Camp-ing in the Outback
Jackie Mullens (Jo Kennedy), the lead of the Australian musical ‘Starstruck’ (1982) wants to be famous. She’s a singer, but her real talent is for getting attention. She pairs her bright red hennaed hair with flamboyant New Romantic crinolines. She walks a tight-rope at her Mom’s pub. Her 14-year-old cousin Angus, who fancies himself her manager, convinces her to replicate the stunt between two office towers in downtown Sydney. He phones up reporters telling them to cover the event because “it’s the type of news you write about when you don’t want to cover the real news.”
When her mother (a tough broad with an immobile Pat Nixon bouffant) questions Jackie’s talent, Angus leaps to her defense:
“She’s got star quality!”
“And what is that?” the pub patrons grumble, to which the two cousins both recite, “That little something extra.”
The quote is from ‘A Star is Born’ (1954), just after James Mason has witnessed Judy Garland singing ‘The Man That Got Away’. Responding to her overwrought singing style, Mason concludes Judy has “that little something extra” to make her famous. Steven Cohan in Incongruous Entertainment: Camp, Cultural Value and the MGM Musical argues that what Mason is enjoying is the campiness of Garland’s performance: her twittering emotionalism, her indulgent vocal bursts, and the manner in which she ‘acts’ the song (despite it being a sad number and her seeming almost-hysterical whilst singing, she smiles as its concluded).
Camp can be defined as a deliberately over-the-top, stylized attitude which, in its irony and incongruity, subverts the traditional cultural products it draws upon. Cohan’s book shows how Old Hollywood musicals, with their heteronormative plot lines, cheesy songs and outdated values, are invested with a queer subtext for a select audience who relish the outlandish sets and costumes, the flamboyant choreography and the overacting leading ladies.
When done intentionally, camp is a ‘wink’ to the audience that what they’re viewing is a performance, a forgery of real life. In this way it can be viewed as a very early example of post-modernism.
The Garland reference is not accidental, as the makers of ‘Starstruck’ meant the film as a deliberate tribute to the Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland ‘backyard musicals’ of the late 1930’s and 1940’s, in which the pair would inevitably “put on a show!” in order to save their parents’ careers, or stop a theatre from being knocked down, or build a home for British war orphans. Often, the show would include a black face number. Stuck with two young stars of an awkward age, MGM accidentally invented film’s first teenagers.
While ‘Starstruck’s plot mimics that of an MGM musical (Jackie eventually has to put on a show to save her Mom’s pub) stylistically the film is more ‘Rocky Horror’ than Mickey/Judy (it shares ‘Rocky’s production designer Brian Thomson). With its outlandish costumes, garish primary colour scheme, accented over-acting and message that all problems can be solved once you get on a stage and perform, ‘Starstruck’ is a direct precursor to a string of movies in the early 1990’s I’m going to call Australian Camp: ‘Strictly Ballroom’ (1992), ‘The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert’ and ‘Muriel’s Wedding’ (both from 1994).
Fans of his later camp classic ‘Moulin Rouge’ (2001) will see early traces of Baz Luhrmann’s style in ‘Strictly Ballroom’, about the sparkling but intense world of competitive ball room dancing. Gawky wallflower Fran (Tara Morice) is transformed into a sexy, sequined swan when she embraces the tango traditions of her Spanish parents.
The transformations of ‘Priscilla’ are more pronounced, as Hugo Weaving, Guy Pierce and Terence Stamp don unbelievable wigs, costumes and make-up while crossing the Australian outback, lip-synching to opera and ABBA atop of their shiny silver van (one of film’s all-time unforgettable images).
A pre-stardom (and pre-skinny) Toni Collette also uses ABBA as an escape from the drudgeries of everyday life as the title character in ‘Muriel’s Wedding’. As a depressed pre-spinster, Muriel hides in her room from her family’s taunts (“You’re terrible, Muriel!”) and repeatedly listens to Sweeden’s favourite pop band on audio cassette. Only with the encouragement of her new best friend Rhonda (Rachel Griffiths) does she later perform ‘Waterloo’ on stage in a blond wig and white jumpsuit.
These films not only share a camp style (with overly made-up faces being shoved into the camera and general artificiality softening hokey dialogue and plot lines) but they are about camp as they demonstrate the transformative power of performance, be it ballroom dancing, drag, karaoke or New Wave pop. Significantly, these movies are set in a gritty, working-class Australia in which burly female pub dwellers are as scary as the male ones and people microwave their tea.
They also share a witty take on the history and culture of Australia, such as when the ‘Priscilla’ drag queens perform dressed as lizards, ostriches and the Sydney Opera House, or when ‘Starstruck’s Jackie bursts out of a kangaroo costume to sing at a hip club.
While camp arose out of a queer subculture, questioning gender roles through drag and heterosexual romance through camp readings of mainstream fare like movie musicals, the irony, incongruity and wit of camp can help liberate non-queer identities as well. When the drag queens of ‘Priscilla’ interrupt some Aborigines having a bon fire, one of them joins them in a rendition of ‘I Will Survive’ (complete with didgeridoo), their shared mistreated, outsider statuses helping the two groups to bond.
But most of all these films use camp to challenge society’s expectations for women. ‘Starstruck’s Jackie bombs on a local music show when she gives up her hairdo, clothes and backup band (ie. who she is) to perform like a docile lounge singer. Only when she embraces her wildness, and wildly teased hair, does she achieve stardom. The villains of ‘Strictly Ballroom’ and ‘Muriel’s Wedding’ are traditionally-attractive dancers and bridesmaids, whose pretty faces mask ugly characters. In the last scene of ‘Muriels’ a blonde ‘frenemy’ screams at her as she drives away, “I’m beautiful!” looking anything but.
It is interesting that the three non-drag queen movies feature ‘ugly ducklings’ who transform themselves, but not in the terrible way of American teen movies (take off glasses, undo pony tail). For the record, Kennedy, Morice and Collette are attractive women, just not in the standard Hollywood way, just as young Garland was beautiful despite being nicknamed ‘the little hunchback’ by the MGM brass.
It leaves the question, why Australia? My understanding of “down undah” is that it’s a pretty conservative, patriarchal society. How did it give rise to these sequined classics? Perhaps the conservative ethos pushed the film makers to extremes (if you’re going to do something different, might as well go all the way and use drag queens!). Or maybe their distance from America, unlike in Canada, allows them the space to develop a camp appreciation for the silliness of Hollywood.
The makers of ‘Starstruck’ admit that Australian audiences didn’t really ‘get’ the film when it came out but, like the other three, it has had a second life as an international cult favourite. Who would have thought that, along with Vegemite and sexy bad-boy actors, Australia would export camp around the world?