I have long been a fan of Guy Pearce, whose penchant for taking on small but meaningful roles has created one of the most diverse and surprising resumes for an actor of his caliber. Each week in 2020, I’ll be reviewing one of my Guy’s films, exploring just how wild his career has been.
If you track every movie I’ve watched since 2006 (as I have done), the Top 10 follow a fairly predictable lot: Star Wars, Marvel, Paddington. It is what it is. We all have our comfort food. One movie stands out, though. Number four, with eight views in the past 13 years, is The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert — the 1990s’ best drag-queen road-trip comedy.
Priscilla played an instrumental role in my college years and, per the title of this column, my following of Guy Pearce’s career.
Tick Belrose (Hugo Weaving) — whose stage name is Mitzi Del Bra — is a Sydney-based drag queen contracted by his estranged wife, Marion (Sarah Chadwick), to perform at a resort she runs in Alice Springs, across the Outback. He recruits fellow drag queen Adam (Pearce) — stage name Felicia Jollygoodfellow — who brings along his mother’s resources to purchase a tour bus for the two to travel in, which he christens Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. They’re joined by former performer Bernadette Bassenger (Terence Stamp), a trans woman whose partner recently passed away, leaving her without much to do.
It’s not all smooth sailing for the three. Bernadette is older and reserved. Tick is good-natured but hiding the fact that Marion was his wife and that the two have a son currently living with her. Coming from a repressed conservative background, Adam is flamboyant, immature and reckless in the desire to express himself. He gets the money by promising his mother it’s going to help him “get through his phase.” Bernadette and Adam quickly end up at odds, and things take a turn for the worst when the group makes a wrong turn and end up on a quirky journey through the middle of nowhere. They run into homophobic townsfolk, as well as new friends, and all learn lessons about themselves.
Priscilla (which spawned a successful stage musical, too) depicts three LGBTQ characters whose adventures are about themselves rather than the way the world responds to them. It was notable at the time for its progressive representation of the community, and even when I saw it in 2010 it felt somewhat mind-blowing. You still don’t see many movies that joyously embrace the community without turning the entire endeavor into a cautionary tale or a parade of clichés. I hadn’t up until that point. I needed it.
It’s important to question who you are and what your relationships to men and women mean to you. To consider what you’re looking for and that which interests you. To consider, beyond relationships, how you behave publicly and privately. I’ve always been mindful of these things, but Priscilla popped more pieces into place. When I first encountered it in 2010, I was asking many of those questions. Priscilla is fundamentally a good-natured story about three individuals finding their truths, together, that doesn’t hew to stereotypes to define them.
Pearce’s performance as Adam / Felicia was his breakout role, and for good reason. In any other film, his expressive, young, gay man would be just that, and the lessons he learned would be about accepting himself. Adam doesn’t need to accept himself. His lessons are about compassion and consideration of others — awareness and a loss of self-absorption. Pearce is so fucking awesome. The role is a sharp contrast with the rest of his career, which generally consists of traditionally masculine characters simmering with turmoil.
So I watched Priscilla frequently and showed it to a number of my friends. It was, coincidentally, the movie I watched the night my college girlfriend and I broke up, and one of the first movies I watched with my wife, Aly, after we started dating (a midnight screening at Keystone Art Cinema, actually). It’s a movie I return to frequently, even through clips on YouTube. Priscilla speaks to the tenor of heart.