Review: To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar (1995)

The Thinker by Rodin

You would not be surprised to learn that as a heterosexual man I am not particularly into the drag queen scene. In fact, I can think of few things less likely to interest me. Still, even though the topic does not interest me I can sit through any two-hour movie with a decent plot. I was surprised to find this oddly named movie about three drag queens, To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar both fun and a little poignant.

Vida Boheme (Patrick Swayze), Chi-Chi Rodriguez (John Leguizamo) and Noxema Jackson (Wesley Snipes) are three New York City drag queens lusting to be named the city’s drag queen of the year. Granted, with the exception of Chi-Chi, they look more like Xena but Amazons make attractive women too. A tied vote though meant that both Vida and Noxema win the award. Consequently, both are sent to Hollywood to compete in a national drag queen competition. Afterward, in the hallway, they try to assuage Chi-Chi’s hurt feelings. Poor Chi-Chi was also hoping to win, primarily to boost her low self-esteem. Vida feels awful over her hurt feelings, and persuades Noxema to let her come along. In order to cut costs they will have to drive to the west coast. Being New Yorkers, they do not own cars, so they use their modest winnings to purchase a convertible off a used car lot. Off the three girls go to Hollywood, in drag, with of course the top down.

As you might anticipate, when three drag queens drive across the heartland they are likely to experience some hostility from less broadminded folk. A libidinous sheriff somewhere in the Midwest pulls them over. When Sheriff Dollard (Chris Penn) gets Vida alone behind the car, he tries to make out with her. To his utter shock, he quickly discovers Vida comes with a sort of package he does not expect. That, plus a stiff right from Vida (who when out of costume must box for sport) puts Sheriff Dollard flat out on the pavement. Their initial assessment that they killed him freaks them out, so they hustle away. Shortly thereafter, their car sputters to a stop in the middle of nowhere.

The kindness of Midwestern strangers gets them a ride to a nearby town that is so small they have only one event a year: a strawberry festival. The folks in this small town are so out of touch that it appears they can pass themselves off as ladies. Their car conveniently cannot be fixed until a part arrives on Monday. Meaning Vida, Chi-Chi and Noxema have to hang out all weekend in this oppressively backward little town in the flatlands.

Needless to say, they are by magnitudes the best dressed people in town. The townies are a dull, sullen and occasionally hostile bunch. The local rednecks apparently are having a hard time discerning that the women are actually guys. Chi-chi attracts the most attention. Vida has to avoid a group of rednecks who look like they want to assault her. The situation does not look promising, but among the townies are some good, stouthearted Midwestern women with traditional values, but who are also bored with life.

Vida, Chi-Chi and Noxema end up breathing something very unusual into this little town: a little life. They decorate their hotel room to make it fashionable. Noxema discovers a cache of 60s clothes in the general store. Soon they have most of the women in the town dolled up in a 60s retro style. This is just as well because the Strawberry Festival is almost upon them.

So yes, there are the sorts of laughs that you would expect when a car full of drag queens encounters a back corner of the Midwest. Yet the laughs are done with a light touch. Curiously, everyone in the movie, with the possible exception of Sheriff Dollard come across as plausible. (We discover the sheriff is indeed alive. Moreover, he becomes obsessed with the injustice that happened to him and goes in search of them.) Vida, Chi-Chi and Noxema are as flamboyant as you would expect, but every single member of the town feel authentic. It is also a town with a few bad apples, including the local mechanic Virgil (Arliss Howard), who abuses his wife Carol Ann (Stockard Channing). Pretty much everyone in this small town will learn a few lessons from these “girls” before they resume their trip to Hollywood.

So the movie has a light comedic touch with an odd feeling of plausibility. Granted, the climactic scene was quite unlikely, but it was deliciously satisfying.

What does Julie Newmar have to do with the movie? Very little, except Vida is obsessed with her figure and idolizes her as the ideal woman. You actually do briefly see Ms. Newmar playing herself at the end of the movie.

Undoubtedly, these roles were quite a stretch for Swayze, Snipes and Leguizamo, but that is part of the fun because they are quite convincing. For the first thirty minutes, my wife found the movie annoying and I was afraid she would give it up. Eventually though we both warmed up to it, and were glad we made it through the movie. It was amusing, fun and satisfying all at the same time.

This is not a B movie in the traditional sense, but neither is it close to being on anyone’s A list. It falls somewhere in between, but is much closer to a B movie than an A movie. It gets a solid 3 points on my 4-point scale, which means “better than average and worth seeing, but nothing overly special”. Unless you are very stuck up, you will probably enjoy it.

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