Drag is in right now. All one has to do to understand just to what extent that drag has become such a pop culture phenomenon is to log on to any social media site during an airing of RuPaul’s Drag Race. It’s a part of LGBTQ culture that has slowly entered the mainstream. However, things weren’t always as inclusive as they are in 2019 (which, if we are being honest, still has its fair share of intolerance), but for a brief moment in 1995 a major studio took a significant risk in having three Hollywood stars playing drag queens in the cult classic To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar. For Pride Month, along with a number of other LGBTQ releases, Shout! Factory has brought To Wong Foo on Blu-ray for the first time with a new set of special features for a film that was a unique risk in the mid-‘90s.
After tying at the Drag Queen of the Year contents, Vida Boheme (Patrick Swayze) and Noxeema Jackson (Wesley Snipes) have just been awarded a trip to Hollywood. After a bit of persuading, Vida convinces Noxeema to take along the young Chi-Chi (John Leguizamo), trading in their plane tickets for a beat up Cadillac convertible. On the long drive across the country, the veteran drag queens try to impart their wisdom on their young protégé, helping Chi-Chi make the transition from “boy in a dress” to a full-fledged drag queen. One evening, though, the trio is pulled over by Sherriff Dollard (Chris Penn), who attempts to sexually assault Vida before discovering the drag queen’s true gender; Vida then wallops the sleazy officer and his lack of consciousness makes the trio fear that he’s dead.
Vida, Noxeema, and Chi-Chi flee the scene of the crime but their beat up Cadillac will only take them so far before it breaks down, leaving them stranded in the dusty old town of Snydersville. It’s there that the trio of drag queens inject the town with a bit of life and style. Of course, there are all sort of complications that arise in the form of young Bobby Ray (Jason London) becoming enamored with Chi-Chi despite his romance with young Bobby Lee (Jennifer Milmore). The meek housewife Carol Ann (Stockard Channing) has to deal with her abusive husband Virgil (Arliss Howard). All the while Sherriff Dollard has survived his encounter and feeling emasculated desires to apprehend the drag queens.
While a film about drag queens was a somewhat risky venture for a studio in the mid-‘90s, it’s important to remember that To Wong Foo emerged only because of the immense success of the Australian drag queen film The Adventures of Pricilla, Queen of the Desert. Here is an obvious case of a studio trying to capitalize on an emerging trend, but drag hadn’t quite crossed over into the mainstream yet with RuPaul (who has a very memorable cameo here) being the only famous drag queen in the mainstream after the death of Divine in 1988. None of which is able to diminish the fact that the script by Douglas Carter Beane, though somewhat generic in parts, has a strong progressive streak. The film is about tolerance and acceptance even if it is focused heavily on a trio of drag queens taking a Podunk little town and making it absolutely fabulous.
On top of the three headlining stars, all of whom were at the peak of their fame, To Wong Foo also boasts an incredibly strong supporting cast that helps balance the film’s outrageous elements with an down to Earth earnestness. Veterans Blythe Danner, Melinda Dillon, Beth Grant, Alice Drummond, and Marceline Hugot help anchor the film as the main characters are stalled in Snydersville. And, of course, there are some lively cameos in the film, including the eponymous Julie Newmar, Naomi Campbell, and Robin Williams as the hyperactive John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt. The best cameo is the aforementioned RuPaul, who comes down to the stage in a glittering dress of the Confederate Flag. While I abhor that flag and all that it stands for, I can’t help but revel in its use here as there’s nothing more offensive to those who’d wave it in earnest than a black drag queen donning the stars and bars and looking fabulous doing it.
The direction of To Wong Foo is, for the most part, quite pedestrian. Director Beeban Kidron doesn’t try to do anything with the camera to wow the viewers, leaving the heavy lifting entirely up to its trio of movie stars in drag and the flashy costume design by Marlene Stewart. Thankfully, the costumes and the stars are all game and they’re the reason that To Wong Foo endures nearly 25 years after its release. Swayze and Snipes bring a distinct set of characteristics to their competing drag queens, a confidence and elegance that compliments once another. Leguizamo, on the other hand, is the firecracker that ramps up the manic energy of every scene he’s in as the spirited Chi-Chi. Both Swayze and Leguizamo would be honored for their spirited efforts with Golden Globe nominations for their performances, though Snipes was snubbed.
The Shout! Factory edition of To Wong Foo only has one new feature and that’s a featurette about the film featuring actor John Leguizamo, screenwriter Douglas Carter Beane, and director Beeban Kidron. The rest of the special features consist of deleted scenes, trailers, and TV spots for the film.
To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar was a modest hit in its day but one that was ahead of the curve culturally, and time has finally caught up with the film. Once again, Shout! Factory has released a cult classic on Blu-ray for its dedicated audience. The film may not be the cinematic peak of drag on the screen (that honor will always belong to John Waters’ films with Divine), but it’s a movie that still entertains thanks its spirited performances and outrageous confidence in its concept which was unique for a studio film of its era. To Wong Foo is a movie that’s got it and ain’t afraid to strut its stuff.
To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar
A lively comedy featuring three stars at the height of their fame in drag, To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar comes to Blu-ray for the first time in a new Shout! Factory edition timed to come out during Pride Month.