Stage vet Charles Busch does glam for camp movie
Parody is a delicate flower. Get it right and you’ve got A Night at the Opera. Get it wrong, indulge in peepee-cahcah hijinks, and you’ve got the worst of Mel Brooks. With Die Mommie Die, camp theater dragmeister-playwright Charles Busch brings his lampoonery to the screen for a shot at movie stardom. His inspirations are the slickly veneered melodramas of the 1950s and ’60s with their runaway population of sleazebags, millionaires, gold diggers, psychos, gigolos, and trollops. Die Mommie Die variously recalls Valley of the Dolls, Dead Ringer, The Barefoot Contessa, The Carpetbaggers, The Oscar, With a Song in My Heart, By Love Possessed, The Pleasure Seekers, Madame X, Return to Peyton Place, and any other post-Golden Age masterpiece of bad taste. Ultimately, however, this modest divertissement is all about Busch.
It goes something like this: washed up chanteuse Angela Adams (Busch) is trapped in a loveless Beverly Hills marriage to Stanley Kramer style moviemaker Sol Sussman (Philip Baker Hall). To compound poor Angela’s problems, she possesses all of the mothering instincts of Faye Dunaway. Her spoiled daughter Edith (Natasha Lyonne from But I’m a Cheerleader) hates her guts and engages in questionable horseplay with daddy, while mentally unstable son Lance (the blond, boyish Stark Sand) might as well have HORNY REBEL FAG stamped on his forehead. Angela finds dysfunctional satisfaction only in the arms of salami-donged Tony Parker (a seedy Jason Priestly). Add motivations for murder and a scripture quoting live-in domestic (Frances Conroy of Six Feet Under) to complete the criminal profile of an extravagantly pathological upper-income show-biz family.
Due to its small budget, Die Mommie Die can’t fully participate in the world it aims to send-up. The cheesy rear projections, slashes of light across Angela’s eyes, and lip-synching are all appropriately fake, but first-time film director Mark Rucker doesn’t use limited resources as cinematically as he might. We spend too much time at the Sussman house when we should be enjoying stock footage of the Riviera, dinner at Romanoff’s, walks on the beach, moonlit balconies, and a Ross Hunter style wallow in glamour. As is, it is only suggested amidst potting shed trysts, a silly acid trip, and suppository jokes. Too bad Die Mommie Die wasn’t shot for the widest of widescreens, to properly evoke the irresistible trash it unpersuasively mocks. A little more snipping in the editing room was in order, too. A few scenes drag, and not in a good way.
Much of the cast is game and offers some laugh out loud funny bits. Natasha Lyonne’s Edith reveres Carol Lynley, which fairly summarizes who she most closely resembles in both looks and talent. Stark Sand has an energetic and sincere off-kilter appeal. Jason Priestly, looking worn at the edges, has little to do but be the object of desire for Angela and her offspring. Frances Conroy, alas, is misused. Though her character is integral to the plot, she is neither funny nor neurotic enough to matter in our hearts. She does not suggest the great maids of the era, who were either “colored” (Juanita Moore in Imitation of Life, Maidie Norman in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?) or Thelma Ritter. As for Philip Baker Hall, he classes up everything he touches. Hall is a devastatingly good actor, able to channel disease and anger on screen with such volatile and bombastic theatricality that he ought to be given his own production of King Lear.
Busch wrote Die Mommie Die for himself, and indeed he is the movie’s raison d’etre. As a consummate drag artiste in full command of Goddess technologies, he offers a “patented brand of bitchery” with few surprises. The clothes, fiberglass hair, jewels, make-up, gestures, and voice are just right. We get the neatly observed physical conventions of melodramas gone by – arms akimbo, the intercepted slap, perfume bottle spritzes, gentle palms on the cheeks, and an imploring squeeze of the upper arms when someone feels “real” pain. Like the movie, Busch offers allusions rather than specifics, though there are moments that alternately suggest Susan Hayward, Ava Gardner, Lana Turner, Eleanor Parker and, of course, Bette and Joan.
All this glamourized femininity can’t disguise the fact that Charles Busch doesn’t look like a woman, a fact blindingly clear to the audience but lost on the cast of characters. Acknowledgement of this in the movie, perhaps with a gender identity joke or a lipstick heavy kiss with Priestly, would have upped the laugh count. As is, we are left wondering if Busch takes it all a little too seriously. The late great Charles Pierce laughed at himself as often as he laughed at his targets. Busch has many one-liners at the ready, and his movie has moments of fun, but nowhere does he suggest that he knows and we know that he’s being ridiculous.