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DRAG RACE

Apparently, Mr. Selznick's search for Scarlett O'Hara had nothing on this affair. Robin Williams, James Spader, Stephen Dorff, John Cusack and Robert Sean Leonard were among the throngs answering the casting call for To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar. But none of them landed a job. None of them got to wear red pumps with three-inch spike heels.

Those honors fell to Wesley Snipes, Patrick Swayze and John Leguizamo. And if the notion of three fairly major movie stars playing drag queens in an over-the-top comic fantasy seems a bit odd, even for 1995, take note that test audiences in Southern California's straight-arrow Orange County fell for them. Drag chic rolls on, from Wigstock to the Bud Light ad campaign.

It's clear that director Beeban Kidron (Used People) and writer Douglas Carter Beane, who pulled down a cool half a million for his screenplay, took a gander at last year's low-budget Aussie hit Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Like its model, Wong Foo also features a garrulous, overdressed trio of travelers who get stranded in a hick town just long enough to give the residents new hairdos and forever change the place (read: the society) with their high spirits and goodwill. And, like its predecessor, Wong Foo fairly gushes symbolic verve.

It's also a lot of fun--for the actors and the audience. Homophobes may carp and cringe, but most will find Beane's barrage of snappy one-liners hard to resist, and the film's abundance of attitude soon sweeps us away. Besides, the vision of tough action guy Snipes as an outrageous piece of business called Miss Noxeema, batting his inch-long false eyelashes at the camera, is something to see. Swayze's "Vida Boheme," who started life as a rich boy in tony Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania, is a more proper queen, and Leguizamo's barrio-bred Chi Chi Rodriguez (no relation to the pro golfer, we trust) is the one with the sharpest jibes.

Beane can write arch, bitchy dialogue, but he's no Tolstoy. The midwestern town of Snydersville, where the gals get stuck when their old Caddy breaks down en route to Hollywood, is inhabited by one of the most broadly drawn collections of rubes and hayseeds this side of Green Acres. Stockard Channing, as the battered wife of a garage mechanic, is the most interesting of them, Chris Penn's uptight county sheriff the most familiar.

Little matter: Drenched in sentiment and wish fulfillment, this lively romp through changing American mores is a showcase for its exuberant stars, who mince and preen and apply mascara with such joyful abandon that they may never go back to their straight jobs.

By the way, Robin Williams does put in a (nondrag) cameo, while the New York drag scene's legendary RuPaul gets to descend from the ceiling on a trapeze, wearing a Confederate-flag gown that fits him/her like paint. Despite its groundbreaking charms, not even the cult fave Priscilla could match the Yankee ingenuity in that.

 
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