Nowadays, we are living in one of the high points of drag entering the mainstream. Through sheer force of will, a little show called RuPaul’s Drag Race has slowly grown to the point where we are just months away from entering a period where we will have roughly 5 different variations of the Drag Race formula over a 12 month timeframe, along with more cult shows like Dragula being social media darlings. In movies, however, drag queens don’t tend to be a big feature. Sure, in the last few years they appeared in A Star Is Born and the indie circuit popped out a few surprises but in terms of mainstream films embracing drag queens as a major element of the narrative, we haven’t had that since the last 90s when a trilogy of films presented Drag Queens in all their glory. There was the iconic comedy of The Birdcage (with… oh god, the Genie and Timon, gosh darn I can’t remember their real names), before that, there was the Australian classic The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and before both of them, there was the underrated gem with the glorious name of To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar.
To Wong Foo is the tale of three drag queens on a trip across the country, from New York to Hollywood so that they can compete in the Drag Queen of America pageant. Originally it was meant to just be two, the mother hen queen Vida (Patrick Swayze) and the campy glam goddess Noxeema (Wesley Snipes) but when they happened upon a little Latin boy in drag called Chi-Chi (John Leguizamo) they decided to bring her along for the trip… a trip that had a sudden turn when their car breaks down in the town of Snyderville and while they are stuck there, the three queens slowly help make the sleepy little town wake up and feel alive again.
There is so much joy and warmth in this film that it’s probably my favourite of the three big 90s drag films. For starters, the film doesn’t worry about anything concerning realism. It makes no logical sense for the three queens to be in full drag for an entire road trip, but it’s so much more fun if they are so that’s what the film does. There are moments where they play it like the drag queens might just be magic and that’s fine, it’s more interesting than if they were just dudes with pretty gowns. It’s a fun, light-hearted tone that really works and is surprisingly effective at making the more dramatic moments stand out. Breaking into a light drag movie to actually touch on topics like domestic abuse, police brutality and familial rejection of homosexuals should be jarring, but here they found the magic formula to make it work… possibly because the lead characters are so likable that when they go through hardship or see it happening, we just go with them because they are incredibly charming.
The charm of the leads is beyond compare, and their performances are easily some of the best work that all three men have ever done (that’s not the least bit controversial to suggest, right?). Wesley and Patrick, at this point in their careers, were better known for being action heroes and tough guys. Wesley was just coming off Demolition Man, Patrick was still the Point Break and Road House guy… and now they’re playing drag queens. It’s literally how this film was sold; it’s in the trailer up the top of this article. They are playing completely against type, a sharp reversal of their well-cultivated images and they’re brilliant. Vida is one of the most glamorous queens and Patrick plays it like he’s been head of a drag house for years. The film opens with a drag queen competition where they hired real drag queen legends like Lady Bunny, Coco Peru and RuPaul (as Rachel Tensions wearing a Confederate flag gown, it’s one of the most shockingly hilarious combinations and I loved it) and Patrick fits in perfectly with all of them. Then Wesley is bringing Noxeema to life and every single line out of his mouth is comedy gold, not just because the dialogue is flawlessly written but because Wesley owns every single syllable he is given. Even when he isn’t talking, his reactions are the kind of stuff that is meant to be turned into gifs for social media.
Then there’s John Leguizamo who was just 2 years past the titanic-sized disaster of Super Mario Bros, and he owns every second he has. Again, John was known for a lot more macho roles at this point but as Chi-Chi he went for broke, apparently improvising so much that Patrick Swayze almost beat him up (Please stop and picture Patrick Swayze in full drag about to beat up John Leguizamo, also in full drag… it’s a hilarious image, let’s be honest about it) but that improvising helped make Chi Chi feel alive. She’s so sweet and innocent that when they throw her to a gang of rednecks who look like they’re about to do something awful to her, it’s sympathetic as hell and when she’s saved she can still fire off a joke effortlessly. This isn’t even going into how good the supporting cast is, though I’d give a special shout out to Stockard Channing, who has to play the abused wife of one of the townspeople, because she delivers the emotional highlights of this movie. Seriously, if she’s not making you cry in sympathy, she’s going to make you cry from how obscenely sweet she is to Vida right near the end of this film.
Now, even though I do love this film, some parts of it haven’t aged that well. Some of the plot just drops off, they make a big deal about Vida’s parents not accepting her but then they just drop it, never giving us actual closure on that storyline. Some of the actual language used clearly no longer applies, so Noxeema’s grand speech about what makes a drag queen involves a slightly cringey moment where she says transsexual when, nowadays, we’d say transgender and this isn’t the fault of the film because it was made in the 90s and terminology changes because language is a fluid mistress, but that doesn’t make it any less cringey. There’s also no real closure for the Officer Dollard plot. He never gets told to stop but just decides to give up anyway because they ran out of time. There are quite a few mild problems that could’ve been hammered out in the scripting stage but they don’t stop the film from working. There are moments when the age of the film shows and for some, it might be too much, but it still works well for me.
At the end of the day, To Wong Foo is about acceptance. The main characters just want to be accepted for who they are and find a small town that grows to not only accept them but embrace them. There’s a lot of love and joy to be found here and even with the edges that have gotten a little rougher over time, it’s still one of the most enjoyable films of its kind. It’s easily available on iTunes if you’re curious; it’s a very easy recommendation for just about everyone.