'Tawdry little domestic thriller' a sweet surprise

'Die Mommie Die!' reception is quite satisfying for long- overlooked writer

Movies

November 02, 2003|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun Movie Critic

Charles Busch had absolutely no expectations when he wrote a small film, then starred in it -- as the surviving half of a once-famous sister act who dreams of reclaiming former glories and escaping a dead-end marriage.

Which has made the past year all that much sweeter. Die Mommie Die! made its premiere last January at the Sundance Festival and received an enthusiastic reception that eventually included a best performance award for Busch. Now the movie is being shown in 10 cities as part of the Sundance Channel's Sundance Film Series. And the writer / actor has been given an alumni merit award by his alma mater, Northwestern University.

He may even have invented his own movie genre: cross-dressing film noir melodramas.

"This was a dream come true for me," Busch says during an interview last month in the lounge of a Linthicum hotel. "I thought this would be an offbeat kind of a little movie that no one would see.

"It was just this tawdry little domestic thriller, based on a play that I did in L.A. for about three months that was never published, never performed anywhere else."

For all of Busch's protestations, the success of Die Mommie Die! shouldn't have come as a total surprise. In many ways, it's the next logical step in a stage and nightclub career that began in a small D.C. theater back in 1980, progressed to one-man shows and sold-out club appearances in New York and now may very well be playing at a theater near you. (It opened last Friday at the Loew's White Marsh.)

Busch, who at the moment is clad in black T-shirt and jeans and looks nothing like Angela Arden (the faded diva he portrays on-screen), wrote and starred in plays such as Shanghai Moon, The Lady In Question, Red Scare on Sunset, You Should Be So Lucky and Vampire Lesbians of Sodom (which ran an impressive five years off-Broadway). He also wrote and directed a cable TV film for Kathie Lee Gifford (Personal Assistant) and was nominated for a Tony for writing The Tale of the Allergist's Wife.

"I've been working steadily since the 1980s," Busch says with a slight sigh, "but it just seemed like I was too eccentric or too gay [for mass acceptance]. It just seemed like, what I needed to be, I wasn't."

Fortunately, that didn't include being in the right place at the right time. In July 1999, after a performance of Die Mommie Die!, Busch met with director Mark Rucker. The winner of a 1998 Los Angeles Drama Critics Award for his staging of The Taming of the Shrew, Rucker was looking to direct his first film and told Busch his "tawdry little domestic thriller" should be it.

The screenplay, Busch says, is based on a genre of film popular in the late 1950s and 1960s, when many of the movies' greatest actresses found themselves aging and without any great parts to play -- think Joan Crawford in Berserk, Susan Hayward in Where Love Has Gone, Lana Turner in Portrait in Black.

"It was sort of like grand dame guignol," says Busch with a smile, "when these aging actresses got their one last chance to be in a movie." For Angela, Busch channeled equal parts Crawford and Bette Davis, legendary rivals whose career peaks and valleys roughly paralleled each other's. He also found inspiration in the 1950s and 1960s potboilers of producer Ross Hunter and the once-again-in-vogue melodramas of Douglas Sirk (whose films were the inspiration for last year's Far From Heaven).

But Die Mommie Die! does more than just ape what came before, Busch insists. "It's a homage to '60s theatricals," he says, "but it also works on its own terms as a successful film."

Audiences at Sundance seemed to share that opinion, a notion Charles Busch still has a tough time believing. Best of all, he says, they treated the film and his performance like more than just a camp takeoff or parody.

"After you win an award, it's like everybody starts taking you seriously," he says. "To think that I was actually acting in it, that it wasn't just some sort of stunt or something -- that they got that really felt good. For the first time, what I'm really all about is captured in this movie."

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