I always thought that the English pantomime tradition was the primary source of men dressing as women on stage. Nia Vardalos' script for Connie and Carla tells us that Shakespeare was the first person to put the note "D. R. A. G.' in his stage directions. This indicated that some of his all male cast members would have to be "dressed as girls.'
Connie and Carla centres around a drag queen shown, and this is all some viewers need to know in deciding whether they want to see this film or not.
Connie (Nia Vardalos) and Carla (Tony Collette) are small-town performers on the dinner club circuit in the American Midwest. Their manager is caught up in a drug deal which goes wrong and he gets shot. Connie and Carla think that they are next, so they hit the road and try to get lost in Los Angeles. To make ends meet they have to return to the stage. The only job they can find is in a club for drag queens, so they pretend to be gay men who dress up as women and sing songs from Hollywood musicals. Eventually their boyfriends from the Midwest, and the crime boss, catch up with them.
It would be easy to dismiss this film, but given the success of Nia Vardalos' My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and the fact that Connie and Carla stars her, Toni Collette, David Duchovny and Debbie Reynolds, this film could attract a large audience, and many of them will be our young people.
Even for a pastiche, which this film is, there are some reprehensible things in it. At one stage Connie and Carla's transvestite colleagues light a candle and pray to "Our Lady of the Drag Queens,' to which, at the end of this mock prayer, their response is "Gay-men.' It's only a brief scene in the film, but it's deeply offensive nonetheless.
That said, there are some other good lessons in this conflicted film, and parts of it are very funny. Carla makes a stunning speech from the stage about body image. Given Toni Collette's real-life struggle with these issues, it is delivered with understandable passion.
And the film centres entirely around being true to oneself, that for all the plumes and feathers some people wear, they can never change who they really are.
Connie and Carla is nowhere near as good as My Big Fat Greek Wedding, but, at its best, it is looking at similar issues of dislocation, identity, meaning and prejudice.
Fr Richard Leonard SJ is the Director of the Australian Catholic Film Office.