Sunday, May 26, 2013

To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar (Universal/Amblin, 1995)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The movie was To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, an impossible mouthful of a title for a film from 1995 that seemed to be Hollywood’s response to the surprise-hit status of an Australian movie with an almost as indigestible title, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, in 1994. The major studios looked at the box-office returns of this tale of drag queens driving through Australia and figured that a U.S. version with A-list stars would be even bigger, so Universal and Amblin Entertainment (one of Steven Spielberg’s companies) greenlighted director Beeban Kidron’s (a womyn-born woman who was actually in the later stages of pregnancy through the entire shoot — she gave birth to her baby Noah Kidron Style on the last day of filming and inserted a credit to Noah as “Best Baby,” a pun on the frequent listing of technical assistants as “Best Boys”) and writer Douglas Carter Beane’s project about three racially assorted drag queens driving across the country in a 1960’s-era yellow Cadillac they acquired from a used car lot (the man running the lot was honest about the Caddy’s mechanical failings and tried to sell the “girls” a Toyota Corolla instead, but they weren’t about to go cross-country in something as hopelessly unstylish!). The film opens at New York’s Webster Hall (also a locale where several important live jazz albums have been recorded), where there’s a major drag-queen contest going on in which first prize is an all-expenses-paid trip to Hollywood to compete in the world’s championship. As things turn out, the contest is a tie between Black queen Noxeema Jackson (Wesley Snipes) and white queen Vida Bohème (Patrick Swayze), but when they come upon Latina queen Chi Chi Rodriguez (John Leguizamo, who for my money stole the film right out from under his two more famous co-stars) fleeing from Queer-bashers in her neighborhood, they take her under their wings and decide to turn in their plane tickets to the contest sponsor and get a cash payment by which all three will go to California. (The person who they do this deal with is the contest sponsor, played by Robin Williams in a surprising cameo — the sort of unbilled appearance that makes you go, “Was that … ?” — and in this case made me wish Williams had played Patrick Swayze’s part, which would have made a funny film even funnier and more moving.) This begs the question of how they’re going to get to California — not by train, not by bus (“Who do you think I am — Miss Rosa Parks?” Noxeema spits out in Wesley Snipes’ surprisingly convincing “queen” drawl), but in that chancy used Caddy. They have a roadside encounter with Sheriff John Dollard (Chris Penn, son of Leo and brother of Sean and Michael, who died in 2006 after an odd career that included important parts in such films as Rumble Fish and Reservoir Dogs), whose badge is misprinted “Dullard.” Dollard stops their car and sets his cap for Vida, who’s driving — until he reaches under “her” dress and responds, not by puking à la The Crying Game, but by getting furious and starting an altercation that ends with Vida knocking him down and leaving him by the roadside, apparently dead.

Then they head through more desert until they arrive in the tiny rural enclave of Snydersville, where their car breaks down and the local mechanic Virgil (Arliss Howard) announces that he can fix it in an hour but first he has to send for the needed part, which will take three days. They stay in a cheesy hotel run by Virgil’s wife Carol Ann (Stockard Channing, who aside from a women’s basketball team the “girls” hang out with in an early scene is the first womyn-born woman we’ve seen in the whole movie even though she doesn’t enter until about half an hour through this 109-minute film) and learn that Carol Ann is a victim of spousal abuse from a man who’ll throw a stew pot across the kitchen just because one of the queens, thinking she was doing her a favor, put some spices in it. Chi Chi nearly gets gang-raped by a group of rednecks (some of whom were being played by genuinely attractive young actors who did more for me aesthetically than the stars did, even though I must say I had a lingering crushette on Patrick Swayze after Dirty Dancing — but then I suspect most of Gay male America did too!) but she’s saved by hot-looking local Bobby Ray (Jason London, who should have got more of a career boost from this movie than he did — he’s hot, personable and charming and should have gone on to better things than a TV-remake of Jason and the Argonauts), who immediately falls in love with “her” despite the jealousy of his authentically female girlfriend (at least she has a crush on him) Bobby Lee (Jennifer Milmore). Vida beats the shit out of Virgil and gets him to stop beating his wife. Sheriff Dollard comes to town and sits next to Virgil in a sleazy but definitely straight bar and starts pouring his heart out about how much he hates male homosexuals — “Men, acting like women. Men wanting to be with one another, men touching each other. Their stubbly chins rubbing up against one another. Touching each other. Manly hands touching swirls of of chest hair. An occasional wiff of a rugged aftershave. Their low, baritone voices sighing, grunting. They hold one another in manly, masculine arms. Hold one another. Tight” — which made me think that Douglas Carter Beane was going to have Sheriff Dollard and Virgil discover their true sexual orientations and run off with each other, but even a nervy movie like this wasn’t about to go that far.

Indeed, To Wong Foo probably got the mass audience it did (it was the #1 movie the weekend it was released) largely because it virtually ignored the whole idea of a Gay community: we don’t see any non-drag Gay men, we don’t see any physical displays of affection between Our Hero(ines) and anybody else, and though we assume they’re Gay we don’t see any actual romantic or sexual interests between each other or anyone outside. All we see are these three guys in endless supplies of flashy dresses acting as fairy (in both senses!) godmothers to the townspeople, jazzing up their annual strawberry celebration and leaving Snyderville considerably happier and more fashionable than it was when they arrived. The scene then cuts to the big pageant in Hollywood, where Chi Chi takes the prize away from her more experienced mentors and is presented with the award by … Julie Newmar, who was originally only asked to lend her name and an autographed photo (Vida steals it from the wall of a New York restaurant just before they leave) but visited the set and enjoyed what was going on so much she agreed to play a cameo role as the award-giver in the final scene (and though her face shows the lines of age, her body is in excellent shape and one could readily imagine her in a modern-day Batman movie as an older, retired Catwoman mentoring the latest one). To Wong Foo is a remarkable movie but also a rather claustrophobic one, and while there’s a major plot point early on that the other two are experienced drag queens while Chi Chi is just a boy in a dress, in fact Leguizamo manages to comport him/herself more convincingly than the other two stars and is much better at suspending our disbelief — though enough of Wesley Snipes’ usual machismo shows through the dress and the makeup that the effect is ironic, if nothing else. It’s a nice movie — I’m glad I saw it at long last and I was entertained — but I was sufficiently tired of the drag world by the time it was over that I bypassed the deleted scenes offered as a bonus on the DVD.