To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar

I’m not sure what to make of the recent mainstreaming of gay culture (as Bob Dole might put it) — whether it’s due to genuine acceptance or, as I suspect, because it’s chic and profitable. I’m all for wiping out prejudice and hatred, but when I see a movie like Philadelphia, which tells us to mourn a dying gay man because he’s practically hetero, I wonder if some of the new gay-themed films aren’t playing by homophobic rules. “Accept us,” the movies seem to say, “because inside we’re just like you.” It’s embarrassing to have to point this out in 1995, but gays are not just like hets inside; aside from the same-sex attraction, there’s usually the lifetime of accumulated hurts and scars which such an identity brings to most gays, and which most heteros can’t begin to understand. Might we not profit more from respecting our differences — between gays and heteros, men and women, blacks and whites — than from insisting on a wishy-washy common ground?

Which brings me to, deep breath, To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar (whew). Yes, it’s a primer on tolerance, a story about cute ‘n’ harmless drag queens. Yes, in structure it’s kissing cousin to The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (must all these gender-bending movies have such jawbreaking titles?), 1994’s campy celebration of ABBA and outlandish frocks. Yes, the three stars (Wesley Snipes, Patrick Swayze, and John Leguizamo) are well-known breeders: There’s no way Universal is going to gamble on three actors in drag whose offscreen sexuality is in dispute. Yes, it’s a swish-out-of-water comedy: The trio of divas, en route from New York to L.A. in a ’67 Caddy, break down in a rural backwater and impart lessons of fashion and individuality to the locals. And yes, the movie’s conception of these flamboyantly gay men is bizarrely asexual: Snipes and Swayze are too busy bickering like old maids to get laid, and Leguizamo’s flirtation with a gentle local boy (who assumes Leguizamo is genetically female) is derailed when a local girl falls for the boy. The film is everything that will make half the gay audience grit its teeth (while the other half may be grateful that a $30 million pro-gay Hollywood movie exists in the first place).

The main reason I enjoyed To Wong Foo (if you think I’m typing out that whole title again, you’re tripping) is probably pretty basic. For openers, the stars are funny. Not funny as in “Ha ha, look at the men in dresses.” But when you’re watching Wesley (Drop Zone) Snipes, Patrick (Point Break) Swayze, and John (Carlito’s Way) Leguizamo acting all womanly and frilly, the joke is less that they’re men in drag than that these particular actors, so aggressively alpha-male in other roles, are in drag — and they’re gorgeous to boot. Very quickly, they settle into their characters. Snipes is snippy, Swayze is maternal, and Leguizamo is a hot-blooded Latina eager to prove herself as a “drag princess.” Though Snipes and Swayze have rather unwomanly musculature, all three actors have the physical grace to nail the metamorphosis: Snipes has studied martial arts, Swayze is a lifelong dancer, and Leguizamo has been doing drag for years in his stage shows. And they don’t camp it up — well, yes, they do; it kind of comes with the territory — but they don’t wink at us, letting us know they’re really hetero, or really brave for doing this movie. Leguizamo in particular would’ve fooled me if I hadn’t seen him before; he moves and sounds exactly like a pouty young Latina.

It must be said, though, that To Wong Foo paints an extremely sanitized portrait of drag queens, especially given that these girls come from New York; these are drag queens even Bob Dole could like. (For a spikier and, one assumes, more accurate record, we look to Jennie Livingston’s flavorful 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning.) They don’t curse, do drugs, drink (aside from a bottle of wine while commiserating with the small-town ladies over the perfidies of men) — they don’t even smoke, which must be a first for a drag-queen movie. And, as noted above, they’re very abstractly gay. With its gaudy costumes and lack of sexual tension, To Wong Foo sometimes plays like a ’50s sci-fi flick. One could argue that, stuck in the boonies, the queens wouldn’t have much luck finding playmates; but in Priscilla, the Terence Stamp character (a post-op transsexual) found love with a burly biker guy. Someone is still afraid to show us two men kissing in a major motion picture. Except for Leguizamo’s crush, which of course must defer to the heterosexual girl’s crush, the only love here is sisterly bonding between women and men who look like women. The movie turns into Fried Queen Tomatoes.

Another interesting thing Priscilla did that this movie doesn’t was to give us some sense of what drag queens are like when they’re not “on.” In Priscilla, the queen played by Hugo Weaving was rather reserved and quiet in his civvies, as if saving the full force of his personality for the stage, where he let loose. The queens of To Wong Foo stay en femme all the time, and I thought it might have been funny to see Swayze and Snipes out of drag, perhaps reverting to their previous manly screen personae to fake out a bigoted cop (Chris Penn) who pulls them over. Instead, we get an ugly scene in which Penn, taking Swayze for an uppity “career girl,” feels Swayze up and gets knocked on his ass. After that, the tiresome cop spends every waking moment hunting the “homos,” and the movie keeps cutting back to him sitting in bars and venting his homophobic disgust; I got the creepy feeling that many in the audience were not laughing at him as intended, but with him.

Movies like this and Philadelphia stroke middle-class liberal sensibilities and teach us what we should already know. That there’s still a need for candy-movies like To Wong Foo isn’t really the movie’s fault. It seeks only to entertain, and tangentially to enlighten. For years, blacks had to evolve from servants to noble friends-of-the-hero to complex human beings in the Hollywood movies that showed their faces. Similarly, movie gays have gone from mincing hairdressing fags to (usually) tragic figures beleaguered by homophobia or scarred by AIDS (and of course there’s always the Friendly Gay Neighbor). Major-studio films that can tell gay stories without making a big sociological deal of it may not be too far in the future, which is why this mainstreaming of gay culture is a good thing. Until then, To Wong Foo is fun enough. It’s a glitzy comedy of kindness, which, Bob Dole or no Bob Dole, our wounded pop culture could use a lot more of. But at heart it’s about as queer as a one-dollar bill. For a truly gay mega-budget Hollywood movie, I’m afraid you’re going to have to sit through Batman Forever again.

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