It's been 20 years since Wesley Snipes, John Leguizamo, and Patrick Swayze were featured as three drag queens traveling cross country and finding unlikely friendships in Middle America. That's right, two decades since the controversy of To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar had us ki-ki-ing about their jaw lines and massive linebacker shoulders.
Although drag queens have been common comedic relief in movies and on television -- and these days have reached epic popularity due to RuPaul's relentless promotion on Logo TV's RuPaul's Drag Race -- there was quite a different social and political landscape in 1995. After the success of Australia's road trip hit The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert the year before, of course Hollywood decided to jump on the bandwagon. But having a major American studio produce a movie about three gay men was, of course, still a struggle. It was also odd for a film like that not to deal with AIDS or death.
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In an essay for The Advocate, Mitch Kohn, the studio executive who fought to make this film a reality, remembers the amazing story behind To Wong Foo. Here, five things we learned.
On who gave the final say:
"It wasn't the gay stuff that worried him; he just wanted to be sure the script was as funny to other people as he found it. So he sent it to his comedy meter: Robin Williams. The verdict? Make the movie. Mr. Williams said he couldn't play the lead, Vida; he was concerned he was too hairy. But he'd do a cameo."
The struggle to find a director:
"Finding a director was hard. Every male director passed. Every one. The fantastic television miniseries Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit had just premiered in the U.S., and we quickly signed its female director, Beeban Kidron."
The inspiration for Chi-Chi Rodriguez:
"Finding actors was easy. Wesley Snipes said yes immediately; John Leguizamo, for whom the role of Chi-Chi Rodriguez was written, jumped aboard too."
How Swayze 'werked' for the part:
"Many actors were interested in the Vida role, and they all consented to screen tests. While good, none of them quite clicked. Patrick Swayze's agent had been insisted that we see him, so Beeban flew to New York to meet him. Swayze had his own makeup people transform him into a woman, and he insisted that he and Beeban take a walk around the city to prove he could pass as a woman. With his beauty and dancer's grace, he did just that. He had the job."
How the movie affected the studio:
"Steven didn't care that I was gay; he celebrated it... And suddenly, coworkers started coming out. It was like, well, the popcorn from the machine in the screening room. A kernel erupts here, another one there, then they start flying fast and furious. People who kind of seemed gay announced themselves. The woman who had Dennis Quaid pictures pasted everywhere around her desk and who constantly talked of what she would do with him if she had the chance -- well, she was a lesbian."
Read the entire story here. Watch clips from the film below: