If there’s any shock value left to seeing a couple of matinee idols dressed up in women’s clothing, the drag-queen comedy TO WONG FOO, THANKS FOR EVERYTHING, JULIE NEWMAR (Universal, PG-13) gets it out of the way fast. At the beginning, Patrick Swayze and Wesley Snipes sit down in front of their bedroom mirrors as they apply lipstick and rouge and false eyelashes, slip into stockings, and wriggle gleefully into bras, wigs, high heels, and skintight formfitting dresses (for the sake of illusion, we never do see the pads that give the guys their form). Voilà — Hollywood is burning! The transformation hardly stops at the clothes. In the two great American drag comedies, Some Like It Hot (1959) and Tootsie (1982), we always knew that the actors, beneath their frilly frocks and even frillier manners, were playing flamboyant heterosexuals. But in To Wong Foo, the per for mers give themselves over to extravagant gay modes of babelicious effrontery.
Swayze, in full hot-to-trot regalia, looks more relaxed than I’ve ever seen him; his soul seems to be glowing with glamorous pleasure. His character, whose name is Vida Boheme, is a doleful, soft-edged type — a vixen with the heart of a den mother — and when he gets excited, he sashays and flashes his eyes like Jo Anne Worley. Snipes, pursing his lips with saucy delight, plays off his own, more muscular demeanor. Cast as a strapping sexpot named Noxeema Jackson, who takes guff from no one, he turns his mincing retreat from masculinity into the movie’s niftiest joke.
Vida and Noxeema are getting dressed to participate in New York’s annual Drag Queen of the Year pageant. They end up sharing the grand prize, and, along with a third partner, an apprentice in fabulousness named Chi Chi Rod riguez (John Leguizamo, kvetching like the winner of the Rosie Perez impersonation contest), they hop in a 1967 Cadillac convertible for a cross-country jaunt to Hollywood, where the national competition is to be held. But the car breaks down in Snyders ville, a dusty speck of a Midwestern town that looks as if it hasn’t changed much since 1850. Quel scandal! Quel culture clash! Quel formula!
What we’re really seeing in To Wong Foo, of course, is a different sort of national ritual: the official indoctrination of drag queens, those splashy, acid-tongued vessels of style and camp outrage, into the American pop mainstream. The crossover success of that scowling giantess RuPaul has certainly paved the way. But when a couple of marquee studs like Swayze and Snipes go knowingly swish, the novelty has become a mega-fad. I’m tempted to say, ”Expect the TV spin-off soon,” except that To Wong Foo already feels like a TV spin-off. Slick and amiable and innocuous as hell, it’s a foam-padded farce, as laboriously packaged as its three glam-sister ”heroines.”