A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 337 – To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar

To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar – January 31st, 2011

Last week, when the new season of RuPaul’s Drag Race began, Andy and I were mid-Trekathon. So we couldn’t really go pausing for a commemorative drag movie, even if it did have RuPaul in it. So we vowed to watch something suitable tonight. Alas, our copy of Vegas in Space hasn’t arrived yet. A true pity, since tonight’s episode of Drag Race was most assuredly inspired by it. But that’s a review for another day. When the damn DVD shows up. For tonight we have something decidedly less futuristic but no less fabulous.

Upon winning a drag competition in NYC, best friends Vida Boheme and Noxeema Jackson are set to jaunt off to Hollywood on the competition’s dime. But Vida is sort of like a louder and broader-shouldered Amelie, deriving much of her self-worth from helping those around her. While Noxeema is more than skeptical about helping out the fledgling drag queen Chi Chi Rodriguez, Vida insists on it. This is a bit of a pattern. Vida simply must help others and drags Noxeema along, kicking and screaming. The three of them head off on a road trip in a beat-up old yellow Cadillac, which you know from the start will have to break down in the middle of nowhere, and break down it does.

The town they end up in is sort of like the one in Cars. In fact, this movie is sort of Cars crossed with The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. So there’s this dead end little town, with a handful of failing businesses and a bunch of locals who were born and raised there and will likely never leave. And of course they have problems, as helpfully described by the town gossip on our heroines’ first day there. And Vida being Vida, she just has to help out. After all, this town needs a drag makeover. One by one she and Noxeema and Chi Chi win over the townspeople. A few they influence directly but others they just seem to influence by their very presence. And a couple they get involved with. Not in a sexual nature, but in a friendly nature.

Each one of our queens has someone they just seem to click with. Noxeema befriends an elderly woman who’s been mute and unresponsive since her husband’s movie theater went bust. They discover a shared love of classic film, eventually trading titles and favorite actresses and through Noxeema’s enthusiasm Clara rediscovers a love of life. Chi Chi falls for the town heartthrob, Bobby Ray, and ends up giving him up, knowing that she can’t lead him on and that he wouldn’t still want her knowing that she’s really a “boy in a dress”. And in the process she befriends Bobby Lee, a teenage girl in the town who’s had her heart set on Bobby Ray. And then there’s Vida, who figures out early on that their host family is far from peachy keen. Husband Virgil beats his wife, Carol Ann, for the slightest infraction (such as putting spices in the stew) and Carol Ann denies it even when it’s painfully obvious what’s going on. And while the rest of Vida’s makeover of the town of Snydersville is somewhat fluffy (new clothes, new hairdos, a touch of drag in their lives to make everything seem more fabulous), there is nothing fluffy about her friendship with Carol Ann or her eventual breaking point with Virgil. Vida takes this particular situation personally.

There’s a side plot involving a homophobic and racist sheriff who assaults Vida and then tracks the trio down, eventually finding them and then being chased out of town by all the people Vida, Noxeema and Chi Chi have helped and befriended. But while it’s crucial for the climax and certainly involves one of the more serious situations they all get into, the true heart of the movie is in the trio’s experiences in the town itself. It’s in the friendships they make and the times they share with each other. Really, my main criticism of the film is that I think we don’t end up knowing quite enough about our three leads. We know their drag personas, but their backgrounds are merely hinted at. I think with a little more given, the personal journeys they have in Snydersville would mean even more than they do. And since that’s the soul of the movie, really, it couldn’t have hurt to have a tiny bit more than just knowing that Vida’s parents are rich and she gave up the money and posh house and all in order to embrace drag and be comfortable with herself. There are hints that her father was at least verbally abusive. She has a revelation at the end where she says she wants to go home and stand up for herself. But the lead-up to it is a bit anemic. It’s the same for Noxeema and Chi Chi, both of whom get about a line or two of background, max. Ah well.

The lack of non-drag persona backgrounds is well made up for by the fantastic presences all three leads give. I cannot say enough awesome things about all three of them. John Leguizamo is completely off the wall as Chi Chi, who’s got a sort of teen party girl thing going on in drag. Wesley Snipes is more fierce than I ever would have thought to give him credit for as Noxeema, who has an urban Hollywood hopeful persona and is not to be trifled with, thank you very much (the scene with the group of obnoxious young men is the sort of thing many girls’ revenge fantasies are made of). And then there’s Vida. I mean it when I say she’s a sort of drag Amelie. The best terms I can give would be poise and grace. Patrick Swayze totally surprised me. I knew he’d be able to pull off fabulous, but Vida is a wonderfully realized character in his hands. She is elegant and tasteful and has such a perfectly defined aesthetic and Swayze totally inhabits her. He makes this retro glamour girl real, uttering lines like “Tomorrow is a ‘Say Something’ hat day!” and making them perfect. He’s the reason I’d have loved to get more background, because his interactions with Stockard Channing’s Carol Ann hint at so much more going on in his head and past than we get to see. One does not get that sort of firmly gripped elegance overnight or on a whim and I’d have loved to see where it started.

