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‘To Wong Foo’ (PG-13)

By Joe Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 08, 1995

Following hot on the high heels of "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" comes the American drag-queens-on-the-road entry, the chewily titled, fiercely funny "To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar." Studio types have been publicly wondering if "To Wong Foo" will appeal to both straight and gay audiences, but it's really not much of a risk—who wouldn't line up to see three of Hollywood's most macho movie stars camping it up as Glamazons?

Three snaps up for Patrick Swayze, Wesley Snipes and John Leguizamo, who walk the walk, and work it, playing gay men and drag queens, with no "hey, we're really straight guys" winks at the audience. All three seem to really enjoy being a gurl.

Before we go any further here, it must be stressed that you're gonna have to check your disbelief at the door if you want to enjoy this movie. I mean, hello? Patrick Swayze as a beauty contest winner? (That chin! Those pores!) Maybe in a pageant for Bea Arthur look-alikes. And Wesley Snipes—I don't think so. (Girl, ain't no amount of flouncy fabric can disguise those "Brick House" biceps!) And while we're on the subject, these gurls are never out of drag—they even wake up in full makeup and false eyelashes (but hey, come to think of it, so did Marlo Thomas and Eva Gabor . . . ).

And no self-respecting drag queen would wear a red crepe de chine long-sleeved outfit on a car trip.

Directed by Britain's Beeban Kidron ("Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit," "Antonia and Jane"), "To Wong Foo" has a split personality—it feels like three separate spliced-together movies with the same characters. Part I is the most fun, as we watch Swayze and Snipes undergo their transformation, a la "Torch Song Trilogy." The dizzy, dishy beauty pageant at New York's Webster Hall is studded with lots of the real-life stars of New York's queen scene (watch for cameos by RuPaul, Robin Williams, real-girl supermodel Naomi Campbell, bodyboy David Barton and the real Julie Newmar).

Swayze is Vida Boheme, den mother and grande dame type in Chanel suits and head scarves. Snipes is Noxeema Jackson, a sassy snap queen who has a fierce way with a comeback ("I do not do the bus—you obviously have me mistaken for Miss Rosa Parks"). And that lady with the tutti-frutti hat is Leguizamo as wickedly flirty Chi Chi Rodriguez, who aspires to be a "drag princess."

Sharing the pageant crown as queen of the queens, Swayze and Snipes win a trip to Hollywood, and decide to take Leguizamo along. The three twisted sisters cash in their plane tickets for a yellow Cadillac convertible, plop a black-and-white glossy of patron saint Julie Newmar (the original Catwoman, for you kiddies) on the dashboard, and let 'er rip on a Road Trip.

Suddenly, the movie makes a neck-snapping detour into "Thelma and Louise (and Chi-Chi)" territory, when a piggish cop (Chris Penn) pulls them over and gets fresh with Thel—I mean, Swayze—who decks him. Panicked, Les Gurls leave the creep for dead, etc., etc. It resembles "T&L" so closely, that you may find yourself waiting for the Brad Pitt cowboy-stud character to appear—and he does!

When the Caddy (inevitably) breaks down, and the gurls find themselves forced to stay in a dusty, redneck-ridden Midwestern town, things get cloyingly cuddly. Screenwriter Douglas Carter Beane pilfers not just plot elements from "Priscilla," but also stirs in big chunks of "Fried Green Tomatoes," "Bagdad Cafe," "Auntie Mame," "The Music Man" and "Cinderella."

In short order, the trio gives the town's dowdy genetic females a make-over and a lesson in style, repairs a few movie-of-the-week problems (domestic violence, homophobia, attempted gang-rape) with almost offensive superficiality, and helps make True Love blossom. But only among the straight folk, of course. As always in the (admittedly few) mainstream movies with gay characters, our hero-ines aren't invited to the party, they remain benevolent, but sexless good fairies.

Before "To Wong Foo" came out, there was a bit of controversy in the movie press about straight actors playing gay roles (and vice versa). The release of the movie may add a new kink to this discussion—male stars competing for the few meaty female parts available.

Personal to Rosie Perez: You better watch out, girl! In his Daisy Dukes and belly-blouses, Leguizamo is so good here, he could give you a run for any role you're up for.

TO WONG FOO, THANKS FOR EVERYTHING! JULIE NEWMAR (PG-13) — Contains domestic violence, sexual situations and too much foundation.

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