Friday, March 23, 2012

Double Feature Friday: Drag Queen Edition

Double Feature Friday is a weekly post curating two films based on a given theme.

Drag queens may be experiencing a heyday thanks to RuPaul's Drag Race, but their art is still notably absent from the silver screen. Sure, there are lots of movies with cross-dressing -- Rocky Horror Picture Show, Mrs. Doubtfire, etc. -- but drag queens are not just wearing women's clothing. Instead, they are performing entertainment while in costume. Now that we've got our vocabulary cleared up, let's talk drag films!

Perhaps the most accessible and easily enjoyable dragalicious movie is To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar (1995, Beeban Kidron). The film follows three New York drag queens as they road trip across the country to enter a national drag competition. Sounds like this appeals to a limited audience, right? Brilliant casting elevates the film from niche market to wider appeal. The queens are portrayed by well-known actors Wesley Snipes (Noxeema Jackson), John Leguizamo (Chi-Chi Rodriguez), and Mr. Romantic Lead himself, Patrick Swayze (Vida Boheme). All three men have careers built on hetero-masculine roles, so it's impressive to see them adapt to drag so fluidly. It certainly doesn't hurt that the film boasts an impressive lineup of actual drag queens, too: RuPaul, Lady Bunny, Miss Understood, and Candis Cayne are just a few of the performers with cameos.

To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar

The most important aspect of the film is its message of empowerment. As the more seasoned queens, Noxeema and Vida help Chi-Chi improve her performance. When their car breaks down, the queens are stranded in a small town with cliché small town attitudes about women. The queens teach the ladies to empower themselves and stand up against masculine oppression. When they win their battles, we as viewers also win and can celebrate their victories. Given the current American political hostility against women, it's so critical to take this film's message to heart: stand up for yourself, celebrate your victories, and support your community.

The Australian film The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994, Stephan Elliot) has a beautiful symmetry with To Wong Foo due to its similar plot: a trifecta of drag queens travel through the desert to perform at a hotel. But there's a darkness to Priscilla that's far more extreme than its American counterpart. The queens are verbally and physically abused by the men they encounter. The mutilation of the film's namesake with the words, "AIDS fuckers go home" really emphasizes the potential dangers that drag queens, gay men, and transgender women face every day. Indeed, the film is more about the everyday lives and motivations of its characters than it is about the extravagant, gorgeous, glittery, feathered drag performances (which are thrilling nonetheless).

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert

If you thought that the actors in To Wong Foo were playing against type, you'll be incredibly impressed by the cast of Priscilla. Stone cold Terrence Stamp, best known for being a British badass, falls brilliantly into place as transgendered female Bernadette Basinger. His supporting cast includes Hugo Weaving and Guy Pearce. Admittedly, there is something otherworldly about seeing Agent Smith from The Matrix being so fabulous, but Weaving had not yet become the popular character actor he is today. Pearce, too, was mostly known from his work on Australian soap opera Neighbors; while the film could have been risky to his career (due to Hollywood's rampant insider homophobia), its enormous success really helped him break the international market.

And with that, another Double Feature Friday comes to a close. Have a fabulous weekend!

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