Just a quickie about representation in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (dir: Stephan Elliott, Australia, 1994) (PQD).
Three main characters represent different faces of LGBT. Remember the CONTEXT… 1994 attitudes to LGBT people and issues was markedly different to todays. As such, the characters of Tick, Adam and Bernadette (Bernice/Ralph) are portrayed slightly differently from how they might be represented today. Also, a 1994 audience would react differently…
For a 1994 audience, Adam (Guy Pearce) represents the stereotype of the ‘bitchy queen’. He is young, brash — almost aggressive, in your face, full of life and unashamedly gay. He is also quite immature and acts without thinking. He is cynical and uses people (even family… think about how he manages to get ‘Priscilla’). The justification we are shown in the film (it is implied) is that he was abused by his uncle…
It is Adam who ‘sings’ on the top of Priscilla as she drives across the outback… and the lyrics give an insight into Adam’s hedonistic (Ooooo… Big word… Look it up!) approach to life. Here it is from a production of La Traviata with English subtitles…
Bernadette (Terence Stamp) is transgender (male to female). She is portrayed as the mature and smart one (Think Levi-Strauss and binary opposite of Adam, perhaps). While quiet and reflective and hating ‘bloody ABBA’, Bernadette is also the character who appears to find love on the road trip.
Bernadette is the voice of experience. The one who helps get the others out of a pickle as required (mainly Adam!)… For the 1994 audience, the notion of someone being transgender would be even more unusual than simply being gay… so how do you think the audience would react to this intelligent, witty and funny woman who challenges their preconceptions… and don’t forget, casting Terence Stamp was a masterstroke in making the film sellable outside Australia. Here he is talking (briefly) about Priscilla and the importance of the film to him.
Did you take much persuading to perform in drag for The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert?
It wasn’t something I’d have ever considered really. I thought it was a joke, but a woman friend of mine just happened to be present when I was getting calls from my agent about the script and she pointed out to me in a very incisive way that my fear was out of all proportion to the possible consequences. That’s the thing about fear: you’re only really subject to it as long as you don’t spot it. It’s not easy to realise when you’re turning down things from fear or genuine discernment.
She said, “Look, just say yes and maybe it will go away. And if it doesn’t, you’ll just have to address the fear.” And then she said this wonderful thing: “Terence, this is not a career move, this is a growth move.” So it was a challenge, a challenge I couldn’t resist because [otherwise] my life would have been a lie.
But it wasn’t a fun thing, or anything I was looking forward to. It was, “F*ck me, this is the last thing in the world I want to do: be in f*cking Australia with paparazzi.” It was like a nightmare. But it was only when I got there, and got through the fear, that it became one of the great experiences of my whole career. It was probably the most fun thing I’ve ever done in my life.
from: BFI interview
Tick (Hugo Weaving) is the heart of the film. The central narrative (Classic Holywood: disruption followed by quest/journey to find resolution/equilibrium) revolves around Tick’s need to travel to Alice Springs to meet his son. The fear he carries is how his son will react to having a gay father.
In terms of representation, Tick is portrayed as being gay, but more importantly for the 1994 audiences, he has a vulnerability that endears him. He is scared and worried about how his son will view him, and this means he becomes more than just a gay stereotype… he becomes a parent and that is something audiences can relate to.
Remember Stephan Elliott is trying to convey a message that LGBT people are people like everyone else. They have hopes and fears just like the rest of us. The genius is that Elliott makes great and clever uses of codes and conventions to convey aspects of Tick’s character (and thus representations)… he is a drag queen, he appears ‘camp’ on the bus, there is the very funny paradox when he is told he is a dad:
Tick is the guide for the audience. He becomes the acceptable representation of ‘gay’. He is funny, caring, has a son, and generally tries to keep out of trouble. Like Bernadette, Tick is quite happy living the quiet life: think of the scene in Coober Pedy when Tick and Bernice are having a civilised discussion over a meal. This would tell an audience that LGBT people have similar hopes and fears and experiences to ‘straight’ people… yet Tick can also unleash an extrovert gay side especially when drink/Adam are involved.
The key scene with regards Tick and representation comes when he is alone with his son at the picnic. He is dressed to try and look like the stereotypical conventional rugged outdoor barbecue and beer loving Aussie man. Yet the humour comes because his clothes look as though they are brand new, and look how uncomfortably he is standing…
Watch the scene, and think what image is he trying to project, why, and how would it be received by (in the film) his son… and more importantly, by the 1994 audience?
If you are on the ball, you’ll realise it would go a long way to helping change the audiences’ opinions of LGBT.
That should be enough to point you in the right direction… I’ll try to add more if time allows, but you need to relax.
If time allows, watch Priscilla one last time tonight, and watch the Panorama on hacking. Other than that, get some sleep!