Not Just Priscilla: A Brief History Of Queer Cinema In Australia

From 'Picnic At Hanging Rock' To 'Holding The Man', Aussie cinema's had a distinctly queer bent over the years.

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Australian cinema has a remarkably proud tradition of films representing gay and lesbian culture. A tradition that goes well beyond Priscilla, but in fact stretches back decades and which in 2015 reached a new peak with several features and documentaries covering queer subject matter. Here we look at ten essential queer Australia films and the political climates of the eras they were born from.

Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) and The Getting of Wisdom (1978)

While Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock and Bruce Beresford’s The Getting of Wisdom are both primarily about much more than the exploration of blossoming queer attraction among teenage girls, watching these films today and it is especially hard to ignore that what was once considered sly subtext is now quite plain as day.

Both films suggest that same-sex attractions at that age aren’t weird or frightening, but are simply by-products of teenage sexual curiosity. These themes, however tangential to the central plots, are only enhanced by their period settings where the girls where petticoats and hoop skirts with parasols and lace, suggesting that queerness has not always been as hidden away as many may think.

The Everlasting Secret Family (1988)

The “family” in the title of this little-seen drama is a secret society of gay men, prominent in society, who prey upon strapping young high school boys (such as Gallipoli’s Mark Lee) and groom them to be dependent houseboys.

While there’s something to be said about the era in which it was made, there’s no doubt Michael Thornhill’s film would never see the light of day today given how repulsive its representation of gay men is. It lacks any real insight into inter-generational gay romance, something common among gay men, instead presenting everybody as a sleazy predator.

The Sum of Us (1994)

Released two months ahead of Priscilla, this feel-good father and son drama starring Jack Thompson and Russell Crowe remains a crowd-pleasing delight. What makes The Sum of Us special is the relationship between Thompson and Crowe, two actors who it’s hard to not see as very typical Australian blokes, but whom make a statement of mutual respect and understanding between a relationship that, especially at that time, were more likely to be strained.

Crowe’s relationship with John Polson is also wonderful and the sort of imagery many young gay boys were excited to see on screen.

Naw – baby Russ.

The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey (1988)

A dark fantastical comedic adventure about 14th century time-travellers arriving in modern day New Zealand may not sound like the typical film in which to find queer themes, but Vincent Ward’s film – an Australian production that won six Australian Film Institute Awards – is actually an allegory for the AIDS epidemic that was sweeping the world throughout the 1980s.

In The Navigator, villagers seek to escape the encroaching Black Death, only to arrive in a future that among wonderous advances has its own plague. Parallels are only heightened by the use of the famed crazy bananas, alarmist  Grim Reaper commercials (see below)  that aired on local television from 1987.

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994)

We said not just Priscilla, but what would this list be without Stephan Elliot’s flamboyant, bawdy and, it must be said, ballsy comedy about a cabaret act driving through the desert in a lavender-pink bus with a giant glittered stiletto on stop which turned 21 last year?

More than any other Australian film since Crocodile Dundee in 1986, Priscilla became a global phenomenon and remains to this day one of the most acclaimed and celebrated Aussie films. Its message of acceptance in the face of adversity matched only by its rip-snorting one-liners and extravagantly costumed musical numbers. Alongside Muriel’s Wedding, you have Priscilla to thank for bringing ABBA back in vogue.

Never not fucking magnificent.

Head On (1998)

Director Ana Kokkinos had explored the dangerous collision between ethnicity, sexuality and Melbourne’s tough, working class western suburbs in her superb 1994 short film Only the Brave. With her feature debut, Head On, she cast Dolly centerfold Alex Dimitriades as an extremely sexual young man who struggles with the tradition of his Greek upbringing and the expanding sexual openness of modern society.

It signified a stark change from the sparkles of the early 1990s and represented a more bleak look at the day’s youth whose access to quick thrills had never been so easy.

The Monkey’s Mask (2000)

Samantha Lang is a director whose films have almost always touched upon queer themes. While The Well, Lang’s debut that competed for the Palme d’Or in Cannes, was a stunning achievement about simmering sexual repression, her follow up was a disappointment. The Monkey’s Mask is an adaptation of Dorothy Porter’s verse novel about a female detective investigating the disappearance of a young student.

Starring Susie Porter, Kelly McGillis (yes, from Top Gun) and Abbie Cornish, the film’s essential misstep is mistaking flipping gender and sexuality of its leads makes up for the flat eroticism and drab style.

The Monkey’s Mask, Kelly McGillis, Susie Porter, 2000 (Via Screen Australia)

52 Tuesdays (2014)

Every Tuesday for 52 weeks, the filmmakers behind 52 Tuesdays convened to film a part of their movie. This unique style of filmmaking – not that unlike Boyhood – is perfect for detailing the gradual progression of the gender transition of Jane to James as well as the coming of age of James’ teenage daughter in both body and sexuality.

This is a mature film that nevertheless highlights the many selfish, childish, rotten ways we can act towards those we love while also loving them unconditionally. For her efforts, Sophie Hyde won the prize for best director at the Sundance Film Festival.

Drown (2015)

Externalised and internalised homophobia gets a passionately angry inspection from this low-budget drama set among a group of competitive life-savers on the shores of Sydney. While there is much to say about the corrosive way masculinity can rear its ugly head among modern society, Dean Francis’ disturbingly violent film is far too thin in story and also sadly fails to convince as a cautionary tale. It’s an unpleasant experience that spends too much of its time with bad dialogue to say anything we don’t already know.

Drown, 2015 (Via Screen Australia)

Holding the Man (2015)

It would perhaps be easy to say that the AIDS drama has been played out by gay and queer filmmakers. However, the big screen adaptation of Tim Conigrave’s extraordinary memoir by director Neil Armfield proved that there are still many interesting stories to be told from this most devastating of epidemics (one that is still with us).

Ryan Corr and Craig Stott play Tim and John, high school lovers whose life-long relationship was cut tragically short by HIV, which ultimately took their lives far too young. It’s a touching and poignant story that remains relevant and essential to this day.

Holding the Man is available now on Blu-ray, DVD & digital. 

Glenn Dunks is a freelance writer from Melbourne. He also works as an editor and a film festival programmer while tweeting too much @glenndunks.

Feature image from ’52 Tuesdays’ thanks to Screen Australia