Time Out Sydney

They turned Australian film on its head – and things haven't been the same since

Writer-director Stephan Elliott has a theory about how an Australian filmmaker can find their greatest success – at the box office and with the audience: “Do everything the Americans wouldn’t. Be as colourful and garish and in-your-face and as Australian as you possibly could.” It sounds like the logline for his own 1994 triumph The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, as well as the film with which it will forever be linked.

Muriel’s Wedding,” Elliott says, “is a bloody brilliant film—a masterpiece. I saw it two nights after a screening of my own film, sitting alongside Jason Donovan, who I was courting to play Guy Pearce’s role in Priscilla. And I was genuinely floored.” The two films – which celebrate the twentieth anniversary of their Australian releases this month – heralded what Elliott calls “the beginning of a movement.” After a productive but generally fallow period for the national film industry, these two idiosyncratic comedies found a fizzy and trenchant way to touch upon mail-order spouses, small-minded provincialism, Australia’s obsession with ABBA and the fact that life can be – figuratively and literally – a total drag. They became smash hits at home and abroad.

“There was something in the air at the time – and it was Champagne, not whisky,” recalls Daniel Lapaine, the aloof groom to Mur – excuse us, Mahriel’s – beaming bride in director PJ Hogan’s wedding-themed comedy, which played the Cannes Film Festival in 1994 (as did Priscilla) and made international stars of Toni Collette and Rachel Griffiths. “We had a progressive government, we’d just celebrated the bicentenary, the Olympics were ours. So people wanted to have a party. The world seemed a lot safer than it does right now.”

“Sydney was just at its peak then,” says Elliott. “I can’t remember the city being more fun than when Hawke and Keating were in power. We were one of the most liberal and forward-thinking countries on earth, and within all of that happiness, I wandered into these gay bars staring at what I had been brought up to believe was drag, realising it had nothing to do with drag. It was demented kabuki. Whether I like it or not, Priscilla” – the creative result of those visits – “was a very long, slow coming-out letter.”

And not just to himself. Film critic Margaret Pomeranz, who cameos as Guy Pearce’s mum in Priscilla, credits the films’ breakthrough successes to their guileless celebration of “the great love Australians have for their own larrikinism.” But maybe it’s something deeper than that. Both films deal in plenty of pathos, which anchors the ridiculous antics that carry along their plots. Behind the glitter and bad wigs, important stories about a waning Australia were being told. In hindsight, each movie stands as a loving time capsule of this far-off land in its final, insular years before the National Apology (Elliott still chafes at being denied a permit to film actors Pearce, Terence Stamp and Hugo Weaving climbing Uluru for the pivotal scene that eventually filmed at Kings Canyon), the war on terror, globalisation and the internet threw the national identity into flux.

“I guess suburban reality has been preyed upon by TV – let’s put the Heslop family in the Big Brother house and see how they go,” says Dan Wyllie, who played Muriel’s brother Perry. “I don’t know that you’d believe [the Heslop family] if you hadn’t seen them with your own eyes.” Their dysfunctional torpor may be sad, but it was also realistic; just as those who know and love Priscilla empathise with the rowdy and lovable "cocks in a frock on a rock" at its centre, many Muriel fans relate to its title character's suffocating desperation to leave Woop Woop behind. More than that, they were distinctively Australian stories – a lovable family of yobbos just getting by in their messy Queenslander; grown men who like to take the piss being confronted by harsh weather and harsher attitudes. Elliott worries their milieu will one day go missing. “Our sense of isolation, which creates who you are and what eccentricities you have, is disappearing,” says Elliott. “We can’t make a great Australian film because we don’t know who we are anymore.”

Until we find the answer, that garish pink bus keeps rolling endlessly into the red centre, and Muriel and Rhonda keep dancing with abandon to ‘Waterloo’, their snooty high-school classmates looking on with disgust. And the most successful one-two punch in Australian film history keeps a tight, rainbow-coloured grip on the imaginations of millions worldwide.

Graeme Browning, aka former Sydney drag queen Mitzi Macintosh, turned down a chance to appear in Priscilla – “We asked about pay and they said there wasn’t any and we said, get fucked!” – but eventually spearheaded and starred in a long-running tribute show at Erskineville’s Imperial Hotel, where the opening scenes were filmed. He recounts a story about fellow performer Keren St James, who – not long after Priscilla’s release – was headed into the pub when a young Aboriginal child on the other side of the road caught her eye. “He pointed across the road and yelled, ‘Ah, Mom! Look! Priscilla!’ That sums it up. From that point on, a drag queen wasn’t a drag queen. It was a Priscilla.”

Lost in translation

Not all of the American critics were impressed...

