'To Wong Foo' takes off -- The Patrick Swayze hit proves that Hollywood is indeed cross-dressed for success

By Steve Daly
September 22, 1995 at 04:00 AM EDT

Patrick Swayze sounds deadly earnest as he explains that he was avidly ”sucking information out of drag queens” in a stretch limo one night when he hit a brick wall. He was crammed into the backseat at the time, just a well-pumped fanny cheek away from his To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar costars Wesley Snipes and John Leguizamo. Piled in alongside them was a flock of bona fide, real-life drag divas, imported as study subjects for a leisurely drive around New York City. We’ll let you ride, rant, and stargaze, went the pitch, if you’ll let us study the mannerisms, the lingo, and the many moods of gender-bending. That way, explained the actors, we can kick some authentic thespian butt as queens on the road in Hollywood’s first cross-dressing buddy picture.

Swayze and company had expected to emcee a psychological strip session that evening. Instead, they got quips, rebuffs, and some well-shaven shoulder. ”It was difficult to get them to talk about themselves or the past,” says Swayze. ”If you got to a place that was touching pain, the others would say, ‘Don’t play the pain, darling.”’ In fact, the ladies had a catchphrase for it, a mantra the actors later adopted on-set to see them through all sorts of travails: They’d say, ”Mmm-mmmm, sweetheart. Don’t go there.”

Wong Foo, amazingly, has gone there — straight to the heart of a fantasy universe ruled by men in femme finery — opening at a muscular $9 million to take last week’s No. 1 box office slot. While some critics have argued that its gloss on the sexuality (and practical realities) of drag barely delves deeper than a mud mask, there’s no question that for a major-studio (Universal), A-list-actor movie aimed at the multiplex masses, this is one bent bustathon.

But does it represent a flat-out gay-culture breakthrough? That’s debatable, if you ask first-time screenwriter Douglas Carter Beane. ”People keep telling me, ‘Oh, it’s so great you’re doing this mainstream film,”’ says Beane. ”Excuse me, mainstream? I’m barely in the back door, honey. We could not even get makeup product tie-ins on this movie, that is how piss-scared people were.”

Although Beane had the ultimate Hollywood angel to shepherd his screenplay into production — executive producer Steven Spielberg — the filmmakers had little luck selling corporate America on the project, which denied Wong the sort of cross-promotional push that makes a hit a blockbuster. A scene of the drag trio dining at McDonald’s — not even an especially saucy interlude — had to be julienned out of the script when Golden Arches reps refused permission. PepsiCo found the generation this movie might appeal to a little too new, and when Holiday Inn and other hotel chains balked at the association, the sleep-over spot seen early in the film became a generic joint.

Beane was incensed, too, when agents came calling with a roster of actors he deemed inappropriate in gay roles. Chief candidate: Mel Gibson, whose Braveheart (in which a gay man is summarily tossed out a window) is just back in theaters. ”What the hell did he want to do this movie for?” dishes Beane, insisting that certain remarks Gibson has made to the press suggest that he’s unsympathetic to homosexuals.

Gibson, of course, didn’t get to wear the dress in Wong‘s funky family. But once the shoot began in sleepy Loma, Neb., with Snipes, Leguizamo, and Swayze (who pushed hard to play earth-mother goddess Vida Boheme), the actors quickly found they’d bought into what Vida might call the shoot from ”gay hell.” A raft of stories have detailed how difficulties in keeping the actors stubble- and sweat-free in the hot outdoor locations upped the shooting schedule from 50 days to 80. Leguizamo quips, ”Nobody told us the makeup sessions would take as long as for Planet of the Apes.” One day, after weeks of caked makeup that drew copious flies, Swayze suddenly felt claustrophobic and flipped out; he hightailed his high heels clear off the set, dropping bits of costume as he left for the day. And when Snipes finger-snapped his last bit of dialogue, he built a bonfire of his vanities, including his character’s bra and panties.

As they say at the gym, fellas, no pain, no gain. Swayze’s performance in particular, for all his suffering, comes off as a serene, sweet glide. As for those who’ll make the inevitable smart cracks about the manliness of Pat and his costars now that they’ve cavorted in push-up bras, Swayze says, two snaps up to that. ”I don’t have anything to prove,” he declares. ‘I’m as heterosexual as a bull moose. That’s what made me so comfortable as Vida.””

Well, as comfortable, that is, as a man wearing a genitalia-hiding ”gender bender” brief all day can be. Of course, if the movie hangs tough at the box office, Universal might want a Wong Foo II. You can be sure, though, what the cast’s initial response to such a suggestion will be: Mmm-mmmm, sweetheart. Don’t go there.