Out of the closet and into the mainstream, this film raised gay culture to moderately new heights of respectability in the suburbs of heterosexual Australia. It also moved with great effect across the screens of North America and Europe, following on the heels of its glitzy (but inferior) precursor, Strictly Ballroom (1992).
Casting Terence Stamp as ageing transsexual Bernadette – an iron-willed character with an assiduous sense of purpose and deportment who is mourning the recent death of her young male lover – the film found the mix of acting talent to satisfy its funders and the global audience.
Together with Tick (Hugo Weaving) and Adam (Guy Pearce) – who perform as drag queens Mitzi and Felicia, respectively – the trio snapped, snarled and struggled their way from Sydney – Australia’s gay heartland – through to the heterosexist wasteland of Alice Springs.
The film takes its name from the bus on which the three leading characters travel from Sydney to Alice to perform a cabaret show.
Overdressed in all the refinements of the aesthetic distortions of dress that make gay culture so alluring yet perverse, the bus is the perfect vehicle for the intensive dialogue that characterises these marginalised, confident characters.
They turn heads in Broken Hill, get in a fight at Coober Pedy and are rescued from break down in the desert by an open-minded mechanic, Bob (Bill Hunter), who is shamed in public by his slutty, drunken wife who then dumps him.
Bob then boards the bus with the three merry pranksters and before the poor old geezer even realises it, he is smitten with Bernadette. Middle-aged love blooms in the desert.
On concluding the trip and meeting the wife and young son of Tick – who, according to gay expectations, should have been childless and unmarried – the narrative tries to reconstitute itself as no longer a playful engagement with gay culture.
Attempting to draw its audience into ‘straight’ dilemmas – am I gay or straight? – it fizzles rather than explodes in its celebration of difference.
Tick Belrose/Mitzi Del Bra