STAGE TO SCREEN: Taboo's Charles Busch Chats About "Die Mommie Die!"

STAGE TO SCREEN: Taboo's Charles Busch Chats About "Die Mommie Die!" I’ve always held to the theory that good movies make for bad remakes. Sadly, most directors and screenwriters keep gravitating toward the classics.
A scene from
A scene from "Die Mommie Die!".

That’s why a new "Manchurian Candidate" is on the way, with a Ben-and Jen "Casablanca" in the rumor mill. In general, I recommend searching for dross that can be spun into gold. Take, for example, "The Big Cube."

What? You’ve never heard of "The Big Cube"? I hadn’t either, until downtown theatre legend Charles Busch informed me that this 1969 gem — "a grade-Z exploitation film that Lana Turner did in Mexico on a toot" — served as the genesis for "Die Mommie Die!" Opening Oct. 31 in 10 cities, "Mommie" is the first film to put Busch’s referential but strangely natural style of drag front and center, and it’s a lot of fun.

Busch maintains that one can enjoy his performance as Angela Arden, "America’s Nightingale," without knowing anything about Lana Turner or Bette Davis or Joan Crawford or Susan Hayward or any of the other film legends he channels here. "I’ve always tried to make my works amusing even if you hadn’t seen these movies," he says. "It’s obviously better if you’ve seen them as a frame of reference, but it has to work as a melodrama on its own terms." (Still, I find it telling that John Waters came up to Busch after a screening and said with glee, "I can’t believe you remade ‘The Big Cube!’")

"Die Mommie Die!" is a surreal conglomeration of every sordid 1960's melodrama and post-war studio weepie, complete with acid trips, alcoholic housekeepers, contested wills, gigolos and cabaret numbers. Director Mark Rucker has found a way to yoke Busch’s style to the stylistic conventions of that period’s films. Not every scene finds the right blend, but watching Busch navigate what he calls "this roller coaster of tone" is a fascinating and highly enjoyable case study in how to adapt a highly theatrical style of performance for the big screen.

The idea for "Mommie" came during filming of Busch’s "Psycho Beach Party" in Los Angeles in 1999. