In September 2009, the world lost actor Patrick Swayze to cancer. Both an action star and a dancer, Swayze was able to play romantic leads and tough guys a feat few in Hollywood (of any era) can pull off. Swayze oozed charisma and stared in some of the biggest films of the 1980’s and 1990’s. Maybe you first saw him in Ghost starring playing a young lover murdered in cold blood. Or perhaps you know him best as Frances Houseman from the 1987 dance flick Dirty Dancing. Or maybe you know him as Jed Eckert in the Cold War action-thriller Red Dawn. It’s difficult to put Patrick Swayze into a unified category, which is probably why he became such a big star and meant a lot to so many people.
I grew up watching a ton of movies, many starring Swayze, but it wasn’t until I went back and revisited his films after he died that I realized what an immense talent the man possessed. Over the next few posts, I’ll examine a few of the best and/or more interesting members of the cinematic Swayze-verse. Today, I’m going to talk about 1995’s To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything! Julie Newmar.
Let’s just get this out of the way: To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything! Julie Newmar (henceforth to be referred as To Wong Foo) is the most unusual movie in the Patrick Swayze filmography. Four years after playing super-macho Bodhi in Point Break, Swayze starred as a drag queen in a lighthearted PG-13 comedy. Today it seems like an offbeat choice for the actor, but in 1995 when the movie came out it must have seemed downright bizarre. While the mid-1990’s were far from the Dark Ages, it was still a pretty intolerant time in regards to gay and lesbian issues. Hell, I can’t be certain but I think Swayze’s character in the film, Vida Boheme, was the first openly gay character I ever saw in a movie. But To Wong Foo isn’t just a “gay” movie; it’s also a film about a very specific segment of gay culture—drag queens. It’s remarkable that the film exists and it’s even more amazing when you consider the fact that it stars not one but two action stars. That’s right, not only does To Wong Foo feature Patrick Swayze in drag, but the film also features Wesley “Passenger 57” Snipes in a dress, too! Oh yeah, and John Leguizamo is in a dress, too…but that’s not really as impressive.
The film opens with Patrick Swayze getting out of the shower, looking just like you’d expect him to look. We then watch as he transforms himself into Vida Boheme, his elegant alter ego, during the opening credits. This scene is important because it’s the only time we see Swayze not dressed as a woman, establishing that for this character wearing a dress is not a disguise or costume. This is who the character really is. Swayze plays Boheme earnestly and without any mugging or winking at the camera, giving a real sense of dignity to an unconventional character. To the film’s credit, all three of the main characters are portrayed un-ironically and as honestly as mainstream Hollywood could portray these characters at the time. The film is far from a perfect portrayal of gay characters, but To Wong Foo doesn’t do the easy thing and make cheap jokes at these characters expense just because they are different. Shockingly, at no point in the film are we the audience intended to laugh at these characters simply because of who they are, which in any age is a bit of a miracle.
The plot, and I use the term loosely as the film is pretty thin in the plot department, revolves around a road trip from New York to Hollywood undertaken by three drag queens. There’s some kind of super-drag show happening in California which all three plan on winning. But first they have to get there, so they buy a stylish (but unreliable) Cadillac that breaks down somewhere in the wasteland of Middle America. That’s the set-up, which is all of five minutes, most of the film takes place in this small town where they three ladies are marooned. The bulk of the film is about the drag queens charming and changing this stodgy hicksville into a glamourous oasis of acceptance and fun. There’s also a sub-sub-plot involving a deranged homophobic deputy who tries to rape Swayze during a routine traffic stop. And therein lies my biggest gripe about this otherwise fun comedy: To Wong Foo surprisingly stumbles in is its depiction of heterosexual characters. The women of the town are predictably charmed by the three drag queens almost instantly. They get the requisite makeovers and learn to lighten up (i.e. dance around and try on old clothes from the 1960s that the drag queens find abandoned in the town). The men of the town, on the other hand, are all nasty pigs hell-bent on rape and/or beating their wives. It’s the job of the three quirky outsiders to get the ladies of the town to stand up to the bullying men. Look, I get that this is a comedy from 1995, but the fact that the town has two men who aren’t completely awful is pretty disappointing. And nicest guy with the most screen time is a total rube who only stands up for John Leguizamo’s character ChiChi Rodriguez (I shit you not, that is her name) because he thinks she’s a woman and has the hots for her. The women of the town aren’t depicted much better, all of them act like human cattle. Even worse, each of them is unique enough to fit into one of the neat little small town clichés Hollywood loves to use. There’s the simple adolescent girl who wants to be a “career woman,” a quiet widow the town has given up on, the town gossip who wants to fuck the town’s only black dude (despite her racism), and the faithful wife who stands by her abusive husband).
