In 1995, I was an eight-year-old girl watching movies like Toy Story, Pocahontas, and A Goofy Movie. To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar was not on my radar of must-see films at the height of the Disney renaissance. Platforms like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon breathe new life into cinema, whether it’s seeing an old favorite or discover something brand new. Scrolling through Netflix one evening, I stopped on this movie and added it to my watch list. In my house, the watch list is the graveyard of films you want to see but will not watch soon. It’s a placeholder in case you don’t find something better scrolling through the umpteenth time. Sadly, that graveyard of good intentions is where To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar lived until I recently resurrected it.
Beeban Kidrom directs this film about three New York City drag queens on their voyage to Hollywood, California. Before Bianca Del Rio and drag being an accepted part of our culture, there was the tritagonist is Noxeema (Wesley Snipes), Vida Boheme (Patrick Swayze), and Chi-Chi (John Leguizamo). The trip to Hollywood is a prize Noxeema (Snipes) and Vida (Swayze) wins as the dual winners of a drag contest. Vida takes pity on Chi-Chi (Leguizamo) and convinces Noxeema to take her along. Vida sees Chi-Chi as a project, taking her from a boy in a dress to a fabulous drag queen. Chi-Chi is shown with lipstick on her teeth early on, a subtle way of showing she is not the same caliber as Noxeema or Vida. The three need to get to Hollywood, but the grand prize only gave flight transportation for two. They visit John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt, played by the phenomenal Robin Williams. Williams steals this scene as the charismatic John Jacob. They end up taking the signed picture of Julie Newmar with them from the restaurant on their road trip.
As a music enthusiast, I was pleased with the song choices used in particular scenes. The movie begins with Noxeema and Vida getting dressed and putting on their makeup to Salt-N-Pepa, “I Am the Body Beautiful.” It is the perfect song to set up this movie. I appreciate the positive body message despite the drag community not being as mainstream or accepted in the 90s as it is today. The film even highlights this by the cop’s list to look for the girls is his “Places for Homos.” This movie is still 14 years before the first season of Drag Race. The next scene with a good song choice is at the drag show.
All the drag queens are dancing to Tom Jones, “She’s a lady.” Like the opening song, this one celebrates that these contestants are looked at and viewed as a woman, if only to the community in which they belong. Next, when the ladies discover they will be stuck in the town, they decorate their hotel room to the Wonder Woman theme song. That scene really made me giggle. They were throwing blankets and wall decorations, and they would land perfectly. That entire scene really works because of that song choice. The last song choice I really enjoyed was when the people of the town came together to dance. In the town, the different townspeople who have been affected by the three queens get up and dance in the town. Bobby Ray dancing with Bobby Lee and Jimmy Joe dancing with Beatrice are joined by the other townspeople in their new outfits/makeup/hairstyles from the town makeover. The music chosen for this scene was Johnny Mathis “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me.” If for no other reason other than being a romantic, that scene just made me happy.
Watching this movie now for the first time instead of when I was 8, I can appreciate what the movie was trying to accomplish with symbolism. Vida is the leader of the group and the only one of the three that wears a hat. A hat is typically a symbol of power or headship over someone. The authority is generally given to a man. Juxtaposed with that idea are the wigs they wear. The wig is hiding the truth underneath it. They are men, not women. The authority and power represented by the hat are on top of the wig, hiding the fact that they are men. In the scene where they are standing overlooking the town dancing, Vida exclaims, “It takes a fairy.” I loved that the three queens are wearing similar colors to the fairies in Sleeping Beauty while making this declaration. The last symbol I enjoyed was the shoe left behind by Vida. While dealing with the cop that tried to rape her, she fought back and knocked him on the ground. In the scuffle of trying to get away, she lost her shoe. When the cop woke up, that was his only clue of finding out who these drag queens were and bringing them to “justice.”
Interestingly, the writer Douglas Carter Beane chose this for Vida to leave a shoe behind. In Cinderella, the shoe is left behind as the only clue that police have on whom she really is. Vida is not Cinderella in the sense that she is meant to be a princess, Vida is already a Queen, for Vida, the shoe is exposing who she really is, a man. The shoe, being the size it is, seems to make the cop’s job easy in locating her. How many people will fit in that size?
The two themes I connected with are transformation and acceptance. Many transformations happen in the town. The town transforms with the help of Vida and the other queens. The people in the town transform, not only in physical appearance with their makeovers but transform internally. In the beginning, Carol Ann was afraid of Virgil and was very timid. By the end of the film, Carol Ann stood up to him and to the cop with the rest of the town in an act Spartacus would be proud of. There is a transformation of friendship. The way Vida, Chi-Chi, and Noxeema interact with each other change as the movie progresses. The queens start by being wary of the town and each bond with someone. Noxeema bonds with Miss Clara, Vida bonds with Carol Ann, and Chi-Chi bonds with Bobby Ray. The second theme I liked was acceptance. They all had to accept themselves to a certain degree and accept each other and the people in the town. The acceptance is a culmination of the film’s events.
I’m a big fan of Patrick Swayze’s performances in this movie. He was the most convincing of the three as a woman. He was beautiful and elegant and carried himself like the high-class lady Vida was. Wesley Snipes and John Leguizamo gave me more Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis vibes from Some Like It Hot. More of a disguise than a persona. The movie dealt with sexual harassment and the human experience as well, despite the time in which it was made. Don’t let yourself become uncomfortable and pass over this movie.