The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert - Stephan Elliott - Terence Stamp - Guy Pearce - Hugo Weaving - Bernadette - Felicia - Mitzi - Alice Springs - yellow lizard costumes

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
1994, directed by Stephan Elliott

“Oz” is a popular nickname for Australia, a play on the continent’s first syllable as well as its reputation as a land of wonders. Without ever mentioning the name Oz, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert pays tribute to the story it comes from and its famous 1939 movie adaptation. A trio of characters in flamboyant costumes follows a road to the center of “Oz” to find their missing qualities, accompanied by a girl… well, a bus with a girl’s name… who carries a giant glam shoe instead of ruby slippers.

The journey parallels The Wizard of Oz in a few other ways. Like Dorothy by the Scarecrow’s cornfield, the travelers have to guess the way forward at an intersection. They get stuck in the middle of the Outback, like at the poppy field in Oz. Like Glinda, Mitzi’s wife comes unexpectedly out of the past and bids the characters a safe return at the end. Like the Wizard, Bob is a sympathetic but not very powerful savior, and his wife is like a comical witch. Like the Munchkins, a group of Aboriginal Australians pop magically out of the landscape and direct the travelers on their way. Both movies are brightly colored musicals. Once everything is resolved in Alice Springs, as in the Emerald City, the movie returns quickly to its starting point and concludes with the line, “It’s good to be home.”

The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert - Stephan Elliott - Terence Stamp - Hugo Weaving - Bernadette - Mitzi - Outback - breakfast - Froot Loops - pineapple

There is an important difference, however. The Wizard of Oz focuses on Dorothy, who foolishly wants to travel over the rainbow for a more exciting life. Mitzi, Felicia, and Bernadette are mature enough to realize that happiness is not to be found in a magical far-off land but in self-acceptance. The opening song inverts “Over the Rainbow”… instead of wishing for paradise it says, “I’ve been to paradise, but I’ve never been to me.” And yet self-acceptance is not easily won, especially for a queer drag queen living in a society hostile to alternate expressions of sexuality. The rowdy guests at the Sydney nightclub and the gang of miners at Coober Pedy make it clear that homophobia runs deep in Australia.

The Adventures of Priscilla is an attack on that homophobia. Most viewers will sense this because it’s so plainly sympathetic to the three leads, but its precise argument is less obvious. It might seem foolish to argue against a mindset as reflexive as homophobia, but we can acknowledge a logic behind the prejudice – at least a corrupted logic – without paying honor to hatred. Homophobia stems from underlying beliefs, and this movie undermines a particularly widespread belief – i.e. that homosexuality is unnatural.

The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert - Stephan Elliott - bus - highway - high heeled shoe - road sign

Much of the film is set in the wild Outback, so there’s plenty of reference to nature, but if we want to define the general shape of the argument we can start with the signifiers that define its structure. The journey is bracketed by two road signs. As the bus leaves Sydney for the open desert, it passes a yellow diamond-shaped “kangaroo crossing” sign. Returning at the end, it passes a similar yellow road sign with the stenciled silhouette of a high-heeled glam shoe. There can be no doubt that the two signs are intentionally paired, and on one level they form a joke – Mitzi, Felicia, and Bernadette are the urbanized world’s equivalent of exotic wildlife. On a more serious level, they cue us to look at the drag queens with the same fascination and respect that we customarily feel toward natural fauna.

After the kangaroo sign there’s a breathtaking moment when Felicia hits the brakes and, instead of finding some obstacle, everyone steps out to behold the endless desert unfurling beyond the ridge. The camera soars above them, and a wave of music underscores the panoramic splendor. For the first time nature makes itself felt, but there are greater wonders ahead.

The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert - Stephan Elliott - Terence Stamp - Guy Pearce - Hugo Weaving - Bernadette - Felicia - Mitzi - hotel - colorful costumes - wallpaper

When their bus breaks down, marooning them on the “shortcut” dirt road, the characters dress up in women’s clothing or full theatrical drag as they immerse themselves in the wilderness. Bernadette wanders through the badlands in a dress to get help while Mitzi rehearses dance moves on a cliff and Felicia paints the bus lavender. The colorful desert complements their bright colors, and inserted shots of wildlife, including lizards of various hues, punctuate the scene. The animals and landscapes are not merely decorative; they’re placed strategically to link the drag queens with the world of nature. In their show at Alice Springs they’ll return the compliment, dressing up as lizards and emus. Equating the transsexual Bernadette and the transvestites Mitzi and Felicia with wildlife, as all this implies, is no insult. If the viewer follows them with a minimum of sympathy, they should earn the same awe that the first desert vista inspired in them. It should open our minds to the idea that queer sexualities belong as much to nature as we might assume “normal” heterosexuality does. For that matter, more than just belonging, they’re part of the exceptional element – like a colorful bird or a steep canyon – that makes nature so attractive.

