vulture movie club

Hollywood’s First Celebrated Film About Drag Is As Flawed As It Is Fabulous

Wesley Snipes, John Leguizamo, and Patrick Swayze in To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar. Photo: Lorey Sebastian/Universal/Everett Collection

Every few weeks, Vulture will choose a film to watch with readers as part of our Friday Night Movie Club. This week’s selection comes from writer Manuel Betancourt, who will begin his screening of To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar on May 5 at 7 p.m. ET. Head to Vulture’s Twitter to catch the live commentary.

Near the end of To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar — a 1995 road-trip comedy, in which three drag queens find themselves stranded in a small, conservative town — a figure in a striking red dress (and a veil to match) stands up to a blustering police officer. The cop hopes the person walking toward him is the queen who’d knocked him out days earlier and left him for dead. Instead, surprise! The veil belongs not to Patrick Swayze’s soft-spoken Vida Boheme but to Stockard Channing’s mousy Carol Ann — a woman who first gathered the strength to stand up to her abusive husband and is now doing the same to this caricature of a cop. “I am a drag queen,” Carol Ann intones. It’s both a rallying cry and a threat. Carol Ann isn’t just protecting Vida and her friends. She’s showing everyone that the town of Snydersville has embraced the spirit of drag and will protect it at all costs. One by one, the rest of the townsfolk echo her, Spartacus-style, repeating “I am a drag queen” and forcing the cop to stand down. It’s a show of allyship, acceptance, freedom — a Hollywood happy ending.

To watch that scene in 2023 is to encounter a pop-culture moment that feels both trapped in and ahead of its time. Director Beeban Kidron’s film is a capsule of the ways Hollywood understands (and, yes, commodifies) the art of drag. To Wong Foo was fronted by three straight cis male actors — Patrick Swayze (fresh off Ghost and Point Break), Wesley Snipes (of Jungle Fever and White Men Can’t Jump fame), and John Leguizamo (recovering from box-office bombs Super Mario Bros. and Carlito’s Way). To Wong Foo is full of catchy zingers like “Sometimes a boy in a dress is a boy in a dress” and “This is friiinge, oooh” — the latter recently deployed by Sasha Colby on RuPaul’s Drag Race. And its sensibility is defined by maudlin earnestness and a pronounced, but not too pronounced, campiness — the stuff of a mainstream crowd-pleaser. Some drag queens remember the film as groundbreaking, while others point to lingering frustrations with it. Today, we aren’t due for a reappraisal so much as a reconsideration of this cult queer classic that defies easy categorization.

Photo: Universal/Everett Collection

In the opening line of her New York Times review of the film, Janet Maslin captured — almost accidentally — what was so tired and so refreshing about the movie in 1995: “Transvestism is now Hollywood’s favorite form of safe sex,” she wrote, “since its naughtiness is so toothless and lends itself to such happy platitudes.” If the line nags when read now, it’s not just because Maslin needlessly conflates drag performance with “transvestism.” It’s also because she so casually (and accurately) presumes that cross-dressing was already ripe for Hollywood sterilization close to three decades ago. Is To Wong Foo a sanitized image of drag queens made palatable for straight audiences? Or was it a queer romp that spoke to cultural anxieties about and within the LGBTQ+ community? Did it capture the ’90s drag boom at its zenith? Or did it mark its (temporary) demise? The answers, of course, lie somewhere in between. Here is, after all, a statement about the emancipatory power of drag wrapped in a tale of allyship born from genuine curiosity and collaboration — embalmed as it is in the limitations of the ’90s.

When Vida (Swayze), Noxeema Jackson (Snipes) and Chi-Chi Rodriguez (Leguizamo) first arrive in Snydersville, the women of this rundown town look at them with apprehension — and the men, with lust and violence in their eyes. The queens worry for their safety, in part because of their desire to pass as, ahem, “real” ladies by staying in drag at all times. Literally: Vida always looks ready to host a bridge club in Stepford. Noxeema, like she’s about to walk a 1970s New York City runway. And Chi Chi, like she’s earnestly riffing on a Rosie Perez character. Much of the film’s comedy hinges on the trio trying to keep their manhood (and manliness) in check. That’s perhaps why Maslin felt emboldened to talk about “transvestism” in her review, even as Noxeema spells out the differences in the film herself: “When a straight man puts on a dress and gets his sexual kicks, he is a transvestite. When a man is a woman trapped in a man’s body and has a little operation, he is a transsexual.” And “when a gay man has way too much fashion sense for one gender, he is a drag queen.”

