One of the more interesting cultural developments of the '90s is America's fascination with drag queens. Stemming from the blond wig and impossibly long legs of ubiquitous model-cum-disco diva, Rupaul, and the popularity of last year's fantastic, flip-flop-dress-filled Australian import, "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert," the popularity of drag now includes huge numbers of non-traditional (i.e. straight) fans.
A coinciding social trend is the mass use and power of gay money paying for gay products. The extremely high returns of "Philadelphia's" first week are often attributed to large numbers of gay people going to see the movie (gay movies are pretty rare, you know), and Hollywood execs realize it.
The film industry has a long history of both catering to certain populations and never ignoring marketable trends. Blaxploitation movies like "Shaft" and "Cleopatra Jones" and techno-fear movies like "War Games" and "The Net" are good examples. When self-conscious marketing towards minority groups clashes with Hollywood's insatiable desire for money, we are assaulted with terribly confused, relatively lame efforts such as "To Wong roo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar."
A shameless rip-off of "Priscilla," the story of two drag queens and a transsexual on a road trip through the Australian outback in fantabulous togs, "To Wong Foo" is the story of three drag queens on a road trip from New York to Los Angeles in lackluster ensembles. In "Priscilla," they are on their way to put on a drag show at a hotel in the middle of nowhere; in To Wong Foo, they are going to compete in a national drag queen pageant in L.A. "Priscilla" had a matron, a misanthrope and a young upstart. What a shock, so does "To Wong Foo" (Patrick Swayze, Wesley Snipes and John Leguizamo, respectively).
Both movies explore what can be learned from exposing "normal" people to the Other and vice versa. The social experiment in "To Wong Foo" occurs in Snydersville, where our heroes stay while waiting for their ancient Cadillac to be repaired. Expectedly, the town is a backwater, the hotel is run-down and the townspeople are suspicious, ignorant and/or misogynistic, Of course there is conflict--it is dealt with; the whole town befriends the visitors, and the queens wave a tearful good-bye. Everyone, except the homophobic cop and the wife-beater, is a better person, and they all live happily ever after.
Carol Ann (Stockard Channing, making up for her dismal performance in "Smoke"), says to Swayze's Vita as the queens take off for L.A., "I don't think of you as a man. I don't think of you as a woman. I think of you as an angel." Please.
If John Waters had manhandled this trite premise, "To Wong Foo" could have been at least funny. In Beeban Kidron's directorial thumbs, it becomes schlock. In the spirit of drag and "gay humor," Kidron tried to camp up the movie, and instead made it forced and silly. Catering to straight middle America, Kidron turns drag queens into freaks and drag shows into freak shows. The Webster Hall drag contest at the beginning of the movie was reminiscent of Jabba the Hut's palace from "Return of the Jedi."
In an attempt to make up for the politically incorrect messages in the film (act like a stereotypical 1950s lady and you will succeed in life, drag queens and other gay people are Martians, etc.), the movie is peppered with overt political correctness. Because the trio are presented as asexual, the word "gay" is shoehorned into their lines to appease those ticket-buying gays who might want the movie to be more "out." The homophobic cop is a racist, bumbling fool. The wife-beater is evil and even teams up with the cop. (Of course a man in a dress beating him up doesn't really empower the woman he beats, but whatever.)
Oddly enough, the acting is mostly passable. Leguizamo is convincing and amusing as a woman and thus as a drag queen, even if he has to be an ignorant, dizzy one. As a cross between June Cleaver and Liz Taylor, Swayze succeeds in his matron role. Snipes, however, is a sight gag. Leguizamo and Swayze are graceful and can pull off the drag queen bit, but Snipes looks like a big man in a dress. His obnoxious anti-Latino lines make his character relatively unattractive as well. Blythe Danner, in a small part as an odd local, is subtle and funny.
Written by a gay man and marketed to gay audiences, one would not expect the representation of gay people to be so dull and distorted. However, one should not be surprised. It is also marketed to straight America. Hollywood does not think that straight America wants to see deep, sexual, human gay people. Protest that perspective. Don't go.
It's drag that plays in Peoria, pays at the box office and preys on filmgoers everywhere.