Between a Frock and a Hard Place

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I remember having a conversation with a drag queen in 1994 about whether the success of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert was a flash in the pan box office hit, or whether it would prove to be a catalyst for wider acceptance of drag culture in Australian society.

In the end only one of us was right. The combination of Priscilla and Muriel’s Wedding (1994) were a double king-hit of the suburbs embracing all things camp, not to mention another ABBA revival. Drag queens were no longer pitied and buried away in bars in Oxford Street and Commercial Road. They were being booked at parties and shows, they were stepping into the media. Heck, they were even about to stand for the Senate. Would we expect anything less of the nation that gave birth to Dame Edna and Aunty Jack?

ABC’s doco Between a Frock and a Hard Place cleverly weaves the history of Stephan Elliott’s film into the modern history of the gay rights movement in Australia.

Inspired by a feather boa being blown down an alleyway in Sydney (Elliott says it resembled a tumbleweed, hence the drag queens in the desert idea), Priscilla took years to get off the ground. But then so do most feature films.

Terrence Stamp, who played transgender Bernadette, narrates this doco recalling his hesitations in agreeing to this odd and “predictable” script. Earlier names had included William Shatner and Tony Curtis. Just what was the ‘best dressed man in Britain’ doing agreeing to frock up in Australia? He only agreed to the role if Bill Hunter played his boyfriend.

By contrast, Hugo Weaving was the first on board as Tick, the drag queen with a son, and Guy Pearce rejected his agent’s advice in signing on as Felicia.

The roles has been inspired by various Sydney personalities including Carlotta and Cindy Pastel -the latter is one of the interview subjects here, in all her regalia. Elliott had been a barman at the Albury Hotel and shares stories of working the script around Cindy Pastel’s own experiences as drag queen by night, father by day.

Also reflecting on the film are costume designer Tim Chappel (describing the dresses as Mock de Croc), producer Al Clark, exec producer Rebel Penfold Russell, Stamp’s very own ‘Tranny Trainer’ Robyn Lee, plus Hugo Weaving and Guy Pearce.

There are colourful memories of taking the 3 stars out clubbing in frocks at DCM in Oxford Street (Pearce felt liberated because nobody recognised him), the struggle to get 180 metres of lame on top of the bus to fly in the wind, and the script knock-backs from government funding and even the Mardi Gras organisation itself!

But the real achievement in the doco is in charting the turning points and challenges of the gay community, particularly in Sydney.

Archival footage and interviews with community leaders and personalities look back on laws against homosexuality, the first Mardi Gras protest in 1978 (“Out of the bars and into the streets” was the catch-cry), social ‘treatment’ of gays including psychiatry and aversion therapy, poofter bashing and HIV / AIDs.

There are interviews with photographer William Yang, Mardi Gras founder Ron Austin, Tobin Saunders (aka Vanessa Wagner), G&L Historian Garry Wotherspoon, Police Liaison Sue Thompson, and the family of the late John Alan Russell -one of dozens of men believed to be the victim of unsolved ‘hate crime’ murders.

Amongst the clips is venue footage from Les Girls, Capprichio’s, Patches Nightclub plus rare 1970s scenes of an ABC Monday Conference discussion between gay men before a hostile audience in Mt. Isa. Things get very ugly.

But there are uplifting moments such as the first time Sydney police join the Mardi Gras parade, or the night Cannes goes ballistic at the Priscilla premiere and the subsequent global success of the stage musical -even in South Korea.

Yes this little $2m film did indeed break ground, and we’ve come a long way. There are still fights to be won, but it helps to look fabulous fighting them.

And no, I wasn’t right.

8:30pm Thursday on ABC.

One Comment:

  1. I’m really looking forward to this doco. Friends in the drag industry credit Priscilla with reviving the industry, which was dying a slow death. Unfortunately though, the gay nightclub scene in Sydney is no longer what it was back in the heyday of the 80’s and 90’s. Oxford Street has lost its atmosphere.

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