‘To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar’ finds its grace in its stars
Every week, Ultimate Movie Year looks back into the past to highlight the best film that came out that weekend.
“To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar”
Released Sept. 8, 1995
Directed by Beeban Kidron
Despite some societal and legal progress made in the LGBTQ community over the past two decades (albeit with recent setbacks), queer cinema has not kept pace in the mainstream as superhero and animated blockbusters dominate the marketplace. But for so many more reasons, “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar” became a breakout hit in 1995 in a way that seems impossible today.
Directed by Beeban Kidron, written by Douglas Beane and starring Wesley Snipes, Patrick Swayze, and John Leguizamo, the movie follows three New York City drag queens who go on a cross-country road trip to Los Angeles to compete in a national contest. Along the way, a chance encounter with an intolerant sheriff and a car breakdown land them in the dusty rural town of Strykersville. As the car needs a few days of repair, the queens carefully navigate the locals while staying true to their fabulous selves.
Watching “To Wong Foo” out of the context of the mid-90s is bound to raise several red flags given the modern discourse. It’s hard to imagine a trio of male movie stars today either commit to portraying drag queens uncritically for an entire movie, or not tell producers to cast actual drag queens. Many filmmakers and studios are having a worthy and important conversation about representation, even if it’s occasionally awkward, but finding unique artists to tell their stories authentically is also a way to distinguish yourself in a crowded marketplace of brands and IP.
But that wasn’t the reality of mainstream Hollywood in 1995. The studios have a long history of being far more comfortable with putting straight men in drag on film (including “Some Like It Hot,” “Tootsie” and “Mrs. Doubtfire”) than actual drag queens, who had to find their opportunities on the fringe like in the films of John Waters. I’m not sure if Hollywood is more comfortable with queens now, but at least they’ve seemingly retired the “straight men in drag” troupe.
What’s unique about “To Wong Foo” for a studio movie is that it’s the first time a company like Universal released a film that fully committed to men in drag, and not as a temporary thing the protagonist does to achieve their goal as in the previously mentioned films. It’s also the only primary reason why this film works because it found three actors who equally committed to their performance.
In the entry for “Dirty Dancing,” I noted that Swayze is one of those stars who manage to elevate every film he does, and that streak continues here as classy belle Vida Boheme. As his peer blockbuster action stars continued to evolve into quipping superhumans (or worse, cheese comedies that played on their tough-guy status), Swayze forged a career playing heroes with soul, allowing his on-screen sensitivity and natural empathy to project a new model of masculinity.
Equally impressive is Snipes as Noxeema Jackson. At this point, Snipes is enjoying his peak as a film star and could have easily cashed into a star-driven action movie that was a dime a dozen in the 90s. Instead, he mixed those high-paying gigs with more challenging work like “White Men Can’t Jump,” “The Waterdance” and “To Wong Foo.” Before getting into tax-evasion trouble and the stories of being difficult in “Blade: Trinity” effected his public image, “To Wong Foo” reminds us that Snipes is an actor with both charm and talent.
Rounding out the cast is Leguizamo as Chi-Chi, a Latina queen who is invited to join the two contest winners on their road trip to Los Angeles. This is where my experience as a cis white male colors my impression, as it’s hard for me to distinguish the line in his performance as a Latino queen between honesty and camp, but even still, Leguizamo has some very fine moments here and was recognized during that year’s awards season.
Beyond the three lead performances, the rest of the movie is at the level of your average fish-out-of-water studio comedy from the 90s. Mild jokes are made, hearts are broken and rebuilt, and lessons are learned. Universal’s marketing theme must have thought the same thing, as the promotion was completely built around notable male actors in drag. The trailer reveals the entire plot of the movie, but what audiences are paying to see are their action heroes in dresses. Kudos to the stars who treated these roles with sincerity and respect, while avoiding the temptation to turn the entire film into a farce.
Released at one of the weakest box office periods of the year, “To Wong Foo” found success with an attention-grabbing premise and little competition. The film topped the box office for its first two weeks of release, eventually getting knocked out of the top spots by the even more campy “Showgirls” and the significantly less campy “Seven.” It also suffered in comparison to the Australian comedy “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” which was released earlier after “To Wong Foo” was already put into production but had a similar premise.
There would be better queer films than “To Wong Foo,” but at the time, with no other films to compete at the box office, it had an open lane for mainstream audiences to see a movie that showcased queens and empathized with them. If there’s a recurring theme to this column, it’s that film allows us to see people and experience lifestyles that may not be in our daily lives, and for that reason, on this weekend, “To Wong Foo” is the ultimate choice.
The Legacy: Screenwriter Beane has toyed with developing “To Wong Foo” as a Broadway musical, but beyond that, its legacy remains more as a mainstream venture for queer cinema. There have been several LGBTQ movies that have drawn widespread acclaim like 2005’s “Brokeback Mountain” and 2016’s Best Picture winner “Moonlight,” but many have come from independent and foreign cinema and didn’t get as much attention. Visit Timeout and Out for more on the history of queer cinema.
The Weekend: Early September is a slow time of year for films, and in fact, never released a massive hit until 2017’s “It” terrified audiences. Instead, the period is marked by several solid, good films that may not make anybody’s favorites list, but have found steady life in video rentals, cable reruns and streaming, including 1988’s “Eight Men Out,” 2000’s “The Way of the Gun,” 2006’s “Hollywoodland,” and 2007’s “3:10 to Yuma” remake.
Next Week: “Barbershop”
Originally published at http://www.markciemcioch.com on September 5, 2019.