This movie is hard to write about today for some reason (personal feelings and painful 90s nostalgia), but it’s in my top ten of all time so I couldn’t leave it out. Two drag queens and a transgender woman travel in an old bus across Australia so they can perform their show at a hotel. Along the way they face provincial attitudes and mechanical problems, but seeing as how this is the best road movie of all time, they also make surprising alliances. Any worthwhile road movie depicts characters with problems who are changed by their literal and metaphorical journey. The protagonist, Tick (drag name Mitzi), is afraid his friends will react badly when they find out not only that the hotel owner is his estranged wife, but also that he has an eight year old son. Young and almost terminally obnoxious Adam (Felicia) is obviously in love with Tick, who doesn’t notice. Grieving Bernadette is afraid she will never find genuine love. Bob, who joins the group halfway through the movie, is in an unhappy marriage in which neither person is suited for the other.
When you see a good movie as many times as I have seen this one, you identify with different things about it over the years. I’m 25 years older than I was when I first saw this, and I used to be more like Adam, and now I identify with Tick, especially when it comes to trying to integrate all the different facets of life. I hope to become Bernadette when I grow up, because she is the wisest and has all the best lines.
I also noticed that when the movie begins Tick’s drag show is not very well-received by audiences, and they are not any more enthusiastic when the group performs at the hotel, but when they get back to the city, they are met with cheers for their show. I think this might be partly due to Tick’s perception, because he is at odds with himself, and afraid of what his son will think when he knows what he does for a living. What I mean is that he is seeing the audiences as apathetic, and so that is what we are shown. I also think a big part of this story is about him learning to live authentically: when he becomes more comfortable, his show improves to the fictional audiences in the film, even though it seems like a good show to me throughout the movie. Some of the movie is obviously “flights of fancy,” especially one or two flashbacks, but you can’t always tell which scenes. I also wonder if Adam is an unreliable narrator because he says that his mother thinks being gay is a phase, but then we see her helping him pick out his drag clothes.
Another thing I noticed is that there’s a little irony in the homophobic woman the group meets in the first town they visit, because she’s not very feminine presenting herself, so I’m not sure why she’s so aggressively hostile against someone else for not conforming. I’m going to have to go with simple jealousy because they are so glamorous, and maybe classism because it’s a mining town and she’s over-the-top filthy and here they are swanning in in nice clothes. (I wouldn’t wear that flip flop dress of Mitzi’s, but I’d sure as hell carry the matching bag. The costume design in this movie is EVERYTHING.) And I like that the movie doesn’t go with the cliche of them giving the gross woman a makeover, instead having her and Bernadette end up in a drinking contest.
I love that the movie never really resolves whether Tick is bi or gay, because as he says “I don’t fucking know.” Being worried that gay friends will reject someone who won’t “pick a side” is a real thing, and can lead to a lot of inhibition. Add regular old homophobia from the rest of the world to the mix, and it’s no wonder Tick faints when his son sees him in drag. Actually, Bernadette also faints when she finds out about the son. Have you ever seen anyone who is not a character in a movie faint from surprise? I’ve only seen people pass out from the heat or low blood pressure, but never because they see someone they didn’t expect to, or their friend isn’t exactly who they thought he was.
Hugo Weaving, who plays Tick, and Guy Pearce, who plays Adam, are always solid in anything. But it’s Terence Stamp as Bernadette who was the real revelation. I know audiences were shocked that he took the role at the time, but he’s so completely Bernadette that there is zero suspension of disbelief involved.
My song today is the song from the ending credits. I’ve always associated it with Adam and Tick. http://www.singsnap.com/karaoke/watchandlisten/play/c19af5a3f