Entertainment » Theatre

Mommie Peerless: The Return of Charles Busch

by Tony Phillips
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Thursday Jan 10, 2008

Comb out your best wig, festoon your apartment with crepe and strike up the band: downtown's hometown drag queen is ready for a hero's welcome. Even though he self-effacingly claims he's "so apartment bound he makes Emily Dickenson look frenetic," you've probably seen Tony-nominated playwright Charles Busch out on the town in one of his two personas. In drag, he resembles a classier version Bernadette Peters; in boy clothes, he affects a slightly more debonair Bing Crosby.

And he's been giving till it hurts all winter. His latest production, Die Mommie Die!, bowed at New World Stages four months ago while his directorial feature film debut, A Very Serious Person, was just released on DVD. Somewhere in between this multi-media blitz, Charles graciously took time out from writing his new play to give us the skinny on his salad days in the East Village and take us all the way up to his red carpet moment at the Tony Awards. He even shares his inner most fear that his adoring fans might think, "Oh, gee, Charles Busch actually has titties."

Tony Phillips: So, Charles, tell me about this play. How did it happen?

Charles Busch: How did it happen? Oh, boy, it seems like it's been going on for years in just such a roundabout way. In 1999 I was going to LA to make the movie of Psycho Beach Party and although I wrote it, I had a very supporting role and was only going to be shooting for maybe eight days or something like that. The director wanted me out of his hair so my friend Ken Elliott, who lived in LA and directed most of my earlier plays, said, 'well, why don't we do a play out here while you're in town?' It was kind of nuts, but I said, yeah, sure. So I wanted to write something very quickly and couldn't think of an idea, but then I thought maybe if I looked at a classical play, I could use elements of that plot and update it. So I started with the myth of Clytemnestra and the house of Atreus, you know, she was the queen who killed her husband and had a lover and her children wanted revenge. And for some reason, I was trying to think of a contemporary film genre to context it and I thought with an older woman and murder it seemed like one of those bad Joan Crawford or Susan Hayward films that they would have made towards the end of their careers in the 60s. So it really sprang from that. We did it for a little while in LA and it was fun. It was kind of a disposable piece.

Tony Phillips: Speaking of disposable pieces, your latest creation, Angela Arden, offs a lot of folks in this play. Was that the typical response of a New Yorker being marooned in Los Angeles?

Charles Busch: Well, it was just something to do out there, but I had indie film on the brain because I was making Psycho Beach Party. I was learning how to keep budgets down. Fewer locations are better so I thought, oh, this would be a wonderful indie film. It all takes place in this one house. This would be perfect and rather amazingly I connected with the producer of that film and it really came about amazingly quickly. Now I always hear about even indie films where it's like oh, it took us ten years to get that film made. No, it took us only about a year and we were making this one. It was very quick. I really liked the movie a lot better. I thought the script was better. Then about a year ago we did a big Actor's Fund benefit staged reading. Chris Meloni did the Jason Priestley role. It was received so beautifully that Carl Andress, who I've been working with a lot as a director lately, said oh, we should really do this as a full off-Broadway show. So it took my benefactress about five years, but she produced it, and got Bob Boyett along. It was once again really pretty quick and here we are. What has been difficult has been memorizing these lines because I played so many different versions of the same material. Each time I do it, it's similar lines rearranged in different places. So it's tricky. I keep flipping back into the movie script or the Actor's Fund script or the 1999 script.

Tony Phillips: I love that you have a benefactress. How chic. I'd also love to see Natasha Leone hop up onstage before you finish this run.

Charles Busch: Well, you know, I hadn't heard from her in so long. We thought, she's so great, but who knows where she is? And she'd probably never be in a play, but I just read that she's going to be in a play with The New Group.

Tony Phillips: You're kidding. That's fantastic. I worry about that girl, Charles, you know that.

Charles Busch: Well, she has problems, but she's so talented and I was just crazy about her. She reminded me of the movie Inside Daisy Clover. Natalie Wood, remember? It's based on one of my favorite novels and Natasha always reminded me of Daisy Clover. You know, free-spirit girl somehow involved in this rather corrupt business.

Tony Phillips: You guys seem like kindred spirits. I always bump into her at Film Forum on Friday afternoons.

Charles Busch: Well, that was the other thing. I'd seen her in Slums of Beverly Hills and thought she was so terrific and then when her name came up she had somehow found the movie script before anyone else and threw her name in. One of the producers said Natasha Leone is interested and I said, Oh wow, she'd be perfect. She lives in New York so we had lunch and I was just enchanted with her. I loved that she was really into old movies and going to the Film Forum. She really respected films from the past so we just hit it off great. I'm thrilled that she's in good shape. She must be if she's doing a play with The New Group.

Tony Phillips: The New Group is not playing around! They also seem to also have a unique relationship to film over there. I was wondering what's been the biggest adjustment you've had to make in this crazy stage to film to stage world we all seem to inhabit now?

