The Sum Of Us

MGM Video, 1994

Geoff Burton
Kevin Dowling

David Stevens,
based on his play

Starring: Jack Thompson, Russell Crowe, John Polson, Deborah Kennedy, Joss Moroney, Mitch Matthews, Julie Herbert

Rated R, 100 minutes

The Adventures Of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert
MGM Video, 1994

Stephan Elliott

Starring: Terence Stamp, Hugo Weaving, Guy Pearce, Bill Hunter, Rebel Penfold-Russell, John Casey

Unrated, 104 minutes

Films From The Land Down Under
by Michael D. Klemm
Reprinted from Outcome, June, 2000


When one thinks about Australian cinema, visions of Mad Max movies with Mel Gibson usually come to mind. But filmmakers from the land down under have also made a few lavender contributions to the annals of world cinema. Back in 1994, for example, two exceptional Aussie films reached the silver screen: The Sum Of Us starring Russell Crowe (yes, that Russell Crowe) and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of The Desert. Both films discarded old and tired cliches to emerge as true originals.

Picture this scenario: Jeff, a young gay man, brings a date home and they begin to make out in the living room. In walks Jeff's father. Does the father:
a. Explode with anger and begin screaming?
b. Hastily leave the room in embarrassment?
c. Cheerfully offer to get both lads a beer?

The answer, believe it or not, is "c." The film is The Sum of Us, adapted by David Stevens from his own play, and directed by Kevin Dowling and Geoff Burton. Stevens' stageplay, and the resulting film, are both remarkable for the way in which they jettison the usual stereotypes to present a healthy relationship between a father and his gay son in a manner which is both funny and poignant.


Jack Thompson is Harry Mitchell, a middle-aged widower who lives with his son Jeff (Russell Crowe). Jeff is a likable slacker-type who plays football and works as a plumber. He enjoys a wonderful relationship with his father in which they are best friends. Harry completely accepts his son's homosexuality to the point where he even tries to help him find a date! Harry is so accepting that he actually scares away Greg, the date that his son brings home, when he cheerfully sticks his head into Jeff's bedroom to ask Greg how he likes his tea in the morning.

Harry's openness stems in part from his experience with his own mother. Upon being widowed, his mother found love in the arms of another woman and then lived with "Aunt" Mary for 40 years until both women became too old and sick to look after each other. Haunted all his life by their forced separation, Harry tells the audience that perhaps gayness is hereditary but skipped a generation with him since he loves women. Because he recognizes the extraordinary relationship his mother enjoyed with Mary, he has no trouble accepting the concept of two men in love. The "family values" that he tries to impart to his son are simply this: love is the greatest adventure, follow your heart.

To parallel Jeff's courtship with Greg, Harry finds love again with a widow named Joyce who he meets through a computer dating service. All is fine until homophobia rears its ugly head when she discovers Jeff's lifestyle and expresses her disgust.

Stylistically, the film breaks down the "fourth wall" by allowing both Harry and Jeff to talk to the audience. This common stage device is often a disruption in movies, but it works beautifully here and adds to the film's charm. (These chats with the audience were what really distinguished the play when I saw it on stage.) Flashbacks are artfully presented in silence and in black & white, allowing for a number of events that were only described onstage to be visualized onscreen. The flashbacks of Grandmother and "Aunt" Mary are touching, and their separation scene is a heartbreaker.

This is a captivating and remarkably acted film which treats homosexuality as an everyday fact of life. The Sum of Us is very funny because audiences are unaccustomed to seeing a father and son speak so frankly about gay sexual concerns. Perhaps its only concession to straight audiences was the addition of a few more scenes involving Harry and Joyce (she only appears once in the stage version). But this does not compromise the film, nor does a scene involving Joyce and her daughter which nicely balances the intimacy between Harry and Jeff. Thankfully, the filmmakers did not add a scene where Joyce tries to fix up Jeff with her daughter.

While The Sum of Us presents a dream father-gay son relationship, it also allows that this is not the case in all families. Greg is not out to his parents and doesn't get along with his father. In fact, it is Harry's unexpected approval of his son's lifestyle that initially scares Greg away. Joyce is shocked to discover that Jeff is gay, but she is angrier because Harry never told her. Harry is devastated when she asks if the reason for his silence is shame when the real reason is that he is so comfortable with his sonŐs sexuality that he never thought to bring it up.

To the film's credit there are no gay stereotypes. Even the gay bar scenes aren't loaded with drag queens in the background. Russell Crowe's portrayal of a gay man is commendable and convincing. As is typical with Hollywood soundbites, Crowe's role in The Sum Of Us is rarely, if ever, mentioned. It is always Romper Stomper, a film in which he played a neo-Nazi, that is brought up whenever his Aussie film background is discussed. Crowe underplays Jeff with just the right amount of passion and depth, foreshadowing his later tour-de-force performances in LA Confidential and The Insider. And Jack Thompson is a pure delight as his Dad.

Like much foreign cinema, The Sum Of Us avoids Hollywood slickness and the result is a refreshing addition to the growing list of outstanding gay films. It presents a touching story for our enjoyment without getting either maudlin or preachy. Theatregoers who saw Richard Lambert's fine production in The New Phoenix Theatre On The Park a few years ago will be pleased to know that The Sum of Us made the transition to film without any compromises to its integrity. And playing queer didn't seem to hurt Russell Crowe's career, did it? Highly recommended to both fans of Russell Crowe and of queer cinema.

