I wrote a little tribute to drag queens, and to Patrick Swayze over at my other blog. The news that Swayze is battling pancreatic cancer was a blow.
“To Wong Foo,Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar” (1995) was released very close to the break-out drag queen hit “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” and I know I’m in the minority in believing that “To Wong Foo” was by far the better picture. To me, “Priscilla” was a wonderful road story but an overly-mincing performance by Guy Pearce and unbelievable casting in Terrence Stamp (I love the man, but he can’t move, and drag queens — especially legendary ones — have serious moves) made it impossible for me to buy his character).
“To Wong Foo,” first of all, totally gets the aesthetics of big American drag right, and exquisitely so. The three actors playing the key characters (John Leguizamo as Chi-Chi Rodriguez, Wesley Snipes as Miss Noxeema Jackson, and Patrick Swayze as Miss Vida Boheme) were unbelievably good together, and threw themselves into the roles with total abandon. Given the three “girls” differences in economic class, culture and race, this is a great movie about America itself, land of the free and the brave, where we are free to recreate ourselves in whatever image we can afford emotionally and financially. The dialogue is wickedly funny and mean, such as when the Latina “baby drag queen” Chi-Chi starts to run away from the car in the middle of the night in a fit of pique and Wesley Snipes, the African-American Amazon goddess Noxeema Jackson, calmly watches her from the back seat and says, “Look at her, lookin’ like she runnin’ for the border.” The script is full of this kind of racial and class tension dealt with through affectionately biting sarcasm, which makes it true to the American experience and to the drag community.
Yes, the hetero men in the movie are mostly macho, dumb stereotypes (watch for the sweet Arliss Howard trying to persuade us that he’s a drunk wife-beater — bad casting, there!) and some have complained that they didn’t appreciate the whole “It takes a man dressed as a woman to teach a woman how to be a woman,” but I loved it. I loved it because it can be true. Just as it can take a woman to teach a man how to live more fully into his masculinity, so can the opposite be true.
I remember when I moved to Massachusetts from Maryland, having lived as a sexless frump for three dateless years and having totally subsumed my sense of femininity in the work of ministry. My friend Nathan, a drag queen, took me shopping in the summer of 2003. He coaxed me into more fitted jackets than I would have purchased, a sexy skirt that hugged my hips, and a pair of Nine West pumps that I first refused. “I don’t wear heels, Nathan, I’m too fat!” “HONEY,” he replied, from his full height of well over 6″ with one hand on a not-at-all slim hip, “If I can wear 4″ heels, you can wear these little 2″ things. GET THEM.” I did, I woke up to the fact that I was hiding myself behind layers of fat and big, shapeless clothing and I began to consider why I was doing this, and how it served neither myself nor my ministry. I started working out, I started dating, I started integrating my identity as a minister with my femininity, and I have never looked back. Thanks, Nathan.
And thank you, Patrick Swayze, for your marvelous creation of Vida Boheme. I wish you well in your cancer treatment, and want to say now that to me, you will always be immortalized in that great lady; a performance underappreciated by critics and by the general public.