This movie is what I believe needs to be termed “dragical realism”. Sure, it’s set in the real world, with plenty of serious real world problems. But with the magic of drag, those problems are dealt with, usually by being too fabulous and fierce to be brought down by them. And while there is certainly something to be said for the power of fierceness, I regret to say that in the real world it is merely a cure-much, not a cure-all. Sorry, pumpkins, but it’s true. So it’s really rather nice to see homophobia, depression, domestic violence and the like all taken care of with carefully draped and tucked drag. They can transform a dismal boarding house room into something far more sparkly and fantastic with some scarves and fans and they can transform a depressed pit-stop into a lively little town with some attention and hats. If only a fierce wig and killer heels could truly solve everything. I wish they did, and for the length of this movie, they do. It’s my new favorite genre, truly.

January 31, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar

January 31, 2010

To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar

Last Monday, while we were deep in our Star Trek marathon, one of our favorite television programs started its glorious, glamorous third season. I speak, of course, of RuPaul’s Drag Race – the greatest reality program competition ever conceived. This season needs only a guest judge appearance by Mary Murphy to encompass all of our favorite reality television competitions in a single program since we already have Santino from Project Runway as a judge and now Sutan the make-up artist from ANTM as a competitor. Fierce! In celebration of Ru’s third season of fabulous drag divas we’ve chosen tonight to watch a movie that actually features her in a small role – and one of the longest titled movies in our collection.

The movie starts with a drag competition in New York where RuPaul announces an unexpected tie win between two fabulous drag queens. The graceful and elegant Lady Vida played with panache by Patrick Swayze and the edgy Noxeema played by Wesley Snipes. Both of them have won plane tickets to go to Hollywood to compete in the Miss Drag USA contest, but Vida has other plans. She is a queen with a soft spot for problem cases, and when she comes across a dissolute young Chi Chi crying in a stairwell because she didn’t win Vida convinces Noxeema that they need to bring Chi Chi along to California. So they sell their plane tickets and buy a battered Cadillac convertible and set out for LaLa Land.

That’s just the set up though. We get a couple scenes of the ladies travelling the country (and Vida visiting her home town) but pretty soon they find themselves desperately lost somewhere in the backwood country south where they run afoul of a prejudiced sheriff, soon after which their car breaks down. They are forced to spend the weekend while waiting for their car to be fixed in the most backwards of drab and dusty towns, where everybody is practical and miserable. It soon becomes clear that this it not a road movie at all – it is a movie about clashing cultures. How will these dragalicious ladies deal with these country hicks, and how will the hicks deal with them?

When this came out there were inevitable comparisons with The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, but they’re not really very similar movies. Sure they both feature a trio of drag queens on a road trip (you know, that old chestnut) but they diverge pretty strongly as they get into the meat of the movie. Whereas Priscilla is about queens needing to get away from the city to learn something about themselves the ladies in this movie are much more sure of themselves and their place in the world. Particularly the ever in charge Vida, for whom the entire town is another of her problem cases to be taken under her wing and nurtured to its greatest potential like Chi Chi.

This movie is pure escapist fantasy, but it’s a tender and delightful fantasy. It takes situations that are, in our cruel real world, horrific and by the power of drag, positive thinking and pure willpower converts them into glorious joy. The turning point is a sort of magical makeover montage where to the tune of the Wonder Woman TV theme the three ladies re-decorate their drab hotel room into a colorful wonderland. Up until then there are moments in the movie where you think that dire things might happen to our charismatic trio, but after that you know that everything is just bound to turn out gloriously. From then on it’s just a fun ride as we watch the power of glamour overcome the dusty blandness of this little town.

There are a lot of laughs to be had here. Particularly in the outrageous performances of John Leguizamo as Chi Chi and Wesley Snipes as Noxeema. Swayze is all poise and elegance as Vida, so the other two have to provide much of the levity in the movie. There are also some moments of surprising tenderness. In particular there’s a fantastic scene where Noxeema brings a catatonic woman out of her dazed listlessness by talking at her about movies. Given the project that my wife and I have been engaged in for the last 336 days it should be no surprise that this struck a chord with me.

My one complaint would be that as a work of pure magical fantasy the movie sometimes feels like it is trivializing matters that shouldn’t be glossed over in such a way. The way that Noxeema overcomes a group of local hoods who seem bent on molesting her is fun, sure, but its implausibility makes it hard to accept. There’s a whole plot about a downtrodden and beaten wife (played brilliantly by the way by Stockard Channing) but the simplistic way that it is resolved feels almost like an affront to women having to deal with these circumstances. I have to keep reminding myself – this is fantasy. This is the way the world SHOULD work, not the way that it does.

I also want to say that while it is great that this movie got some big name Hollywood actors to dress up in drag and act camp, after having seen so many talented professional drag superstars on Ru’s show over the last couple years I sometimes wished that our stars could have been as glamorous and amazing as those pros. It’s an unreasonable expectation I know, and I appreciate the job that Swayze, Snipes and Leguizamo do, but I know that drag can be so much more. Still – this is more an homage and tribute to drag than an actual drag performance.

This movie was the perfect film to watch before RuPaul. It’s all about the awe inspiring power of drag and how a little self confidence can change the world. Because if you can’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love someone else? Can I get an Amen?

January 31, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | 2 Comments