On the campier side is The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, directed by Stephen Elliott. This lively and hilarious story, about three drag queens whose dilapidated bus, Priscilla, breaks down in the Australian Outback, examines gender bending issues, culture shocks, homophobia, and how to dress fabulously.

The casting of this film is unique to say the least. Former international sex symbol Terrence Stamp stars as a transsexual named Bernadette (nee Ralph). Hugo Weaving is the sad Mitzi, and Guy Pierce (who, like Russell Crowe, would also later play a tough cop in LA Confidential) is Felicia, a handsome and muscular drag queen who is the most flamboyant of the trio.

Priscilla begins with Mitzi and Felicia, in full drag, comically lip-synching "I've Been to Paradise but I've Never Been to Me" in a bar while patrons play billiards and throw beer cans at the stage. Looking for a change of scenery, they accept a four week casino engagement in Alice Springs, a town in the middle of nowhere. Mitzi calls an old friend, a pre-op transsexual named Bernadette, who has just suffered the recent death of her lover. He invites the grieving Bernadette to join them on the cross-country bus trek from Sidney to Alice Springs. Anticipating peace and quiet, Bernadette instead has to deal with the ABBA-loving Felicia who wishes to achieve his lifelong dream: to climb Devil's Canyon in a full length sequined gown and a tiara. "Just with this country needs," quips Bernadette, "A cock in a frock on a rock."

This is a film that triumphs by setting up audience expectations and then going off in totally different directions. For example, after assuming that Bernadette's lover died of AIDS, the viewer learns that he asphyxiated on peroxide fumes in a bizarre bathroom accident. During the bus trip, Bernadette and Felicia discover that Mitzi has a wife waiting for him at their destination. While stopping over in a small town, the trio dresses up and performs in a local bar. A very nasty woman pushes through the speechless crowd to announce, "We don't want your kind here," and then Bernadette and the woman sit down to a riotous drinking contest that is lifted right from Raiders of the Lost Ark. Later, when their bus breaks down in the outback, opposites attract when a very rugged mechanic takes a shine to Bernadette and brings her flowers.

But this isn't just another non-threatening "let's laugh at the drag queens" movie like the Spielberg-produced clone, To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar. The Hollywood version features three principals who are always in drag, whereas Priscilla's characters are often more believably seen wearing street clothes. Wong Foo's characters are also virtually sex-less, making it such a safe and innocuous film that you could take your Grandmother to it. Priscilla, on the other hand, has more to offer than scenes of macho movie stars in drag and often ventures into dangerous territories. The exuberant drag scenes alternate with moments of soul searching and even a few flashes of intense homophobia. At one point, they find the words "AIDS Fuckers Go Home" painted on their bus. Things turn even uglier when Felicia, stoned on ecstacy, dresses up and stupidly flirts with some rough men in a mining town who don't take too kindly to his ruse.

It's true that many of the laughs rise from familiar "stranger in a strange land" themes, but the film provides more than just bizarre images like Bernadette stopping to put on lipstick while lost in the desert or Felicia riding atop a bus wearing a football field-length train which flaps in the breeze. Priscilla also offers three fully developed characters with human needs and frailties. Hugo Wearing and Guy Pierce create characters who are flamboyant but also human beneath the glitter. Terrence Stamp's portrayal of Bernadette is a masterpiece of subtlety, underplaying it rather than coming across as a shrill Bette Davis having a bad hair day.

Priscilla is a great drag comedy whose script offers far more than just outrageous camp. It's also the only film in history to ever be boycotted by an international ABBA fan club. Priscilla can be rented at most chain video stores, but The Sum of Us might be a little harder to find. Both can, however, be rented at Rainbow Pride, (located in Buddies, 31 Johnson Park), and at Mondo Video, 1109 Elmwood Avenue. The three Fassbinder films that were reviewed in the last issue can also be found at Mondo and Querelle is also available at Rainbow.


More On Hugo Weaving:
Bedrooms & Hallways




Reviewer's note, 2007: Interjecting a bit of autobiography and historical context here. In many of my older reviews there are references to these films being unavailable at Blockbuster Video. Times have changed, but in the 90s, that was the case. They were a "family store." Blockbuster's policy back then (since changed) of not carrying NC-17 or unrated films forced many filmmakers to emasculate their films to get an R rating so Blockbuster "the family store" would carry it. .I usually reported if the films were available for rent at Buffalo's two funkiest video stores - Mondo Video, which was owned by the film critic from Artvoice Magazine, M. Faust, and was the place to go to get the hard to find titles - and Rainbow Pride, a gay gift shop run by Frank Ball; he also rented videos. For years, his store was the front room in a popular gay bar, Buddies.

Anyway, when I wrote this review you could not find titles like these at Blockbuster. And I often ranted about it. I've left them in these reviews as I put them online because they are a kind of time capsule. Because early in the millennium there was a changing of the guard at Blockbuster. You could rent Queer as Folk there now! Their old policy of no gay films and no unrated films was gone, finished. And that was good news for filmmakers and film lovers everywhere. I even ended one of my columns with a public service announcement that Blockbuster changed its policies and now carried gay films. I'm not being coerced into writing this, I'm just being fair because that was a big turnaround. Of course it was also around the time I discovered and saw that I could rent almost anything from them. Foreign films, independents and of course queer cinema. This note is just to explain how times have changed (for the better) and it is much easier to find queer titles now, whether for rent or for sale. The internet of course got us out of the dark ages too.