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30 Years of Priscilla: What Can Writers Learn From This LGBTQ Classic?

All About The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert

I remember the first time I saw Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. I was a closeted bisexual teen in deep denial and I saw it in the middle of the night on TV. (If I recall correctly, it was on BBC2).

To say it blew me away is an understatement. I lived in Devon, in the middle of nowhere, with no sniff of even so much as a Pride parade. (The closest I got back then were the ubiquitous rainbows on cans of Lynx body spray).

A few years before I watched it, Priscilla premiered to a midnight screening reception on May 15th, 1994 and apparently brought the house down. The film was not only a critical darling – even winning an Oscar for its costumes – it captured Joe Public’s imagination too.

Thirty years on, The Adventures of Priscilla The Queen of The Desert is not only considered a classic amongst LGBTQ audiences, but straight ones too

It crossed over from the silver screen to theatres, with the musical version first premiering in 2006. It’s been consistently popular on stage and tour for almost twenty years now.

A feel-good comedy with a deceptive bite, Priscilla is also a road movie. The story in the original follows a trio of Sydney drag queens –  Terrence Stamp, Hugo Weaving and Guy Pearce — who travel by bus (aka Priscilla) to a gig in the Outback. Of course, on their way they get into all sorts of trouble, whether that’s breaking down, getting into fights in biker bars or accidentally breaking up a (heterosexual) marriage.

But what can writers learn from Priscilla, a stone-cold LGBTQ classic? Quite a lot, it seems. Ready? Let’s go …

1) Priscilla Had an Inauspicious Start

It’s hard to believe, but according to writer-director Stephen Elliott, Priscilla’s first ever audience HATED everything about it!

There was a private screening before that Cannes premiere that would change everything. It was made of mostly LGBTQ individuals. According to Elliot, they were openly hostile, booing and hissing during the movie.

At the end, they accused Elliott of ‘laughing at gay issues’. They also were upset Elliot didn’t reference HIV, or have any male sex scenes. According to Elliott – talking to The Hollywood Reporter podcast – he lost his temper:

“I said, ‘You know what, people? If you want to make that film, you make that film, and you and your 10 mates can go see it. This film was made for a wider audience. I’m sorry if you don’t like it.’ 

This really hit a chord with me. I can understand why LGBTQ people may not have liked the film back then. The 1980s was a terrible time for gay people, gay men especially. It may have seemed a bridge ‘too far’, based on what they’d gone through.

But it’s also important to note Elliott is himself gay. Had he been a heterosexual filmmaker, the feeling he was ‘laughing at gay issues’ might have had more weight.

But Elliott was writing about things he’d had personal experience of. He also wanted to write a celebration of gay life, rather than yet another cautionary tale. When representations of queer joy are STILL at a premium thirty years later, this is an important distinction.

B2W TAKEAWAY: Sometimes even our own peers won’t understand what we’re trying to do. We keep going anyway.

2) Terrence Stamp Got A Taste Of REAL Gender Dysphoria

Apparently, Terrence Stamp believed he would be a lot sexier – or at least better-looking – as Bernadette, the only trans member of the group. According to Elliot, Stamp saw himself as a woman ‘and got depressed’.

It’s not hard to see why. Stamp had been a (heterosexual) sex symbol for a long time before signing on to Priscilla. He’d been voted ‘sexiest man alive’ multiple times, plus most 80s kids can remember him as General Zod in Superman II.

It must have been quite the shock for him to see himself as a woman then … and a powerful reminder of how gender dysphoria can affect even cisgender actors!

Long before ‘deadname’ became a word – or even the term transgender – Adam, a cis gay man (Guy Pearce) is painted as the antagonist for calling Bernadette by her ‘real’ name.

In fact, Adam is a god-awful little shit for most of the narrative around her. This makes it all the more poignant when Bernadette comforts Adam after he’s attacked by a homophobic gang at one of their stops.

If Priscilla was made today, then a transgender actor would be much more likely (rightly!) to play Bernadette

Yet back then, trying to find trans actors or even drag performers proved very difficult for Elliott and his crew. They apparently approached lots in the hope they would be interested. But being a different world back then, many apparently told the filmmakers they were reluctant to out themselves on the silver screen forever.

Does the fact a sex symbol like Stamp played a trans woman in a critical and commercial sensation mean the door got opened for more trans actors in the long run? It’s hard to prove, but it certainly can’t have hurt … especially in an industry obsessed with the bottom line in terms of $$$£££.

B2W TAKEAWAY: The industry is constantly in flux and the burden of casting can be a real issue for marginalised actors. But we seem to finally be moving into a space – slowly – in which authenticity is rightly prized.

