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It was the unlikely little movie that nobody would believe in at first, and now it’s an icon of drag cinema. How did The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert ever get made?
It almost didn’t happen. The filmmakers struggled desperately in 1991 to secure financing, taking the pitch all around the Cannes Film Festival. Nobody would listen to them until they found a sympathetic ear at PolyGram, in part because of their insanely low budget: just 2.7 million Australian dollars — or about $2.1 million in American currency.
The producers took a tremendous pay cut in order to make the film, and many of the crew went with minimal pay until the movie could make back its investment. Given that they had few resources, the filmmakers were fairly audacious with their casting: They first approached legendary actor Tony Curtis, who liked the script but wasn’t available. John Cleese was available but didn’t like the script — which is a shame, because his presence would have made for a fascinatingly different take. Tim Curry was also considered.
Rupert Everett was considered for Tick, and Jason Donovan for Adam. But the two actors had terrible chemistry, both on and off screen, and were dropped. (Donovan later played Tick in the stage version.)
Colin Firth was offered the role, but it was Hugo Weaving who ultimately got it. Hugo Weaving was on an Australian soap opera and came to the project at the very last minute.
The casting immediately gelled when Director Stephan Elliott took all three out in actual drag. Terence Stamp flirted with women, Guy Pearce was rude to everyone, and Hugo Weaving passed out drunk — it was a perfect reflection of their characters on screen.
When it came time to shoot, the crew employed an exhausting schedule that took them all around the country. The bare-bones production sometimes left them with very little room in the bus, and so in many scenes crew-members are simply hiding under piles of clothes.
Producers hoped to film a climactic victory scene at Ayers Rock, but the various organizations that look after the geological monument objected on the grounds that the content of the film would be offensive to indigenous cultures. The location had to be changed to King’s Canyon.
It was a long shot that the film could possibly be a success — a bunch of drag queens in Australian deserts? No way. And yet the strength of the performances, the music, and the costumes all contributed to a strong initial showing. There was a small commercial release at first, but as that broadened it quickly recouped its initial budget tenfold.
Today it has enduring cultural reputation — though marred by a bizarrely sexist and racist depiction of an Asian stereotype. The filmmakers have offered a tepid defense of the character Cynthia, who takes advantage of one of the protagonists and puts on a crazy vulgar performance.
But the film otherwise remains one of the most beloved queer movies ever made, embraced by gay and straight audiences alike. Cultural commenters credit the film with bringing heterosexuals into the world of queer characters in a way that hastened the acceptance of LGBTs — no small feat for a low-budget quirky drag queen movie from down under.