Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar
I have a film critic's alarm bell that goes off inside me whenever I strike a movie that is being evasive. We find them often in popular cinema: movies that dare to approach something contentious or controversial and then immediately fudge the issue, backtracking into a safe corner.
In To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, three gay, flamboyant drag queens, Vida (Patrick Swayze), Noxeema (Wesley Snipes) and Chi Chi (John Leguizamo), head off for a beauty contest in Hollywood. They are stranded along the way in a conservative Midwest town.
Of all the daggy under-achievers and hicks they meet in this place, Carol Ann (Stockard Channing) emerges as the most significant. And here comes a hot, serious topic right in the middle of this otherwise lightweight divertissement: Carol Ann is the victim of domestic abuse at the hands of her bullish husband Virgil (Arliss Howard). But the audience has to virtually intuit this fact, for the film nervously cuts away from the couple whenever violence looms.
The film is frankly a fairy tale – a wish-fulfilment fantasy about 'high spirits' overcoming all social problems and bridging all cultural differences. Yet, even in a comedy, to avoid altogether dramatising those problems and differences in the first place leads to a fairy tale that is completely unconvincing. To Wong Foo is an airy, utopian dream without bite or poignancy.
The film grossly underplays all its key elements. The three drag queens are meant to represent a volatile, multicultural melting pot of lifestyles and values, but their fey bickering is never given a sharp edge. Poor Chris Penn is cast as the embodiment of reactionary, redneck intolerance – but, like Virgil, he is an easy butt for humour and the film can dispense with him in an instant.
British director Beeban Kidron's previous movies (Antonia and Jane , Used People ) have demonstrated her obvious affinity for the socially dispossessed and disaffected – whether because of sexual orientation, age or lifestyle. What they have not yet demonstrated is any particular cinematic skill. As a film, To Wong Foo lacks any zest or inventiveness.
I am not a fan of Stephan Elliott's terminally artless The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994), which has clearly influenced To Wong Foo. Ultimately, the two films are quite unalike. The former is a bona fide road movie, where the latter rapidly becomes a standard strangers-in-a small-town story. More crucial is the different attitude that each betrays toward their central subject: drag queens.
Both films scramble to hitch a ride on the current bandwagon of queer cinema – films that attempt to express the ideas of hybrid sexual identity and a merry, vertiginous play with gender roles. These are ideas that have come (predominantly) from the gay and lesbian communities. Priscilla seemed like a straight, peculiarly Aussie fantasy inspired by nothing more bracing or profound than a stray visit to a Les Girls drag revue, or a viewing of Are You Being Served? on TV.
To Wong Foo pretends to be a little more savvy. Early on, Noxeema gives a decent speech defining exactly what a drag queen is – not a straight guy in a dress nor a transsexual, but "a gay man with too much fashion sense for one gender". So here at least the notions of queerness as masquerade, play, excess and multiple identity are flagged. But where Priscilla blithely reduced queer to mere camp, To Wong Foo takes the gay out of queer.
The film's skittishness about dealing in any clear way with gay sexuality constitutes its grossest evasion tactic. As in Priscilla, the filmmakers contrive half a dozen different ways to have our heroes relate only to heterosexuals – whether rank conservatives or those about to reach a greater level of tolerance.
We are presumably meant to find oh-so-touching these tales of straight folks – a shy, nerdish adolescent boy, a lonely old woman, a battered housewife desperately in need of strong, female companionship – opening up because of their encounter with these flamboyant drag queens from the city. Myself, I would have preferred to see Vida, Noxeema and Chi Chi get it on with each other, and watch the sparks fly from there.
Even films that have essentially played it safe with this hot subject matter – such as Blake Edwards' Victor/Victoria (1982), which predated the queer cinema buzz – have gone much further than the dismal To Wong Foo. But what can be expected, finally, of a movie in which the 'great screen moment' consists of a straight woman declaring to a drag queen: "I don't think of you as a man, or as a woman ... I think of you as an angel!"
MORE Kidron: Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason
© Adrian Martin February 1996