The Company of Great Actresses

Charles Busch can make you cry over a murderous mommie

The extraordinary thing about “Die Mommie Die!” the hilarious Charles Busch 1960s movie-mellerdrammer parody opening October 31, is how touching it is, particularly toward the end, when acceptance and forgiveness of a sort are bestowed upon its homicidal heroine—Mr. Busch as over-the-hill chanteuse Angela Arden—bringing tears, I swear, to the eyes of at least one moviegoer seated quite near me.

And it’s no accident.

“I try to do both,” said the unostentatious (offstage, off-camera), and brilliant longtime Greenwich Village playwright whose “Tale of the Allergist’s Wife” ran for 777 performances on Broadway and whose “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom” ran five years at the Provincetown Playhouse and never looked back. “I always like a variety of tones. It’s not enough for me just to do a spoof of an old movie.”

The sub-genre of “Die Mommie Die!” is, in Busch’s words, “the twilight of the so-called ‘women’s pictures,’ that whole pantheon of great actresses scrambling for parts.”

An exhausted Busch rattled off a few titles and stars without stopping for breath: “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” (Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, 1962); “Strait-Jacket” (Crawford, 1964); “The Night Walker” (Barbara Stanwyck, 1965); “Die! Die! My Darling!” (Talullah Bankhead, 1965); “Eye of the Devil” (Deborah Kerr, 1967); “Berserk!” (Crawford, 1968); and “The Big Cube” (Lana Turner, 1969).

“Virtually every actress extant except Katharine Hepburn, who was independently wealthy,” he noted.

Busch was exhausted because this interview came during a brief evening break in a noon-to-beyond-midnight down-the-stretch rehearsal of “Taboo,” the Boy George musical at the Plymouth Theater for which Busch has supplied a new book. Earlier that day, producer Rosie O’Donnell had Busch on the phone, telling him of an idea of hers to improve the show. It was, said Busch, a good idea.

“Taboo” starts previews on the same day that “Die Mommie Die!”—the film he wrote and stars in—opens on East 34th Street. His performance in it as redheaded Angela Arden, “America’s Nightingale”—a surviving twin who pacifies her rich, rotten old husband (Philip Baker Hall) with an arsenic-laced suppository, somewhat to the distress of her weirdo son and daughter (Stark Sands and Natasha Lyonne)—won Busch the Special Jury Prize for Acting at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival.

Much of that acting was done, as it were, upstairs. You too might just be knocked out, as this viewer was, by, among other things, one sustained, magical close-up in which the veiled aloofness and wounded pride of the great movie stars of the past are conveyed precisely by Angela’s cemetery-gazing eyes.

“After so many years in the theater, having to project to the last row, in the movie I could really be nearer to the desired style. You know,” explained Busch, “all those great Bette Davis moments of nobility and sacrifice? I really wanted to do real film acting, so a lot of it was through my eyes. Couldn’t ham it up. Had to trust the audience to read my mind.”

He continued, “It’s a tricky thing to evoke a number of actresses without actually imitating them. A very fine line. Sometimes I fall off the tightrope.”

Before there was a movie called “Die Mommie Die!,” there was a play, also by Busch, of the same title. In 1999 he was in Los Angeles for the making of the movie version of his “Psycho Beach Party,” the Gidget-type satire in which Busch had starred Off-Broadway. Hollywood put a young woman (Lauren Ambrose) in the lead role in that adaptation and Busch had the supporting part of a female detective.

“So I wasn’t very busy. I hadn’t performed on the stage in Los Angeles in many years, and thought it might be fun to do a play there. But I needed a vehicle, and at first had no idea. Then I thought that if I took something from Shakespeare, or from a classic ancient myth, that might work, and I thought of Clytemnestra and the House of Atreus. I’m well-read, you know,” the drag master said, almost apologetically. Or defiantly.

“Clytemnestra, who murdered her husband and had a lover and two vengeful children, immediately suggested those ‘grande-dames Guignol’ movies of the 60s, the ones I loved when I was growing up.”

A sudden thought struck home.

“Now, with this movie, I’m traveling around to film festivals and doing Q & As. Well, when I was a kid I dragged my father to see ‘Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte’ in White Plains. And Bette Davis and Olivia De Haviland were there, doing a Q&A. Here I am now and I’ve come full circle. Now I’m doing it!

“Anyway, Clytemnestra’s a wonderful role for a mature actress––and actually, many years ago in Chicago, after I graduated from college [Northwestern], I played Orestes [son of Clytemnestra] in ‘The Flies,’ Sartre’s version of the House of Atreus.”

Back to Los Angeles, 1999. In between takes of the “Psycho Beach” film, Busch was writing his own House of Atreus play––“and at that time it occurred to me that this could also be made into a very inexpensive independent film. Takes place all in one place, with just a few characters.”

He then started drafting a screenplay.

Co-producers Anthony Edwards and Dante Di Loreto came to talk with Busch about a project that was never to get off the ground, but he subsequently told them about his screenplay––“and it turned out that Dante’s life partner Mark Rucker was a big admirer of my work, and evidently about 10 years ago, at a screening of Bette Davis’s ‘Now Voyager,’ he had turned to Dante and said: ‘Some day I’m going to make a moving picture starring Charles Busch.’”

Rucker is the director of “Die Mommie Die!”

The stage play, starring its author, had a three-month run at a small Los Angeles theater called The Coast Playhouse.

“I didn’t take it very seriously. I thought it very flimsy summer-stock material, and in fact never wanted it published or to be performed in New York. But now that the movie’s coming out,” Busch said sunnily, “I’ve let it be published. To tell the truth, I’ve gone back and made the play more like the movie.”

In the film, the shopworn diva played by Busch has a spiteful sexy teen-aged daughter and an ambisexual, wifty-wafty son whose name is Lance (Stark Sands). Mother and son have a love/hate relationship. Part of that is expressed in one brief, wild shot of mama getting her jollies as she clings to Lance on the back of his speeding motorcycle.

Watching Sands, anyone with a bit of memory might be put in mind of Lance Loud, the kid in the astonishing real-life 1973 TV series “An American Family.” (Loud died of complications from AIDS two years ago.)

Was Loud the model for the character?

“Well,” said Busch, dubiously, “perhaps a little bit. The gay son, etc. But didn’t Barbara Hutton have a son named Lance? There were a bunch of Lances––a 1960s name.”

Then, suddenly, something else out of the past hit Busch.

“Lance Loud actually interviewed me once, in Los Angeles. He picked me up on his motorcycle. I had to hop on back. It was terrifying. In the movie,” Busch said with a smile, “we did it before a blue screen. Yeah, that might have been how the name Lance came into my head… You never know where and when something’s coming from.”

Busch is still thrilled over his Sundance best-actor award, the first he ever received as a performer, anywhere.

“I wasn’t even there to receive it. I was here on stage in ‘Shanghai Moon.’ After that award, I began to be afraid people thought I’d died. The [New York] Drama Desk gave me an award, and so did my high school [Music and Art] and my college. So there’s no excuse for me to have a chip on my shoulder any more.”

Okay, Charles. What’s next?

“I’m desperate to do another film. I loved every minute of making this one. The mosaic quality of movie-making. There’s something hypnotic about seeing 50 people focusing on one 30-second moment.”

Yes, he’s working on another script. Will there be a part in it for himself?

“Oh, naturally. A fabulous part. No more mother roles for a while. Maybe I should do the life of Marie Curie. Or a nun.”

And with that, Charles Busch was off to the Plymouth Theater to wrestle the rest of the night away with “Taboo,” a musical about another young man from some years past who put on women’s clothes and made a pretty good thing out of it too.

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