Folles).

Producers included Bette Midler, Liz Koops and Garry McQuinn for Back Row Productions, Michael Hamlyn for Specific Films, Allan Scott Productions, David Mirvish, Roy Furman, Terry Allen Kramer, James L. Nederlander, and Terri and Timothy Childs. The creative team remained the same. The script was re-written to focus the show earlier and more often on the Tick/Benji story.

Several of the songs used in the London production were replaced. The Broadway song list is:

See also


Further reading

External links

  • Internet Movie Database
  • AllRovi
  • Box Office Mojo
  • Rotten Tomatoes
  • Metacritic
  • Australian Broadcasting Corporation
  • Anything Oz or New Zealand
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