Released on September 8, 1995, To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar held the #1 spot at the box office for two weeks. Playwright Douglas Carter Beane, known for Broadway musicals like Sister Act and Xanadu, originally envisioned this story of three road-trippin’ drag queens as a stage play. Ultimately, the idea evolved into a film with a lengthy title directed by Beeban Kidron (Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason) and produced by celebrated filmmaker Steven Spielberg (Jurassic Park).
Given its similar plot, the film faced inevitable comparisons to 1994’s Australian comedy The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. But the Amblin Entertainment flick still stood out as a rare cinema gem and became a cult classic all on its own.
Warning: This review discusses the film’s depictions of domestic abuse, sexual harassment/assault, and violence against LGBTQ+.
To Wong Foo has one of the most iconic opening scenes. Set to Salt-N-Pepa’s “I Am the Body Beautiful,” we see the elegant Ms. Vida Boheme (Patrick Swayze) and ebony enchantress Noxeema Jackson (Wesley Snipes) getting into drag, transforming into beautiful queens ready to take the stage at Drag Queen of the Year.
In a much less glamorous setting, we meet Chi-Chi Rodriguez (John Leguizamo) looking a bit disheveled as she makes her way to the same event, dodging people throwing bottles at her. Right away we can see they have a distinct personality and style.
At New York City’s Webster Hall, we get cameos from the city’s actual drag performers including Miss Coco Peru, Hedda Lettuce, and Lady Bunny. The legendary RuPaul is the contest host Rachel Tensions, seen descending from the ceiling donning a sparkling Confederate flag-inspired gown.
We get another music moment as the contestants strut down the runway to Tom Jones’s “She’s a Lady.” Then, much to their confusion and delight, Vida and Noxeema are both crowned and win a trip to California’s Miss Drag Queen of America Pageant.
They find Chi-Chi, a fledgling drag queen in need of guidance, sulking at her loss because she really needs that validation and praise. Kindhearted Vida decides she and Noxeema (who is not on board with this) will take this “little Latin boy in drag” to Hollywood with them. Robin Williams makes a cameo as the jovial, oddly named John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt who gets the ladies a deal on an old yellow Cadillac. Unsurprisingly, the car breaks down, leaving them stranded in the middle of nowhere Nebraska.
The micro town of Snydersville has a very Dust Bowl-era atmosphere, looking more like a deserted movie set used in old Westerns than an inhabited town. The townspeople are their own brand of bizarre and approach the three outsiders with cautious curiosity. Vida being her extroverted, endlessly optimistic self doesn’t hesitate to get the rundown on this place. The gossipy, forever gum-chewing Beatrice (Blythe Danner) fills them in on everyone’s story including that she has a thing for restaurant owner Jimmy Joe (Mike Hodge), the town’s only Black resident.
Our three queens have their own little side adventures around town. Noxeema chills with Clara (Alice Drummond), the old woman everyone says can’t hear and doesn’t speak. The two eventually bond over old Hollywood cinema and get into a sweet, impromptu film trivia sesh.
Meanwhile, Chi-Chi finds herself surrounded by the roaming group of perpetually grimy and imposing rednecks led by Tommy (Michael Vartan). But before the heavily implied assault can happen, simple country boy Bobby Ray (Jason London) whisks her away in his pickup truck. They go for a walk that’s “so romantical” as Chi-Chi says.
Vida recognizes the signs that Carol Ann (Stockard Channing), the woman temporarily housing them, is regularly abused by her husband Virgil (Arliss Howard). Carol Anne tries to brush it off but Vida’s already made it her business. After finding her weeping in the kitchen again, Vida asks (in what I’m assuming is an unintentionally funny tone), “Do you, like, ever not cry in this room?” When Vida isn’t trying to get her to open up, she encourages Carol Ann’s teenage daughter Bobbie Lee (Jennifer Milmore) to set goals for herself, essentially showing her how to manifest good things.
While our queens faced adversity, mainly in the form of the racist, homophobic Sheriff Dollard (Chris Penn), the overall tone of the film was lighthearted and centered on positivity. In 2023, Drag Race’s BenDeLaCreme told Vulture, “There was really no big sense of tragedy around these characters. They were people who brought a positive influence to the world around them. And it was fabulous.”
Now, To Wong Foo really needs its audience to suspend belief and accept that no one in Snydersville can tell that their new, very tall and muscular friends are men in drag (with the exception of Carol Anne who later tells Vida that she clocked the Adam’s apple right away). All they see are three fashionably dressed career girls from New York City. Vida, Noxeema, and Chi-Chi unrealistically remain in full drag, even at bedtime. One could assume they do this to avoid any uproar in the community. However, this isn’t your typical ’90s movie centered around disguises (a la Mrs. Doubtfire); there are several wardrobe changes throughout the road trip and not once are they not wearing wigs, full makeup, and enviable ensembles.
One of the funniest and most endearing parts of the film is the town-wide makeover. Vida and Noxeema craft new looks for Beatrice and Clara, along with salon owner Merna (Melinda Dillon), the always scowling Loretta (Beth Grant), and the sadly forgettable Katina (Marceline Hugot). The women of Snydersville strut around in their new ‘dos and duds and put on a mini fashion show.
Costume designer Marlene Stewart (Top Gun: Maverick) killed it with an array of fabulous outfits, from the trio’s flawless looks to the town’s red and wild-themed Strawberry Social. Near the end, Carol Anne channels Lydia Deetz in an all-red tulle wedding dress.
Aunties Vida, Noxeema, and Chi-Chi are the saviors of Snydersville (Carol Anne to Vida: “I think of you as an angel”). Like fairy godmothers, sometimes performing literal magic in this fantasy world, they manage to rescue/enlighten a whole town with the power of kindness and glamour. The To Wong Foo universe may exist in its own heightened reality, but the central message of self-acceptance is sincere.
To Wong Foo may have been a box office hit but it’s a polarizing entry in queer cinema. These days the main criticisms are cisgender actors portraying gay characters. It’s a valid point, but fans of the film continue to praise Swayze, Snipes, and Leguizamo for their performances and dedication to learning about drag culture, working with professional queens, and even taking inspiration from the women in their lives. They took these roles seriously and respected the art form.
To Wong Foo is a groundbreaking gem film that was ahead of its time in celebrating the beauty and art of drag culture. It balances campy fun with heartfelt moments, touching on serious issues like domestic abuse while humanizing its LGBTQ+ characters.
Today, a movie like To Wong Foo could probably clean up during awards season and be as explosive as RuPaul’s Drag Race. But 1995 simply wasn’t ready for it.
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Cassondra Feltus is a St. Louis-based freelance writer best known for film, television, and pop culture analysis which has appeared on Black Girl Nerds, WatchMojo, Mental Floss, and The Take. She loves naps, Paul Rudd, and binge-watching the latest series with her two gorgeous pups – Harry and DeVito.