But like I said, this is a comedy from 1995, so I can overlook the bare-bones/clichéd characters. For the most part, To Wong Foo is pretty entertaining farce though it is pretty toothless. That’s probably why most people haven’t really seen it. The film didn’t push enough boundaries to be very edgy or groundbreaking, but at the same time it’s gay characters/gender-bending probably kept the much of the mainstream audience away. It’s strange to think of To Wong Foo as a “safe” movie, but that’s kind of what it is. Case in point: the biggest problem the three drags queens confront isn’t homophobia, but rather sexism. See, when their car breaks down and the three ladies first meet the various members of the town, there’s a real tense moment. How are these country bumpkins going to react to these men in dresses? For the briefest of moments, Too Wong Foo becomes a bit of a horror movie. The dred goes away and is replaced with disgust: nobody gives them shit for being gay guys in women’s clothing…they give them shit for being women. By largely ignoring the larger issue and merely tackling gender equality, To Wong Foo misses an opportunity to be a real trailblazer when it comes to gay acceptance. And by doing this, To Wong Foo is reduced to a Disney-fied version of Priscilla Queen of the Desert. Which is a shame because instead of being a “cute” comedy, To Wong Foo could have been a cultural touchstone.
So is To Wong Foo worth watching today? Yes, I believe it is and that’s largely thanks to Mr. Patrick Swayze. Swayze disappears into his character, to the point that halfway through the film you forget that it’s him you’re watching. Though don’t misinterpret that as “he hides behind make-up” because that’s not what Swayze does in this role. In fact, he actually acts his ass off for the bulk of the film. Not only is he wearing make-up and a dress, but also he completely changes the way he talks and moves. Big actions like walking across a room and small ones like pulling a chair out from a table are all done in-character. None of this stuff comes across as forced. And even better, none of his acting comes across as an exaggerated gay stereotype. Is Vida Boheme an over-the-top character? You bet, but one that feels like a real person. The movie is a goofy comedy, but Swayze acts like nobody told him and commits to the role 100%. In addition, his character has the best arc of the three leads. Swayze’s character was rejected by her aristocratic parents who chose to cut of their child rather than accepting him. There’s real pathos in the scene where Swayze stares up at the suburban palace where his parents live. These abandonment issues no doubt play into the parental-like nature of Boheme’s relationship with Leguizamo’s character.
There’s a lot of great little moments that wouldn’t come across nearly as well in the hands of a less talented actor. One of my fantastic moments is when Swayze overhears a domestic disturbance (read: Stockard Channing getting beaten by her scumbag husband) and decides to stop eavesdropping and intervene. We the audience keep expecting Swayze to go full-on macho and kick the wifebeaters ass. Swayze remains Vida Boheme for the entire fight, however. It would have been really satisfying for his voice to drop just a bit after throwing the final punch, but the film (and Swayze) don’t go for the cheap laugh. Even in a movie where he’s second billed (behind Wesley Snipes!) and wearing makeup and a dress Swayze is able to steal the whole movie.
Leguizamo and Snipes are both really good in the movie, too. I was especially struck at how funny Wesley Snipes can be when he wants to be. It’s kinda of a shame Snipes didn’t get to do more comedic/unconventional work like To Wong Foo because the guy can clearly do more than shoot people and stab vampires. Leguizamo, who seems very young in this movie, is completely unrecognizable, which wasn’t as surprising given the actor’s ability to transform himself (which he’s done many times over throughout the years). Besides the lead performances, another reason to check Too Wong Foo is the amazing cameos. The titular Julie Newmar shows up at the very end, which is funny. I won’t spoil the name of the movie, but there’s an important reason the title is so bizarrely long. The late-great Robin Williams also appears near the beginning as a hustler named John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt. Sadly, Williams does not appear in drag, but his scene is memorable and the warmth of his scene made me realize just how much I miss tragic funnyman. But my favorite cameo is RuPaul’s appearance as a character named Rachel Tensions (I’m not making this up). If that doesn’t pique your interest in this movie, I don’t know what would.
I feel like not very many people saw Too Wong Foo, which is why I’m championing it here. Though I feel like I’ve been a little hard on it for being a pretty straightforward fish-out-of-water comedy, the film is elevated by its acting thanks in large part to Patrick Swayze’s dedication to the craft of acting. If you haven’t seen it before or if you have but (like me) it’s been awhile, I urge you revisit the film.