Gay History Lesson: The Best Drag Films of All Time

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In honor of SHN's production of the stage musical Priscilla Queen of the Desert (playing through Saturday, August 31 at the Orpheum Theater), we thought it was a good time to take a look at some of our favorite queens in film and theater.

For those of you not familiar with the tale of Priscilla, it is as follows: Three Aussie drag performers (technically, only two are drag queens; Bernadette is a transsexual) drive from gay Sydney to outback Alice with nothing but their sequins and wit to guide them in their mechanically questionable bus (named Priscilla: yes, the bus is the title character in this show) as they bring a little glamour to the native population. Will they make it to Alice without getting gay bashed or gay bashing each other? (SPOILER ALERT: it's a musical, no one gets irreparably gay bashed). Sound familiar? Priscilla all but invented the "magical gays make-over small town" trope which has been copied by everyone from Ryan Murphy to whoever gave us Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.

The Tony Award winning stage musical of the 1994 film is a non-stop romp through the dance and lip synch catalogue (with Madonna thankfully replacing Abba in the stage show; Mamma Mia! was enough, thank you very much) with barely a gender-bending chorine not glittered, powdered, rouged, rhinestoned, feathered and wigged within an inch of her stilettos.


The airstream bus, pale desert skies and bee-hived backup singers suspended in the air like girl group pinatas are the primary set pieces, but some of the wigs are technically big enough to qualify as scenery. In spite of the Australian setting, it's a very San Francisco show. Queens of Priscilla Bernadette, Tick, and Felicia aside, below are some other favorite drag performances to bring a little gaiety into the otherwise humdrum end of summer. (Apologies to Tootsie, Some Like It Hot and Mrs. Doubtfire; while you are all films with men dressed as women, you are not technically films about drag queens. Ditto Rocky Horror and anything with Tyler Perry, Eddie Murphy or Martin Lawrence).

To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything! Julie Newmar

An American remake of Priscilla in everything but name, the 1995 drag road trip film is a charmer none the less. Three queens set out, this time not from Sydney to Alice but from New York to Hollywood, in a battered Cadillac and get stranded in small town America. Along the way, the queens teach us valuable lessons about taking an interest in our elders, community involvement and even manage to end domestic violence! What it lacks in originality it makes up for in a sort of vérité believability: after a while you see the drag queens as the townsfolk do, as really built women. Starring Patrick Swayze, Wesley Snipes and John Leguizamo as three of the best named queens around: Miss Vida Boheme ("of the Manhattan Bohemes"), Noxeema Jackson ("Jesse's daughter.") and Chi-Chi Rodriguez with cameos by drag legends Miss Coco Peru, Floatilla DeBarge and RuPaul herself.

Paris is Burning

Dear Any Little Child Who Thinks Madonna Invented Voguing,
You are wrong. Please see Paris is Burning for your gay history lesson. I am of course, speaking to myself circa age 14 when this dragumentary blew my white gay head off my shoulders and introduced me to the uptown world of "walking," representing your house and the golden age of the uptown balls. As you meet queenster scenesters Pepper LaBeija, Angie Xtravaganza, and Willi Ninja and see the lives and pageants unfold like the fishtail on a Balmain gown, I'd like you to remember that this film received National Endowment for the Arts funding in the late 1980s. Our tax dollars helped capture this majestic court subculture in its AIDS epidemic imposed twilight and that makes me proud to be an American. And remember the immortal words of Dorian Corey: "I always had hopes of being a big star. But as you get older, you aim a little lower."

The John Waters/Divine Cannon

In the history of film there have been many great director/star collaborations: Josef Von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich, Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune, Martin Scorsese and Robert DeNiro, but at the top of my list will always be John Waters and Harris Glenn Milstead, a.k.a. Divine a.k.a. "the filthiest person alive." Beginning with 1966's Roman Candles and concluding with Divine's final film, the original 1988 Hairspray, the duo redefined drag for counter and mainstream culture. "Before Divine, drag queens were not hip," Waters has famously said. "They wanted to be Miss America or their mothers. Divine was a drag terrorist." Among the highlights of their collaboration are the immortal "filth classic" Pink Flamingos, Polyester and early fan favorite Multiple Maniacs. For most critics (and Waters himself), the height of the pairing was 1974's Female Trouble where Divine ages from juvenile delinquent to merry murderess in the electric chair.


Yes, I know: Julie Andrews isn't technically a drag queen either. That said, Victor/Victoria is a film utterly about the show business of 1930s Paris where drag was already a culture blooming with beading. Andrews plays the woman impersonating a man impersonating a woman and manages to completely shatter your associations with her as Mary Poppins and Maria von Trapp the minute you see her doing a really good impression of a gay man. The film includes beautiful period recreations of the costumes and performances of the golden age of European drag (including a stunning dance with dual male/female attired dancers) and musical numbers by Julie Andrews and her gay bestie, Robert Preston.

La Cage Aux Folles/The Birdcage

The French comedy classic La Cage Aux Folles, the Jerry Herman musical of the same name and the American remake The Birdcage all tell the same story: son with two dads comes home from college engaged to a conservative politician's daughter. The problem? Her father is coming to dinner and the dads need to play straight for the night. One of the dads is a drag queen; hilarity ensues. Although all versions deal broadly in stereotypes (in all fairness the conservative stereotypes are probably just as offensive as the gay ones), the family story grounds them nicely and all versions also end up being stolen by the drag queen "mother" who crashes the family dinner party. Nathan Lane in The Birdcage gives a drag performance somewhere between Margaret Thatcher and Doris Day that is one of the great drag character roles of the past twenty years. Actually, as much as we love Meryl, Lane probably would have been a better choice for Iron Lady because it seriously needed some laughs.


Priscilla Queen of the Desert is at the Orpheum Theater through August 31, 2013. For tickets, visit