Monday, November 19, 2007

Where Did the Drag Queens Go?

I haven't had the opportunity to read the Queer Cinema Blog-a-Thon yet but I feel confident in assuming that many posts will bemoan the dearth of important and quality GLBT filmmaking these days. Gone are the heady days of early auteur work from Haynes, Araki, Kalin, Van Sant and genderbending masterpieces like Orlando and Paris is Burning. The 90s are looking more and more like the golden age of GLBT cinema. I recently found myself in Blockbuster searching for a movie they did not have (Maurice if you want to know) --the gay films I did notice on the shelf were all checked out (some things haven't changed) but I wouldn't have rented them anyway. The titles escape me but there was an alarming number of comedies about gay boys wanting straight boys. That still has appeal? My how little we've progressed. It was such a prevalent theme on the DVD cases that I began to suspect that my neighborhood was a DL hotbed (very possible) or that this is merely the type of straight to DVD gay movie being made (also possible). Muscle boys and dumb comedies galore... but where were the dramas? where were the outré offerings. Where were the drag queens? Seriously, where'd they go?

John Travolta in Hairspray does not count. Nor does Eddie Murphy in Norbit. Nor does Cate Blanchett in I'm Not There.

I came home suddenly desperate for wigs and heels and watched The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert for the first time in years. I remembered the great Terence Stamp performance, the astounding costumes (all that on a $15,000 costume budget??? I still can't believe it) and the ABBA jokes. I had forgotten the sheer quality of the movie itself. It's just a fine film: beautifully shot, very funny, well acted, well paced, moving and technically assured -- never mind the drag, never mind the queerness... though it must be applauded for that, too. For you see Priscilla is truly queer, not some neutered asexual thing like its American imitation To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything Julie Newmar.

Mitzi (Hugo Weaving), Felicia (Guy Pearce) and Bernadette (Terence Stamp) are remarkably well drawn. They have more than one character trait, more than one motivation for their actions and each one of them refuses to be merely a vehicle for your amusement: they're funny, sure, but they have insufferable qualities too. They'll make you laugh but while you're giggling you're forced to confront their loneliness, their sexuality and their coping mechanisms (both healthy and un).

I always enjoyed the movie but seeing it again made me miss both early 90s queer cinema and that other short-lived lively burst of filmmaking: exportable Australian comedy -- Americans loved those for about 4 years. I hadn't seen The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert in a long time and I was stunned watching it to remember its success: Adjusted for inflation Priscilla took in a healthy $17 million and won a freaking Oscar. It was as successful as its sort-of straight peers (Muriel's Wedding and Strictly Ballroom) as much of a limited release hit as recent queer-friendly classics like Far From Heaven and Y Tu Mama Tambien, more successful than recent hit foreign imports like The Lives of Others, La Vie En Rose. That's quite an achievement for a bawdy 'we're here, we're queer, get used to it' sort of comedy.

If you look at the most successful gay themed films ever released, Priscilla still seems impressively queer. (I've taken this list from Box Office Mojo's adjusted for inflation pages -but I've discarded films that I don't think belong there like Interview with a Vampire and Frida, which would've been in #2 and #19 spots)

01 The Birdcage (96)
02 Philadephia (93)
03 The Talented Mr Ripley (99)
04 The Crying Game (92)
05 In & Out (97)
06 Brokeback Mountain (05)
07 Victor/Victoria (82)
08 To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything Julie Newmar (95)
09 La Cage Aux Folles (79)
10 Cruising (80)

11 The Hours (02)
12 The Object of My Affection (98)
13 Monster (03)
14 Alexander (04)
15 Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil (97)
16 Rent (05)
17 Capote (05)
18 Making Love (82)
19 Threesome (94)
20 The Next Best Thing (00)
21 Far From Heaven (02)
22 The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (94)
23 Chasing Amy (97)
24 La Cage Aux Folles 2 ()
25 Y Tu Mama Tambien (02)
26 Boys Don't Cry (99)
27 Partners (82)
28 Personal Best (82)
29 The Hunger (83)
30 The Wedding Banquet (93)

The recent success of Far From Heaven, The Hours and Brokeback Mountain gives me hope for the gay drama to enter a new silver age... but gay comedies? The hits are depressingly unqueer in personality and politics, the no-budget affairs are just plain terrible (Eating Out, Another Gay Movie, etc...) The gay comedy needs a makeover something fierce. Wo-Man, does it need Mitzi, Felicia and Bernadette! Queer comedy is on the rocks because it's missing its cocks in frocks.


adam k. said...

Maurice is boring.

Guy Pearce in that photo is hot.

And The Birdcage annoys me.

I should really see Priscilla; I never have.

Also, I just finished some posts about the golden globe hopefuls, if anyone cares to check them out. (I spent a lot time on them cause I'm insane, so I'm hoping someone does)

Lyn said...

Great post. Sad to say, it's not so much that Americans have failed to notice Australian comedies since Priscilla, Muriel, and Strictly Ballroom - whilst there have been some minor successes, there really haven't been any comedies of note in Australia since then (gay themed or otherwise).

Except for maybe "The Castle", and "The Dish" - one of which Roger Ebert quite liked. I forget which one.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post. Evoked some precious cinema-going memories.

