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After 25 Years, Priscilla Remains The Most Important Australian Movie Ever

The early-mid 90s were Australia's golden age of cinema, with an unprecedented run of commercial and critical hits, launching the careers of many.

Baz Luhrmann's directorial debut Strictly Ballroom (1992) earned a Golden Globe nomination. Jan Chapman was the first Australian to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture, with The Piano (1993). Babe (1995) and Shine (1996) would soon match the feat. Actors Russell Crowe, Toni Collette, Rachel Griffiths and Geoffrey Rush earned initial international exposure.

However, it was Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner's Oscar win for Best Costume Design for The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert that announced Australian cinema was having a moment. Gardiner's iconic American Express dress would have dominated Twitter, had the platform existed in 1995.

The pair’s Oscar acceptance speech was perfectly Australian:

“I think we need to go and cry with some dignity now,” Gardiner said.

“I need a drink,” Chappel replied.

The Gumby inspired costume was Hugo Weaving's favourite. (Image: Gramercy/AAP)

In the film, their costumes scream Australia iconography: the Sydney Opera House; frill-necked lizards; emus. At the film’s 10th anniversary in 2004, Hugo Weaving told Network 10’s Angela Bishop he was torn between his favourites: “The thong dress... no, the Gumby outfit was the best.”

But sequins and feathers alone don’t make Priscilla the most important Australian film ever. Whilst equality is still a work in progress today, it’s incredible to consider how progressive a film about three drag queens was 25 years ago.

Terence Stamp, Guy Pearce and Stephan Elliott, circa 1994. (Image: Getty Images)

Back in 1994, Terence Stamp revealed to Bishop his own personal revelation in taking the role of trans woman Bernadette Bassenger.

“When I heard about the script, I thought it sounded fun. But when I read it, I just sort of got very terrified, you know?”

“It took me a while to realise that it was my own inhibitions that were stopping me seeing what an incredible opportunity that it would be.”

Priscilla seized the opportunity to share these stories to mainstream audiences for the first time, and break down misconceptions in an accessible way. Before the film’s release, director Stephan Elliott said: “I just keep making the films that amuse me, and fingers crossed they’ll amuse other people.”

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In the film, Bernadette explains via flashback that being transgender isn’t a “choice”. Legendary Australian actor Bill Hunter, known for portraying the blokiest blokes, plays Bob Spart, who explores his attraction to Bernadette.

Guy Pearce’s Adam Whitely/Felicia Jollygoodfellow is the target of violent homophobia. He’s also dealing with his parents thinking homosexuality is just a phase, and that hopefully he’ll “meet some lovely country girl” on his journey through the outback.

Guy Pearce and Hugo Weaving, 1994. (Image: Gramercy/Getty Images)

However the characters deal with more universal issues, not just sexuality.  Weaving’s "Tick" Belrose/Mitzi Del Bra is jaded with his day-job and struggles with anxiety about being a good parent. Bernadette is coping with the death of a partner. The three protagonists all board the bus Priscilla and head into the desert to seek the fulfilment all of us want in our lives.

Ultimately, Priscilla is a road movie about self-discovery, that artfully paints the colour of drag on the canvas of Australia.

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The film’s climax, realising Felicia’s dream to “climb King’s Canyon as a queen” serves as a confident, cheeky, inclusive tableau of how Australia can represent itself. Boots and all.

A 'Priscilla' drag queen during the closing ceremony of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. (Image: AAP/Dave Hunt)

This importance was reinforced at the Closing Ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympics, when Priscilla was alongside Kylie Minogue, Greg Norman, Elle Macpherson, Crocodile Dundee and Bananas in Pyjamas as symbols Australia chose to show the rest of the world.

Important doesn't necessarily mean the best. By no means is Priscilla a perfect film.

The portrayal of Cynthia, the wife of Bob, was criticised contemporaneously for being a problematic Filipino stereotype -- 25 years on, scenes involving her character are the toughest to re-watch.

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Personally, I’ll re-watch Two Hands, Looking for Alibrandi, The Castle, Babe and Strictly Ballroom more times in my life than The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. But the latter’s importance to Australian cinema is unrivalled.

Contact the author: wshipard@networkten.com.au

(Featured image: Gramercy/AAP)