Saturday, October 10, 2009

Screen Queens

Hi, Matt Canada here with a weekly column looking back at gay cinema classics. I think that alot of people, gay and straight alike, view gay films as formally, thematically, and socially ghettoised and sub par. It is my goal that this column will reflect the diversity, breadth, and quality of the gay canon. This body of films encompasses everything from those made by gay filmmakers dealing explicitly with gay issues (Milk); to gay authored films that are nominally straight stories, but are interpreted by many as allegorically commenting on Lavender themes (George Cukor's Rich and Famous); camp classics (Mommie Dearest); gay films authored by heterosexual directors, screenwriters and/or producers (Brokeback Mountain); and those "heterosexual films" that have always been appropriated by gay audiences as queer (All About Eve). With such a wide array of possible films to look at, this column will bring something unique to the table each weekend.

First up is Beeban Kidron's Too Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar (1995) starring Patrick Swayze, Wesley Snipes, and John Leguizamo as drag queens. The story of three drag queens on a road trip across the less metropolitan wilds of the country's interior, where there's a breakdown which subsequently forces interactions with less refined locals, was not a very novel idea the year after the success of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. It has long been derided as a bad American remake of said film. However, when I first saw this film at around eight or nine (oblivious to my sexuality), I had never heard of Priscilla and loved the film's campness, lavish frocks, sequins, smiles and happy ending. Even as I grew up and my tastes matured, I continued to love everything about the film. It was practically the only gay themed film I watched in my adolescence with straight friends and family. They loved it. I loved it. It was one of the only positive and shared experiences of gay culture as a closeted youth.

So that is all well and good, but now that I have an honours Film degree and a dissertation on gay cinema behind me, bitchy humour, cocks in frocks, and a happy ending can't still have the same effect, right?

...I am not going to lie, I was almost embarrassed by how much I still loved it. Do not get me wrong, I did realise its faults on this viewing: including but not limited to the completely unbelievable script, desexualized gay men, condescending attitude towards women, and deus ex machina conclusion. However, I still find the film immensely enjoyable. The three stars as drag queens are great and obviously having loads of fun. They have everything you want from celluloid female impersonators: over-acting, bitchy one-liners, and an innate campness. However, the relationships between the three queens and especially the relationship between Swayze's Grand Dame and Stockard Channing's battered-housewife carry some real emotional weight and are expertly acted, if not flawlessly written.

The film is not perfect but it is a definitely more than a Priscilla rip-off. I think it deserves some revisiting. As some English queens say - it's camp as tits - and I love it.
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12 comments:

Eric Henderson said...

Looking forward to reading these as much as I'm looking forward to sampling the forthcoming monographs in Arsenal's "Queer Film Classics" series.

Joe said...

To Wong Foo is the first entry in this weekly series? Hm.

John Leguizamo, however, was born to play Rosie Perez... I mean, Chi-Chi Rodriguez.

mrripley said...

I agree,in my large uk town this was about as close it got at 17 to gayness,no one knew i wa sgay but i wanted to be part of that gang,i know it is contrived in places but this was swayze's best role forget ghost and dd and john leguizamo best supp actor nod please in 95's weak year.

sean said...

After seeing back this post it brought back a memory of seeing this with my family when i was very young and loving it! Didn't have a clue back then that i was gay but clearly it still affected me on some level!

Glenn said...

I don't like the film (or I didn't when I first saw it), but I think it's an inspired choice to start the series since it's a) not a "CLASSIC" and b) it's far more personal. I'd much rather read a personal take on a non-classic than a written-on-default piece on something like Brokeback Mountain.

Walter L. Hollmann said...

I love love love this movie. True, I haven't seen Priscilla, but I always remember this as one of the few queer films my very conservative family watched together. They refused to see Brokeback, etc., but they were always up for To Wong Foo and The Birdcage. Yes, it's a little spare, but I adore it. Besides, it opens with Salt-n-Pepa and Rachel Tension.

NATHANIEL R said...

isn't RuPaul in it too with a cameo? I remember being one of those people who was angry because Priscilla IS a classic. And it does feel like a much less inspired riff on the same idea.

but i do remember enjoying it in bits. And I love movies that win older celebrities new fans by way of something or other (Julie Newmar!)

Sam said...

I have always thought it was Patrick Swayze's best performance by far, plus he made a beautiful drag queen. He took a lot of hits for being a bad actor, and he certainly gave some bad performances, but I believe he proved he could act in this movie.

Christine said...

Are we allowed to lobby for suggestions for films in the series? Because, if so, I want Edward II.

KBJr. said...

I too, was a eight or nine year old young black man who was introduced to this GREAT film by my mother (of all people). We watched it together (and obviously at eight we had no clue about my eventual sexuality) and had a ball. It even got to the point where I watched the film so often, she told me to stop (probably a little homo-worry kicked in at that point)...nevertheless, I'd sneak to watch it with the volume down reaaaaaly low when she'd go to bed. This movie brings back so many great memories from that time of my life.

Thanks Nathan for this trip back down memory lane. I always loved the film, thought it was wonderfully acted (I stand by my contention that Mr. Leguizamo should have at least been nominated for an Oscar)...and that script! Outrageous...

I leave now with my favorite quote from the movie, delivered by the superbly witty Wesley Snipes as Ms. Noxzema Jackson: "My God. This is my idea of hell, I mean look around who is their art director, Ma Joad?" ahahahahaha!!

CanadaMatt said...

I am so glad to hear others had the same experience with this film being the only truely gay film they experienced in their youth.

Also, Christine I definately want to get Edward II in, first because I haven't seen it yet (crime, I know) and secondly because Tilda and Jarman have to make an appearance on this list.

Wayne said...

I like Chris Penn's little monologue while sitting down in the bar.