Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar
Probably the most sought after/talked about road movie in the LGBT community (besides The Wizard of Oz
) To Wong Foo
, Thanks For Everything! Julie Newmar
is a camp classic, a 90s relic, and somewhat of a political oddity.
The film tells the story of two emerging Drag Queens in New York (Patrick Swayze as the bashful, polite and traditional Vida Boheme and Wesley Snipes as the sassy, flamboyant Noxeema Jackson) who split the honors of a New York contest which affords them an all-expense paid trip to LA, where they are to compete in the nation-wide "Drag Queen of the Year" contest. However, as they're leaving the drag club in rauckus celebration, they find a young queen crying on the stairs (ChiChi Rodriguez, played by John Leguizamo.) who has yet to learn the ropes of drag and is worried that she never will. Vida immediately insists that they must help, and convinces Noxeema to trade in their plane tickets for the price of a rental car. The three embark on a cross-country trip to Los Angeles, and along the way Vida and Noxeema plan to teach ChiChi how to be the best drag queen she can be in time for the contest in LA.
Tensions are immediately high between the queens (the shade of it all!) and matters are made worse when their car breaks down in the backwoods town of "Snydersville." The girls are pulled over by a racist, homophobic cop, who tries to fondle Vida and is shocked by what he finds between her legs. "Get your hands off my dick, buddy!" she screams before knocking him to the ground, where he is rendered unconscious.
Horrified that they have killed the cop, the girls attempt to escape the scene of the crime. Unfortunately, they don't get far before the car gives out completely. Here they are picked up by the sweet country boy Bobby Ray (who immediately falls for ChiChi) and taken into town, where they're given a room at the home of Virgil (Arliss Howard) and Carol Ann (Stockard Channing.) The girls very quickly begin painting the town red, teaching the hum-drum housewives how to have a "day with the girls" and taking over the planning committee for their annual Strawberry Festival (which they re-name the "Red 'N Wild Festival") Vida ultimately helps Carol Ann leave her husband, who she finds to be abusing her. The queens basically teach the women of the town to be better women (and the men to be better men) leading to a fabulous parade in honor of the Red n' Wild Festival, which the homophobic cop (who did not die, but is out for revenge) tries to stop. However, the town protects the three queens (even now, finally knowing their true identities) and each woman announces to the cop that she, too, is a drag queen--"nothing this pretty could be real."
To Wong Foo
is basically a perfect road movie, both aesthetically and in terms of what it meant at the time of it's release (1995) It tells the story of America, basically--one specific group encounters, against their will (or mistakenly) a very different specific group and then changes that group forever while also
being changed themselves. It's both the "melting pot" story and, more cynically, the story of colonization. It tells a story in which one destination is imagined, and yet we're taken somewhere else entirely (again, like Oz
, or Columbus' failed journey to India)
It also reflects a certain politics of acceptability for gay characters in popular American narratives at the time. To Wong Foo
is a film starring three straight actors, who (with the exception, perhaps, of Leguizamo) are generally cast in and thought of as playing more masculine roles. The idea of Wesley Snipes and Patrick Swayze in a dress is
funny--and that, more than the ignorance of those they encounter, is too often the actual joke of To Wong Foo
. While the film clearly states that these characters are not transsexual, or even "transvestites" (defined in the film as a straight men who gets sexual pleasure out of dressing like a woman in secret) and that they are, in fact, gay men, we never get to view them that way. Not once in the film are these men seen out of costume--falsely implying that Drag Queens live their daily life in character, and not simply as gay men who perform at night. These are, instead, a safe kind of gay men--they're biggest threat being that they might accidentally seduce a straight man, but it's not like he would know
that he's being mislead into attraction for a man. These gay men, though they can throw a punch, primarily exist to help women be better woman--again, of course, a threat to straight men, but not exactly an advancement for gay men themselves. The film, though fun, sets up dangerous precedents for the expectations of gay men--to be a friend, an accessory, and not their own person. This is especially dangerous specifically because To Wong Foo
is a road movie, one specifically about the gay culture interfacing with an ignorant straight one, and about the interfacing of gays with the rest of the country at a time when we enjoyed Clintonian liberalism, but didn't even talk about repealing Don't Ask Don't Tell.