Nat, have you read THE FRONT RUNNER? It lacks the haunting grandeur of BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN but (if properly cast) would make a hell of a movie!

Glenn Dunks said...

Us Australians are a weird mob. We can laugh at ourselves, but if anyone else does it then we get all defensive and such, which is why that spat of Australian success in the early/mid '90s was both surprising and comforting. Much like when Crocodile Dundee was all the rage (ugh) it was like the international audience was laughing with us, not at us.

As Lyn said our comedy production is incredibly dire. Occasionally we get a Kenny or a Razzle Dazzle, but we don't tend to do comedy too well - especially at an international level. Although Chris Lilley is a comic genius with his short-run television series We Can Be Heroes and Summer Heights High.

Priscilla though is a riot. I just love spending time with those characters. I tend to watch it at least once a year and it's routinely on television. That it is a big queer celebration is almost besides the point because it's just so damn funny.

I actually really like The Birdcage. I know it's not exactly Shakespeare, but I get a good laugh out of it and considering the general lacklustre energy most comedies have these days I think that's enough reason to enjoy it.

RJ said...

HA...I just posted about this the other day. I saw it for the first time, and I loved it. I'm officially on the Guy Pearce bandwagon.

And I like The Birdcage. It's funny.

Boyd said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Well, they're doing this story. I know it's a drama.

First Comes Loves
The true life love story of Marion and her husband Tony, a gay heroin addict that dies of AIDS. An unconventional love story set in the 80's.

Kathy Bates is attached, but this movie may get canned due to the strike.

Boyd said...

This is one of my favourite films ever. I still laugh wildly at the jokes ("Are you telling me this is an ABBA turd?") even though I've seen the film so many times I can practically do all the dialogue.

And Pearce is so good it's scary he's become a heterosexual sex symbol after this movie (much in the way Hugh Grant is so good in Maurice you wonder how he ended up being the fantasy man of every housewife and their mothers).

I think it works so well, though, as you say, because it is NOT about them being outrageous queers. Everyone wears a mask in public -- these men just overdo the make-up a little -- which is something everyone can relate to.

Plus some moments are pure cinematic gold: Pearce on the bus singing opera, the three men during their cock in a frock on a rock moment... this is just pure eye candy to the max. Wonderful. And I still get a kick out of how low-key Elliot handles the SPOILER he has a kid END SPOILER sub-plot. It's great.

Glenn Dunks said...

Unfortunately Guy Pearce stopped eating for what must've been half a decade.

Although publicity shots for his next movie - How to Change in 9 Weeks I believe it's called - has him looking healthy again. Thankfully.

Anonymous said...

"Girls Will Be Girls" is one of my favorites. Check it out on DVD for a realy good laugh. I promise. I found my copy at Barnes and Noble.

Some of "Priscilla" still depresses me for some reason.

Anonymous said...

God, I hated Birdcage. I saw it with my brother and was cringing the entire time (except when Dianne Wiest was onscreen, of course. That woman can save anything.)

What I'd like to know is, where are the lesbians? Where are the lesbian films? That's a whole 'nother essay, I suppose, because "cocks in frocks" is not a part of the blanket or generic "GBLT" experience, although it's presumed to be.

There was a run of lesbian indie cinema for a while - Go Fish, Claire of the Moon. Go Fish was amusing, if trying a bit to hard at times to be "avant guarde" but it raised some interesting issues. "Better than Chocolat" and "Before Night Falls" are actually two of my favorite lesbian films (really lesbian, not pseudo-lesbian, like The Hours). Claire of the Moon was very popular - or at least very aggressively marketed, with soundtrack, t-shirts and such, but it's a disaster of a film that I couldn't sit through to the end. In fact, no one in the lesbian group I saw it with could. The director/cinematographer apparently decided that it was sufficient to plant a camera in one spot and never move it, just let people talk in front of it, never vary the shots or attempt movement with the camera (except in the dancing scene) and god the dialogue was crashingly boring.

But we're supposed to be praising, not blaming, right? Sorry.

The thing that has tended to bother me about much lesbian movies is that there is a tendancy to do the "coming out" theme (two women are attracted to each other, one is out, one is not) over and over and over. Where are the films for those of us who are OUT, have been out and don't need to relive the experience?

I don't think there are any "lesbian" films that are as funny, touching and accomplished as Priscilla, quite frankly, but Priscilla was a rather rare accomplishment, don't you think?


Glenn Dunks said...

I really love Lost & Delirious, actually.


redsatindoll --my favorite lesbian films are High Art, Heavenly Creatures and Bound. I also like I've Heard the Mermaids Singing and French Twist. I think there are several good ones actually although with both lesbian and gay films you have to really dig through the crap to find a gem.

Cengiz said...

I really enjoyed The Birdcage until I was in La Cage aux Folles in community theatre (I was Jacob...the maid NOT the butler). After seeing it again, its not as funny La Cage is.

I HATED In and Out with a passion. Though I never really saw Priscilla fully, only bits and parts. It is sad that gay cinema is still considered a taboo. And don't get me started on TV.

gabrieloak said...

I haven't seen it yet but Breakfast with Scot is supposed to be a pretty good gay comedy.The trailer looks promising. When I was in Toronto I couldn't get a ticket to see it. Does Happy Endings count as a gay comedy?