Stephan Elliott, who made Priscilla 21 years ago, has been shackled by her success ever since. He's only just learning to love her again. We, on the other hand, never stopped. IAN HORNER interviews the director, and the star he launched, Guy Pearce.
IT'S 21 years since a bus named Priscilla wound its way into the heart of Australia. It was a surprise mainstream hit that shook Australian culture at a time when AIDS was reigning in terror.
A new documentary, Between a Frock & Hard Place, on DVD this week – we’ve got four copies to give away, looks at how far we’ve come, or haven’t, in that time and includes interviews with the filmmaker and cast and crew and some of the drag queens who inspired it.
I spoke to writer-director Stephan Elliott and actor Guy Pearce, who both feature in the doco.
Any way you look at it it’s a landmark film, loaded with ironies. It took $30m and was made for only $1.9m. It got an Oscar for best costumes and one of them cost $7 for a bag of thongs. It took a straight heartthrob from Neighbours, made him a drag queen and gave him a huge career as a serious actor (even though the director said he was too pretty to cast). The British star was terrified of doing drag but got through it by imagining himself as a beautiful woman (the director shot him as ugly as possible and Terence Stamp was so shocked when he saw it the cinematographer apologised).
And there’s the not-so-well-known stuff: That Tim Curry turned down the role that went to Hugo Weaving. That Weaving’s character and his son were based on a real-life Melbourne drag queen and her son.
And therein lies the very heart of the film.
One of the most triumphant moments in the movie is the little boy’s wholehearted acceptance of his dad (Weaving), as though being gay or a drag queen was irrelevant.
Writer-director Stephan Elliott: You know, very few people actually know that. People can’t tell you why the film works but I can tell you exactly why it works – it’s that moment. It’s pivotal. It’s not about a bunch of drag queens crossing the desert. The genuine heart of the film, and people didn’t realise it, was that moment with Hugo’s character. Hugo was very quiet and didn’t have the best lines, Terence had some doozies and Guy was completely over the top. But Hugo’s very, very gentle path towards that simple question, asking his son to accept him, as you said, is the real heart of the film.
Were that little boy and his dad based on people you knew?
Yeah, it was based on Cindy Pastel [real name Richie Finger], a drag queen I knew and he’d just had a son when I was writing the film [Adam Finger is now 32]. That really did it for me.
The film has stood the test of time and this doco makes the point that Australia has changed a lot since 1994. Could you make Priscilla today and would it be the same film?
No, I wouldn’t be allowed to make it today. Simple as that. They’d say No! I mean, go out to a bunch of Indigenous people and do I Will Survive in drag?! Even in 1994 I was told to cut it for safety reasons. I said I’m not cutting it! I mean, basically that’s the whole theme of the film!
Watch the unforgettable contentious Aboriginal drag sequence . . .
It’s about tolerance, and that sequence was pivotal to the message. Not just about gay culture but about anybody. They finally gave in and let me go through with it and, of course, it was a total blast and everybody loved it. But if I tried to do stuff like that today the answer would be no.
For Guy Pearce the acidic foul-mouthed Felicia Jollygoodfellow, ironically, was the springboard from Neighbours and onto such triumphs overseas as LA Confidential, Memento, Mildred Pierce and Prometheus.
Guy Pearce: Yeah, I kind of went from not having much work at home to suddenly having work overseas. I went from working on TV in Australia to getting to be in Priscilla which opened up agents’ doors in America which led to auditioning for LA Confidential.
It was fast and furious really. I made Priscilla in ’93, it came out in ’94, I auditioned for LA Confidential in ’95, made it in ’96, it came out in ’97 and I was off and running. There are plenty of great actors who haven’t had the good fortune I’ve had. You kinda go whoa, imagine if I hadn’t said yes to Priscilla!
Famously, Elliott took the three leads out in drag to the legendary DCM club (now gone) on Oxford Street in Sydney just before they started filming. None was recognised. Pearce was outrageously rude, Stamp forgot he was in drag and hit on girls and Weaving got drunk and lay under a table.