When Bernadette goes off looking for help, she encounters a white middle-aged couple in an off-road vehicle hunting kangaroos. Back at the bus, Mitzi and Felicia spook the couple with their over-the-top outfits and their effusive manner, and the hunters zip out of sight, banishing hope of a rescue. At night, however, a band of Aboriginals finds the stranded travelers and rescues them after a festive night of music, dancing, and dressing up in the desert. One of the Aboriginals joins the impromptu drag show in a spare costume, his mates happily cheering him on. The contrast between these two episodes is part of the main argument. The white couple, making jeep tracks in the desert with a grotesque cargo of butchered kangaroo carcasses, are at war with nature and cannot abide alternative sexuality. The Aboriginals, who live in tune with nature, accept the drag queens wholeheartedly. If Mitzi, Felicia, and Bernadette were so offensive to nature – as so many believe – then it should be the Aboriginals instead of the kangaroo hunters who are shocked and disgusted.

The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert - Stephan Elliott - Guy Pearce - Felicia - bus - silver costume - La Traviata

The journey to Alice Springs alternates between nature and human settlements. There are three layovers in small towns en route, and the locals’ inhospitality contrasts with nature’s consistent embrace. The pattern is both visual and emotional, contrasting the beauty of the desert with the tackiness and drabness of the modern human world that suppresses sexual variety.

The climactic scene is the fulfilment of Mitzi’s long-cherished dream to climb King’s Canyon in drag. Here the three travelers finally take their destined place in the splendor of nature, becoming what Bernadette so drolly referred to back in Sydney as “a cock in a frock on a rock.” The musical score and photography emphasize the majesty of their surroundings. The travelers have finally found harmony with each other, and their excursion up the canyon confirms their harmony with nature.

The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert - Stephan Elliott - Terence Stamp - Guy Pearce - Hugo Weaving - Bernadette - Felicia - Mitzi - Alice Springs - emu costumes

To say that The Adventures of Priscilla makes an argument is not to demand that it satisfies all the requirements of rationality. Movies are generally not good at that. They appeal to the senses and the emotions, and their role is to shift people’s perceptions, to open new ways of looking at the circumstances of life. There is plenty of empirical and scientific evidence for variations on “normal” sexuality in nature, but we don’t need a movie to make that case. The Adventures of Priscilla attacks an irrational prejudice, and it meets that prejudice on the same ground, readying the viewer to accept a more empirically grounded – and more humane – understanding of sexuality.

It would be unfair to claim that a movie like this, by virtue of its emotional appeal, is no better than the equally emotional hatred that it opposes. It’s an unavoidable fact of life that emotions control much of people’s thinking. A movie can appeal to our emotions without manipulating them. The Adventures of Priscilla poses a question – it presents an alternate, possibly counterintuitive view of sexuality, asking us to reconsider the rather simplistic hypothesis that queerness is unnatural. The fact that the empirical answer lies outside the movie is no discredit to the movie. Like any other film, it must be judged not only for its internal consistency but also for its correspondence to the real world.

The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert - Stephan Elliott - Terence Stamp - Guy Pearce - Hugo Weaving - Bernadette - Felicia - Mitzi - King's Canyon - hike - drag costumes - headdresses - feathers

During the climb up King’s Canyon, The Adventures of Priscilla invites us not only to think but also to feel that humans, in all their multitudinous variety, however they express their sexuality, share a place in the glories of nature. Far from being unnatural, the costumes, humor, behavior, and stylized voices of Bernadette, Mitzi, and Felicia are not signs of humankind’s deviance from nature; rather they represent the characters’ own nature rising to the surface in spite of all the constraining forces of civilization.


The Wizard of Oz – Bracketing; three characters on a journey of self-discovery; Dorothy/Priscilla; final line about homecoming