"It must not be easy in the best of times to live and travel in a school bus with two drag queens, and middle age takes its toll: Was this trip necessary?” (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times)

“The trouble with the movie is that there's nothing to Muriel but her false dreams: We never quite glimpse the woman they're hiding.” (Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly)

“Little more than a fashion victims’ show on wheels...writer-director Elliott is obviously fond of his characters and this blinds him to how very annoying two hours of dishing can be.” (Rita Kempley, The Washington Post)

Most of the action is played for broad laughs, and Hogan demonstrates the ability to generate them, even if the humor is base and often cruel, making fun of people’s looks and ineptitude.” (Todd McCarthy, Variety)

How it played in Poland

Inside the NFSA's online Priscilla exhibition

Film buffs and movie memorabilia collectors know that no country on earth has a better treasure trove of movie posters than Poland. Perhaps no other art form has been more critical to the country’s cultural aesthetic – in fact, the world’s first poster museum opened in Warsaw in 1968. Especially during Poland’s years behind the Iron Curtain, the prints commissioned by its state-owned film industry were quite literally the only outlet for graphic designers to express their artistry. The effect is breathtaking: no critics’ blurbs, no taglines, no airbrushed celebrities. Just wildly expressive conceptual art, all in the service of cinema.

The Polish one-sheet for The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is on display as part of the National Film & Sound Archive’s first-ever digital exhibition Priscilla: 20 Years Young, available for viewing at www.nfsa.gov.au. The original director’s notes, little-seen still images from the production and a range of other posters from around the world (some of which erroneously list credits for Gus Van Sant’s 1994 flop Even Cowgirls Get the Blues) are gathered in a central hub where viewers can click and point to better understand the production’s legacy. There are also 360-degree photographs and stories about the movie’s surviving outfits and headpieces, which were created on a $20,000 budget and ultimately netted Priscilla an Oscar for Best Costume Design. “A film can be so different from concept to end result," says curator Tenille Hands. "We've got great notes and correspondence where they approached a music producer to use 'Climb Ev'ry Mountain' for the scene at Kings Canyon. We've got copies of the FAXes they got back saying, 'Yeah... thanks but no thanks!'"

And unlike physical exhibitions, this one has a few key advantages. "It doesn't have a closing date, there aren't any queues and you're not geographically restricted from seeing it," says Hands, who adds that the NFSA has plans to give Muriel’s Wedding similar treatment later this year.

Courting controversy

About that ping-pong ball scene...

To this day, the most outlandish scene in Priscilla – and there are many – involves Bob Spart’s Filipina mail-order bride Cynthia Campos shooting ping-pong balls from her vagina to the accompaniment of M’s 1979 hit 'Pop Muzik'. At the time of the film’s release, the Centre for Filipino Concerns expressed worry the scene could incite violence, and The Age accused the film of engaging in racial and sexist stereotypes, but audiences ate it up – five years after its release, a movie based on the South Park series paid homage in a scene that featured an animated Winona Ryder performing her “famous ping-pong ball trick” at a USO show for American troops at war with Canada.

Director Stephan Elliott has long brushed off criticisms of the scene, and maintains the unique barroom talent show from Cynthia – a character he added at the last minute to lift his script from “the middle-act doldrums” – is “singular... it took the movie in a whole new direction.” Twenty years on, he’s still surprised it got by censors. “We were told we’d get murdered for it. Now we would get murdered for it. I don’t even think the government bodies in place today would let us make the film.”

When Time Out spoke with Elliott last month, he’d just returned from his first-ever trip to Thailand. He and a group of mates visited Bangkok’s red-light district Patpong to watch one of the infamous shows whose legend inspired his scene. Just one thing: “Because of the recent military coup, we were the only people who had been in there all week. So all of these girls just started firing off balls – it was like Wimbledon. We were basically surrounded by about 30 girls pulling at us, trying to get us to buy them drinks, and a fight broke out. So no, it was not at all like I’d pictured it.”

Quick change

The men in Muriel's life talk about getting into character

Dan Wyllie (Muriel’s layabout brother Perry Heslop) “Toni had to put on a lot of weight to get more dumpy. And I had the great pleasure – because we'd known each other since we were at the Australian Theatre for Young People together – of sitting around at her place in Newtown, eating pizzas and drinking milkshakes to try and get fat. Which didn’t really work for me. I don’t really look that fat in the film. I just look weird. And I couldn’t grow a five o’clock shadow, either. So I have this fake, painted-on George Michael beard, and I’m trying to look fat. It was a lot of fun, that shoot.”

Daniel Lapaine (Muriel’s husband-to-be David Van Arkle) “My God, did I have to get in shape. Back then, no actors went to the gym. It wasn’t cool. I had to play a champion Olympic swimmer and here I was this pasty, scrawny drama student. I had to get waxed and spray tanned and go on a very specific diet. I had to work my ass off – literally. And being the lazy actor I am, when filming ended I stopped going to the gym…but I kept eating the same diet. So very quickly my body changed again, and it wasn’t for the better, let me tell you.”

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Updated on 4 Sep 2014.

By Nicholas Fonseca   |  
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