This article first appeared in Attitude issue 290, December 2017.
Patrick Swayze wasthe snakehipped sexpot from Dirty Dancing, Wesley Snipes was the muscled Adonis from White Men Can’t Jump, and John Leguizamo was fresh out of a starring role in Super Mario Bros.
With these enormously masc4masc roles on their CVs, it was something of a surprise to see all three in drag in the 1995 cult classic To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar.
While perhaps not quite as celebrated as the very similar The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, To Wong Foo holds up as Sunday afternoon feel-good fare.
In his reminiscences of the film, studio exec Mitchell Kohn states that no one, including the writer Douglas Carter Beane, was aware of Priscilla’s storyline when To Wong Foo entered production.
Both films are road-trip movies, and this one sees Vida (Swayze), Noxeema (Snipes) and Chi-Chi (Leguizamo) journey from New York to LA to compete in a drag pageant.
Along the way, Vida falls foul of a corrupt sheriff and the trio hide away in a Nebraska town where the queens liberate the sad womenfolk from their terrible husbands and bad fashion.
It’s difficult to say what attracted the butch leading men to the project. This was, let’s not forget, 1993/94. Aids was still destroying the gay community. If you did see a gay man on screen, it was often in some way tragic — think Philadelphia or My Private Idaho.
Perhaps boldly, perhaps playing-it safe, To Wong Foo entirely ignores the pandemic and opts to portray gay men living their best possible lives. Snipes “jumped” (LOL) at the role of Noxeema while Chi-Chi was written especially for Leguizamo, the actor even embarking on a vegan diet to lose his muscles.
“I got all soft and girly,” he wrote in his 2007 autobiography. “Little jelly rolls under my arms, round little tummy. Oh, I was cute.”
The role of Vida, according to director Beeban Kidron (tellingly, no male director in all of Hollywood would touch a gay movie) became the hottest property in town with Robert Downey Jr, Tom Cruise and Mel Gibson all reportedly screen testing.
But Swayze actively campaigned for the part, hiring his own makeup squad ahead of the audition. His career had stalled slightly following Ghost and he wanted a new challenge.
The director felt his natural dance ability brought a grace to Vida and he was cast. In his memoir, Swayze told of spending time on the New York drag circuit.
“Not only did they have an amazing sense of humour, they also had amazing courage. It takes cojones to be exactly who you are, especially when it’s so different from what society has dictated for you,” he wrote.
Twenty years on, it’s — erm — a little odd that the queens spend all their time in drag and try to convince everyone they’re cisgender women without the word “transgender” once being mentioned. Chi-Chi even enters into a relationship as a woman.
A sign of the times perhaps, and a minor detail which, if you can suspend disbelief, doesn’t detract from a sweet-hearted film.