Charles Busch: Well, they've all fed each other in a good way. When we did Die Mommie Die! in 1999, it was a really broad, very stylized production. It was a very pop set. And then the film, of course, had to take it way, way down. It was very interesting to be able to really recreate the acting style of these actresses who I emulate. They are film actresses and so I really could play it almost as actressy as I could. That was interesting and gave me a real ground work. Now that I'm doing it onstage again, I'm taking the best of everything and I have these sort of stylized moments, but I guess like most comic actors I long to play Hamlet. I love the moments in the play where it's very emotional and the quiet moments I have with the son. There are so many forms of theatrical parody and so many degrees of stylization, but my particular style is I like having a rollercoaster of tone where I'm both spoofing the genre, but also playing it for real and allowing the audience to actually respond to it as if it were the old movie with genuine moments of tenderness and suspense. It's an acquired taste. Some people want the whole thing to be camp, but that's just who I am.

Tony Phillips: So the last time we talked you were looking for a charming young boy!

Charles Busch: For what?!?

Tony Phillips: For Very Serious Person. You were trying to cast the kid.

Charles Busch: Oh, that's right. Well I venture to say I found him. The odd thing about A Very Serious Person is, again, how quickly it all came about. As soon as Carl Andress and I finished writing it, we showed it to Daryl Roth and then we shot it a few months later, so it really was crazy.

Tony Phillips: And you were also in the midst of your documentary (The Lady in Question Is Charles Busch) at that point. So I imagine your debut as a feature film director must have been all about grabbing the reins, yet I'm sure the opposite was true with the doc.

Charles Busch: You can say that again, but it was not for lack of trying. I did send an email to [co-directors] John [Catania] and Charles [Ignacio] saying before you lock the film, you might want to show it to me because I might have some good suggestions. I got a very snippy email back saying our documentary colleagues have told us rule number one: keep the subject away! So I told those motherfuckers, 'Yeah, if your subject is the owner of Loehmann's.'

Tony Phillips: In their defense, didn't some people in your doc insist on re-shoots because they had changed their looks?

Charles Busch: Sure, but some of them had plastic surgery and lost 40-pounds. Actually, we left a trail of bitterness with people who had been cut out of that picture.

Tony Phillips: It had to be a leap of faith on your part since that was their first film.

Charles Busch: Well, it's all just narcissism, really. What if someone said to you, I'd really love to do a documentary about your life? What would you say?

Tony Phillips: I had the opposite experience about five years ago when I asked Kate Bornstein to be the subject of my second doc. My pitch was so horrible. I still remember her visibly blanching when I called her an historical figure.

Charles Busch: Somebody once tried to get me to be an extra in the drag funeral scene of the Angels in America movie. I said, Extra! And then they said, Oh yes, we really want people from the era. I almost had a stroke. But getting back to John and Charles, I've worked with them for many years because they were producers on In the Life. So they left there and wanted to do a theatrical documentary. What really clinched it was usually in documentaries about theater, there's no footage or b-roll, but so many of my plays were done with my friends at Theater-in-Limbo and we just wanted to see ourselves on TV so we videotaped everything. We even videotaped ourselves watching the videos.

Tony Phillips: That's so Warholian, but I think every doc hits that wall that I like to call the get the fuck out of my house! moment.

Charles Busch: Oh, yes! When they first approached me a number of years ago, I thought, Oh, what a marvelous idea, but by year three it had lost some of its charm. I remember a couple years ago there was a fundraiser for the film and I had to speak, so I said to the audience, Please! Please give money to get these damn people off my back! After a while, it becomes the world's longest reality show. And how many times do you have to take my scrapbooks and rip them up? The other thing is I kept doing things. I'm not like Bette Davis post-stroke. I'm still active. So every time I'd do something new they'd say, Oh, we'll follow you there and I thought, Oh, shit. I thought we were done!

Tony Phillips: It's got to be hard to watch yourself in that kind of context. What did you think the first time you saw it?

Charles Busch: I really didn't see it until it premiered at Tribeca. It was pretty intense. My poor sister threw up the whole next day, she was so emotional about it.

Tony Phillips: Well there's a medical trauma in the doc that you keep totally secret, which is just so inherently dramatic.

Charles Busch: At first, I was just really scared. When it happened, Die Mommie Die! was going to start shooting in a few months so we were still negotiating the contract. I had a very tough negotiation. It took a while for me to just accept that I was going to be totally screwed. And I was scared that if they knew about the surgery, they'd use it against me and I wouldn't be able to get insurance. So I finally went out to California to make the movie and you have to have a physical by the insurance company physician. I had never seen any doctor but my own and I got myself so worked up into a state of terror that my blood pressure was so high. The thing about these insurance doctors for movies is you basically have to be dead for them not to approve you, so this doctor says, Hmmm, why don't you just lie down for a while and we'll come back to you in ten minutes. So they did and then they said, Why don't we come back to you in another fifteen minutes?

Next: Remembering Theater-in-Limbo and Taboo


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