Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, January 5, 2016

WHY DO I OWN THIS?: To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar


As gay populace gain more mainstream acceptance in America, the “T” in LGBT has received more attention. This might have to due with the internet giving formally voiceless minorities a place to express themselves. Back in the nineties, there was a lot of confusion over what a “transsexual” even was. In today’s hyper-politcal landscape, I don’t know if a movie like “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar” would get made. Not quite a remake of “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” the movie must have been one of the most high profile queer films of the decade. Making the bizarre decision to cast famous tough guy actors as drag queens, the movie skirts political issues. Despite having gay main characters, and existing in the world of camp, “Wong Foo” does not make any grand statements about society or gay culture’s place within it. When the film is recalled at all today, it’s usually as an off-beat footnote in its leading men’s careers. (Or because of its bizarre title.) And yet, for some reason, I own it.
   
Drag queens Vida and Noxeema pride themselves on making everything in their lives as fabulous as possible. After both win a New York drag queen competition, they are given an invitation to the related nation-wide competition in Hollywood. After the event, they meet Chi-Chi, a younger drag queen who they take under their wings. Unable to afford plane tickets for all three of them, the trio instead buy an Cadillac and get on the road. Their vehicle breaks down in the Midwestern town of Syndersville. While the drag queens seem at odds with the town’s sensibilities at first, they soon make friends, bringing a new level of fabulous to the sleepy location.

Though recalled as a box office bomb, “To Wong Foo” actually won its weekend upon release. I don’t think that’s because 1995 was a year especially open to gay or trans issues or even drag culture. Instead, I think people were attracted to the novelty of seeing Patrick Swayze and Wesley Snipes dressed as women. You’d expect action stars like Swayze and Snipes to play the parts for exaggerated laughs. Impressively, neither performers are belittling or insulting. Instead, Swayze and Snipes play the part entirely sincerely. Swayze, for one, has no problem affecting a feminine voice. Apparently Swayze won the part by giving a half-hour monologue about how he was bullied as a boy for studying ballet. That honest emotion is evident in the performance. You would really not expect Wesley Snipes, Blade himself, to be comfortable playing a drag queen. Yet he too acts his heart out. That’s the weirdest thing about “To Wong Foo.” Though it’s a comedy, the jokes aren’t at the expense of the lead characters.

Then again, it’s not like broad-shouldered guys like Swayze or Snipes could ever truly pass for women. What about John Leguizamo as Chi-Chi? Though the movie dresses him in a number of absurd, ridiculous outfits, Leguizamo mostly looks convincing as a member of the opposite sex. Maybe that was intentional, as Chi-Chi’s subplot involves a boy in the town falling for him, unaware of his gender. Again, while you’d expect the film to go for big laughs, it instead employs sensitivity. Bobby Ray isn’t portrayed as wrong for falling for Chi-Chi. Chi-Chi is portrayed as being selfish for not being more upfront. Though the boy eventually finds a hetero love interest, “To Wong Foo” would have been even more bold if it stuck with the relationship between Bobby Lee and Chi-Chi. Still, the subplot is surprisingly sweet.

The whole movie is charming. The script doesn’t break any rules. The film follows the expected plot line of outsiders entering a stuffy town and revitalizing it with their new perspective. Here, the drag queens introduce outrageous fashion to the women of the town. They help the stuttering boy who runs the clothing shop overcome his stutter. They give a young girl the confidence to pursue the boy she likes. Vida roughs up the abusive husband of Carol Ann, the owner of the home they’re staying at. This is all expected stuff. Yet it’s pulled off in a funny, heartfelt way. I especially like the subplot about Snipes’ Noxeema befriending a seemingly mute women, who bond over their shared love of old movies.

The inevitable conclusion has Chris Penn as a homophobic, sexist sheriff attempting to run the drag queens out of town. In an unexpected variation of the ol’ “I Am Spartacus!” troupe, everyone in the town come to their defense. It’s cheesy stuff but kind of touching, in much the same way this surprisingly sweet movie is. Penn has no problem playing a scumbag and even entertains the possibility that the homophobic sheriff may be closeted himself. The conclusion is full of tear filled goodbyes. What is truly unexpected is that the movie earns it.

Why Do I Own This?: Because it’s actually kind of good? “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar” is not a political movie. Obviously. The film is far too campy to ever seriously address gender, queer, or sexual issue. Yet it never sneers or laughs at its drag queen protagonists. The script is honestly routine stuff. “Routine” doesn’t mean “bad” though. The film has far more heart and charm then you’d expect from the time and place. In 2015, it’s still a sensitive, if irrelevant, portrayal of the queer community. [7/10]

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