You can quibble with such simplistic definitions, but there are real-life queens for whom To Wong Foo still has its charms. “I remember first watching To Wong Foo and being gagged,” RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars winner Monét X Change tells me. “I mean, drag queens being in drag all the time? They are the pioneers of ‘I woke up like dis!’” She says she enjoyed always staying in drag when she got started too. Although she now rarely wears heels, even on the way to the stage, she remembers the Wong Foo queens as embodiments of the fantasy of drag.

For others, the characters operating more like cross-dressers than drag queens remains a sticking point. Miss Coco Peru, a New York queen who played a bit part in the film’s “Drag Queen of the Year” pageant scene, recalls being aghast at the sight of Swayze and company getting ready to sleep in drag: “No one goes to bed in drag unless they’re passed out drunk!” she says now.

Some point to the film as an example of Hollywood’s disinterest in the drearier, day-to-day aspects of drag. In an interview conducted a month before her death, San Francisco drag legend Heklina told me that To Wong Foo never spoke to her reality. Her kind of drag was a far cry from the film’s. “I prefer drag to be subversive and kind of dangerous,” she said. She didn’t prioritize making straight folks feel good about getting their hair done with fairy-godmother-like queens — as the women in Snydersville do. She was of the conviction that drag isn’t and never should be comfortable. How could it be, when to be in drag is anything but? “It’s lots of being in cramped dressing rooms, shitty stages with bad lighting, a really rowdy audience — that kind of thing,” she said.

To Wong Foo’s cuddly images of drag, like the hair-salon scene, will feel familiar to a 21st-century audience. As Vida, Noxeema, and Chi Chi get to know the townspeople and open their eyes to the self-fashioning possibilities of their art, what are they if not a ’90s vision of Eureka O’Hara, Shangela, and Bob the Drag Queen in every episode of the HBO docuseries We’re Here? That was Monique Jenkinson (a.k.a Fauxnique)’s takeaway when she watched the film for the first time this year. The janky makeup on its three leads delighted her: “It’s so first-gen — no one’s really going outside their natural lip.” But the Strawberry Social scene, in which the town finally embraces and stands up for the three queens, resonated with her own path through drag. “I am a woman who does drag, and I was the first cis woman to be crowned as a pageant-winning drag queen,” she reminds me. The sentiment behind the scene — that anyone is capable of finding their inner drag queen — is one she still identifies with.

The film’s unabashed sense of sisterhood, welcoming all and not just cis gay men, exemplifies what drag can and should be — even if Swayze’s softhearted, motherly performance and Snipes’s quick-witted, no-nonsense one skirt the line between queer portraiture and facile caricature. Silly as the film is designed to be, it’s also a call to arms. “This America does not respond kindly to our sort of person,” Noxeema says in the film. That still rings true. Anti-drag bills are sweeping the U.S., often hand in hand with anti-trans legislation, almost 30 after three “huge blockbuster stars lent themselves to the experience and expression of drag,” Monét X Change points out. “Legislators and conservatives today can and should really look at that and analyze why everyone felt safe being encompassed in the magic of drag, why they weren’t threatened by it.” Miss Coco Peru agrees and sees an irony in these restrictions. “They preach freedom, and yet they don’t understand authentic freedom and what it is to live in that sort of authenticity,” she says. “Not hiding secrets, and having the courage, despite what the world might think of you — to be bold, put yourself out there, entertain, and celebrate yourself. That frightens them.”

Of course, even in the context of “this America,” To Wong Foo’s three queens change hearts and minds one feather boa and whip-smart quip at a time, leaving Snydersville a more tolerant and colorful place than they’d found it. That might seem naïve in retrospect. But to Drag Race contestant BenDeLaCreme, a Golden Globe–winning box-office hit embracing happiness for its drag queens still carries meaning. “There was really no big sense of tragedy around these characters,” she says. “They were people who brought a positive influence to the world around them. And it was fabulous.”

To Wong Foo was never perfect, but it’s still fabulous too. Join us on May 5 as we hop in a yellow convertible and hit the road together.

To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar is currently available to stream on Amazon Prime Video and Tubi.

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To Wong Foo Is As Flawed As It Is Fabulous