When I first saw To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, I was a newly out young 20-something and couldn’t relate to its campy drag humor or schmaltzy feel-good message; but now that I’m an older Drag Race-loving mid-30s gay man, there’s a lot more I love, though it’s still imperfect.
5 THINGS I LOVE
1. It’s funny as hell and inherently quotable
The film is like Clue, almost every line is a punchline. Lots of folks can quote it almost entirely from memory; hardly surprising considering its high-quality quips like:
- “I ain’t drivin’ you no more, Miss Daisy!”
- “I am hereby stripping you of all your princess points.”
- “When a gay man has way too much fashion sense for one gender he is a drag queen.”
- “I’m the Latina Marilyn Monroe. I’ve got more legs than a bucket of chicken!”
- “I do not think of you as a man and I do not think of you as a woman. I think of you as an angel.”
Openly gay screenwriter Douglas Carter Beane nailed it and the film is as funny now as it was in its 1995 premiere. Plus, the film bucked the trend of presenting gay men as inherently tragic, HIV-positive punching bags and presented three headstrong, independent queens who make no apologies for their lives or attitudes.
2. It used two big-name straight actors to introduce America to gay and transgender issues
In the years before To Wong Foo, Patrick Swayze was a Hollywood heartthrob who appeared in blockbusters like Dirty Dancing, Ghost and Point Break; Wesley Snipes was a certified action hero who played super-macho roles in films like New Jack City, White Men Can’t Jump, Passenger 57 and Demolition Man. The fact that Hollywood lured two of the straightest, most macho leading men to wear makeup, wigs and heels for a story about queerphobia and gender identity is nothing short of remarkable.
It’s equally remarkable that the film opened in 1995as number one at the box office — one year after “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and one year before the so-called Defense of Marriage Act. It ended up grossing $36,474,193 domestically.
3. It mocks queerphobic, misogynist conservatism as wasteful, deadly and cowardly
Sheriff Dollard — the dopey police officer who gets knocked unconscious after sexually assaulting head drag queen Miss Vida Boheme and then wastes taxpayer resources tracking her down (his rifle always nearby) — becomes the laughable embodiment of fragile masculinity as he makes a list of stereotypical places to find gays (antique shops, ballet classes) and compares every person he sees to his artist sketch of Miss Boheme.
The insinuation — especially as he sits at a bar, blathering on about “Men wanting to be with one another, men touching each other. Their stubbly chins rubbing up against one another” — is that he’s a self-loathing closet case who is attracted to cross-dressing men. He becomes the antagonist and ends up deservingly mocked and dismissed for clinging so tightly to outdated gender norms.
4. It teaches the importance of caring for people unlike ourselves
Because Vida and Noxeema commit themselves to transforming Chi Chi into a full-fledged drag queen and to making the most of their time in Synderville, they help a young person find their self-respect, and a sleepy town find its own funky, independent spirit.
Vida and Noxeema are ridiculously well-fashioned New York “career girls” and, at first glance, have little in common with a crying “boy in a dress” or townspeople who seem like they’re from West Virginia. But because they make time to connect with people unlike themselves, everyone discovers their better sides and ends up in a brighter, happier world.
5. The costumes (and queens) are fiercely on point
Costume designer Marlene Stewart slayed. I mean, just look at RuPaul’s confederate flag sequin gown and literally everything that Noxeema wears. ABSOLUTE, WIG-SNATCHING GLAMOUR.
Also, the film’s drag pageant features assorted drag greats like Lady Bunny, Miss Understood, Candis Cayne, Flotilla DeBarge and Miss Coco Peru — WERQUE!!
5 THINGS I HATE
1. It’s a less-brave, American version of Australia’s Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
Some people think that Hollywood execs saw the success of the 1994 Australian road trip dramedy The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert and decided to make To Wong Foo, but that’s untrue. In his book, Making Priscilla, producer Al Clark mentions that To Wong Foo was in the works while Priscilla was still being shot.
To Wong Foo ended up making three times as much money as Priscilla, but it also dropped Priscilla’s transgender character and any semblance of realism. For one, we almost NEVER see Foo‘s heroines out of drag, so the audience only ever sees them as drag queens rather than as fully realized men. They’re also largely sexless; Snipes and Swayze’s characters don’t come off as even remotely attracted to men, which (as David DeNicolo wrote in a 1995 review), “only reinforces the prejudices it seeks to dispel.” Gay sex, icky!
2. The characters are somewhat racist
Colombian actor John Leguizamo gets clowned a lot for being Latino. When he tromps away after an argument, Noxeema quips, “Look at her, runnin’ like she runnin’ across the border,” reinforcing xenophobic stereotypes of Latinos as illegal immigrants. Further on, Noxeema says “She truly does have a piñata for a head”. And in a heated exchange with Chi Chi, Vida says, “Listen to me, you little sway-backed, Third World—“.
Chi Chi is a handful who calls Vida “an uptight, cellulite, fossil-face, cracker witch” (and there are real-life Latinx drag queens who share her spicy style of sass). Furthermore, humor is contextual and part of the genius of “politically incorrect” humor is how it gets us to laugh in disbelief at people saying things we know we shouldn’t find funny. But no matter how you slice it, Chi Chi gets singled out and mocked for her ethnicity which is still racist, even when done in a joking way.
Thankfully, no one makes any comments about Noxeema being Black.
3. The town’s would-be gang rapists are turned into respectful young gents overnight
One moment, Snyderville’s roving pack of ne’er-do-wells are getting ready to gang-rape Chi Chi and rudely catcalling the townswomen, and then — after Noxeema grabs their leader by the balls and teaches him some manners — they undergo a miraculous transformation and become respectful, well-dressed, clean-cut gentlemen overnight, even bidding Noxeema a fond farewell at the end.
To quote Chi Chi, “I don’t think so.”
4. The police harassment and domestic abuse plots wrap up way too easily
Rifle-wielding Sheriff Dullard quits his pursuit of the drag queens after he gets mocked and laughed away by Snyderville’s residents; would an emasculated, revenge-obsessed bully really let a little mockery end his mad quest? It’s doubtful.
Similarly, after Vida kicks Virgil the spouse-abuser out of his home, he returns to face his wife Carol Ann. The two take a long look at each other and, LITERALLY WITHOUT A WORD, Virgil walks away. Uhhhh, Virgil is the town mechanic and has kids with Carol Ann. Would he really walk away his wife, home and kids without any fight?
5. It buys into the tired trope of “gayngels” (gay angels)
Anytime To Wong Foo’s “career girls” get harassed, disowned and threatened by violence, most of their troubles quickly disappear with a quick punch, shove or escape. Apart from a few moments of vulnerability, it’s rare that we see any of them struggle for long against issues that affect real-life drag queens like poverty, employment, widespread societal discrimination and rocky romances.
That’s because To Wong Foo is a comic fairy tale that sees its heroines as “gayngels”: gay men who — with their wit, fierceness and style — lift everyone’s spirits and make the world seem less horrible. That’s not entirely bad — heck, it explains To Wong Foo’s enduring appeal. It’s just that the film never takes off its makeup to let us see things warts and all.