From the doco, Pearce, Elliott and Weaving talk about their night in drag on Oxford Street . . .
Pearce: The film has a special place in my heart. I felt like a bit of a gay icon at the time. All three of us are straight but there was a lot of talk. Some drag queens were upset that they cast straight actors but you’ll always piss off someone.
The movie is as famous for its music as anything else but the soundtrack had to be forced onto Elliott.
Elliott: Absolutely everybody said no to financing the film. Then we went to PolyGram Pictures and they said “We’ll bankroll you $500,000 but you must use our music library” and I got a bit cranky. And then I saw the library. I thought, ya know what? I should get over myself! That's where the music came from. Blew me out of the water.
For the most part, as outrageous as the film was it won over just about everyone, including those it was targeting for intolerance. Audiences went in dubious, came out completely won over.
Yep, the film was a celebration, as the doco explains. We’d just had 20 years of absolute terror under the shadow of HIV and AIDS and people were frightened. The word gay was equated with HIV and AIDS. Thank Reagan who refused to acknowledge it.
The world was reeling in terror and Sydney just got to a point where it was sick of being frightened. I can't say why only this city did it. I was travelling the world then and trust me only Sydney stood up and celebrated. It was like setting off a party popper.
For the first time around the world somebody stood up and made a film that wasn't going to threaten people. For a lot of people it was their first gay film. And I didn’t want to frighten them. If I'd gone in flying the rainbow flag at the head of the film audiences wouldn’t have come.
We had a sneak preview at the San Francisco Film Festival on the way to Cannes and the crowd went through the roof. At my first Q&A the first questions were “Why didn’t you show men kissing?” “Why didn't you acknowledge AIDS?” I said: “You know what? If I was gonna make that film six people would go see it.” There were 3000 people there when I said that.
And I got crucified in the gay press. Crucified! But I stood my ground. Everyone needed to let go.
Do we still need films like this, to show suburbia how acceptance is done?
Look, things are happening slowly. It’s a very long slow crawl and it’s continuing. Priscilla rode a wave. We were there at the right time at the right place. I feel Australia now has just fallen way, way, way behind. I mean, when I made the film Bob Hawke was in power and Paul Keating came in and we were among the first in the world with full-on acknowledgement of gay rights, full-on acknowledgement of de-facto relationships.
Look at what that government did at that time and how progressive it was. We had one of the largest gay populations on earth. And look where we are now. The world has kinda caught up to where we were and we seem to have gone a little bit backwards. Or a lot backwards in some things.
How does Priscilla affect your life today? Perhaps in ways you mightn’t have expected. And have you paid a price for it?
Yes, I’ve paid a price for it – it's called the old f------ chain! But I like to wear it. I mean it’s really hard mate, I can't get past it. And people don’t want to go past it. For a good decade or so I lived with a lot of pain from it.
But very few people get to make one of these films. There are directors who’ve barely got one. Yes, it comes with all this baggage. You can make $300m disaster movies like Roland Emmerich and no one remembers them.
I actually had a lot of A-list players say you don't know how lucky you are, you got one! For a good decade or so I had a bit of hostility to that but as we hit 20 years since Priscilla I kinda became resigned to the fact I can’t get past her! [laughs] And I’m trying. I’ve done lots since [such as Eye of the Beholder with Ewan McGregor and Ashley Judd, Easy Virtue with Colin Firth and Kristin Scott Thomas, A Few Best Men with Olivia Newton-John].
At first Priscilla made me cranky but, you know what, she’s been very good to me over the years. She went from being a pain in the arse to I kinda love her again because I realise how important she is.
Tempted to do a sequel?
I get asked every day of the week.
And why do you say no?
Better let sleeping dogs lie. The cast would never do it. But, you know what . . . ? ❏
■ Win one of 4 DVDs of Between a Frock & a Hard Place ($19.99), courtesy ABC Entertainment and Roadshow Home Entertainment, here.
■ Ian's previous interview with Guy Pearce | Not another Neighbours star releasing an album?! VIDEO | PHOTOS
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