3) Great Parts Can Really Set Your Script – And Film – Apart

Thirty years on, Guy Pearce is known to people around the world for his star-making turns in Memento, LA Confidential, Iron Man 3 and much more. He’s a mid-lister who is renowned not only for his brooding presence, but his spring-loaded physical acting and even his excellent comedic timing.

In short, Pearce is a real chameleon. He’s shown himself to be versatile and a ‘safe pair of hands’ for even the dodgiest of screenplays (I’m looking at you, Prometheus!!). I might even go so far to say Pearce could be the Gen X, Australian version of Ryan Gosling.

Yet back in 1994, Pearce was only twenty-six years old and still in the Australian soap opera Neighbours. Playing the part of heart-throb Mike, Pearce was desperate to shed this image. He told Elliott he ‘wanted to kill’ Mike … and he felt the part of the obnoxious Adam (aka Felicia) was just the way to do it. The rest, as they say, is history.

B2W TAKEAWAY: Writing truly amazing parts for your characters can set your script apart and attract top talent, especially if they’re keen to distance themselves from previous roles.

4)  Music Copyright Didn’t Stand In Priscilla‘s Way (For Once)

It’s hard to imagine drag queens NOT lip-syncing to classic LGBTQ anthems, but this very nearly happened with Priscilla. After all, music is copyrighted material. This means that most of the time, low-budget filmmakers have to abandon any preferred music tracks because they are just too expensive.

But luckily, Polygram records was just getting into the film business in the 1990s. Buying half the rights, Polygram told Elliott he HAD to use their music catalogue … which just so happened to include ABBA!

This enabled Elliott to include such iconic songs as Abba’s Mama Mia, CeCe Penston’s Finally and Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive in the film. In fact, Priscilla is even credited with ABBA’s revival in the 1990s!

B2W TAKEWAY: Sometimes gifts fall from the stars like this, so always make use of them. But otherwise, consider what else you have access to for little or no money to help you tell the story.

5) Stereotypes Don’t Have To Be ‘Bad Writing’ Or Even Inauthentic!

Whenever I am working with writers on LGBTQ characters or stories, this inevitable question arises:

“Yes, but isn’t this a STEREOTYPE of LGBTQ life?'”

The Adventures of Priscilla, The Queen Of The Desert does indeed have stereotypical elements. It’s not the perfect movie, and some of them have not aged well (I’m thinking Bob’s wife here, in particular).

But contrary to popular belief, stereotypes are not necessarily WRONG in writing. What can be wrong or inauthentic is how they’re used (like most things in stories! Fancy that).

It’s important to remember three things when considering Priscilla:

i) It is a comedy

One of the reasons stereotypes can be so powerful in comedy is they can be used to make a point. Seeing Tick (Hugo Weaving) rehearsing dance steps in his dress in the desert is a fantastic visual image. It’s ridiculous, larger-than-life and fun.

So is watching Adam, Bernadette and Tick climb to the top of King’s Canyon in all their drag finery. It’s joyful and funny to see. But more importantly, it reminds us that LGBTQ people can be anyone, anywhere … and they have every right to be there and take up space.

ii) It was 1994

Over the past thirty years, lots has changed … not least the craft of screenwriting. Whilst archetypal characters are now more popular, stereotypes still exist to make the point mentioned in the previous section. These points frequently create contrasts or even poke fun at power structures.

We can see this in action in Priscilla when the trio – Tick and Adam in full drag – go to order a drink at a backwater bar. A woman challenges Bernadette, saying none of them are welcome.

Given the rampant culture wars of the past ten years in particular when it comes to trans issues, this scene could be modern. So is Bernadette’s X-rated response to the bigoted woman, who is then laughed at by the whole bar.

iii) Stereotypes don’t have to be inauthentic (yes, really) 

There’s a school of thought that stereotypes are ‘all lies’. There are of course some that are completely false and based wholly in prejudice. (And they can obviously get in the bin).

But I’d wager just as many stereotypes have a grain of truth to them. This means the intentions of those who use them is key to understanding WHY they’re being used.

LGBTQ stereotypes are abundant and can frequently be used as a ‘F-U’ to societal demands. In a world in which femininity is too often considered gross, vain or weak, drag performers show us what a folly this is. It is not sexualising, but a celebration.

Flamboyancy in gay men can be considered an antidote to toxic masculinity which says ‘boys don’t cry’ and that emotions are ‘for girls’. What’s more, gay men can be masculine whether they’re covered in glitter, wearing a dress or make-up. It is asinine to say otherwise when most of us quite literally accept ‘the clothes don’t make the man’.

B2W TAKEAWAY: You can write stereotypes … just write them ON PURPOSE with a point in mind, not by accident. MORE: 5 Times It’s Okay To Write Stereotypes (Really!)

Good Luck!

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