As the summer heat continues to climb and we pack up the land yacht for a July 4 road trip, we’re reminded of our cinematic predecessors and gay guardian angels: Miss Noxeema Jackson, Miss Vida Boheme, and Miss Chi-Chi Rodriguez. It’s been nearly 20 years since these career girls went forth and scandalized the nation and perhaps it’s time we re-examine the cinematic masterpiece: To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar.
Masterpiece is perhaps a stretch since under all that pancake makeup is a treacly film with sickeningly sweet characters. Still, that treacly film holds up as an interesting and shockingly human adventure story starring John Leguizamo, Patrick Swayze, and Wesley Snipes as three gregarious drag queens trekking across the country and inspiring a small backwoods town to change for the better. Even (or especially) in 2013, it does not disappoint; think of a queer On the Road, but with less existential torpor.
Oh yeah, and did we mention there’s a cameo by motherfucking RuPaul as the queen of queens, Rachel Tensions (in a stunning confederate flag dress that Sharon Needles would, less successfully, attempt to pull off so many years later).
What To Wong Foo lacks in the transgressive zeal of Rocky Horror Picture Show or, well, anything by John Waters, it makes up for in charm. The three main actors, despite being straight men off camera, portray the heroic homosexuals with a tenderness that is not often, if ever, seen in Hollywood. While of course, retroactively, we can complain that Hollywood had done nothing but deprive actual drag queens of work in a cartoonish portrayal of queer people, this facile criticism overlooks the amount of warmth, sensitivity, and comedic acumen that Snipes, Leguizamo, and Swayze brought to their roles.
Noxeema Jackson summarizes both ludicrously and perhaps astutely: “When a straight man puts on a dress and gets his sexual kicks, he is a transvestite. When a man is a woman trapped in a man’s body and has a little operation he is a transsexual […] When a gay man has way too much fashion sense for one gender he is a drag queen.”
Complicated identity politics be damned, perhaps this was simply the exact kind of pithy summary a mainstream (read: straight) audience needed to understand these characters. (Of course, no drag queen is permanently in drag in real life, but let’s leave that minor detail aside.) The strategy worked: Swayze and Leguizamo were nominated for Golden Globes for their performances.
While still maintaining a light-heartedness and genuinely silly mood, the film dared explore the day to day violences and threats that queer people — and biological women! (poor Stockard Channing) — faced. In fact, the aggression our queens face is the subtle driving force of the narrative. This makes the conclusion, in which the entire town (including straight men) proclaims that they are all drag queens, that much more outrageous and that much more rewarding.
So as we pack our bags for whatever destination we may be heading, let us remember the eternal advice of American Hero, Miss Noxeema Jackson: “Larger than life is just the right size.”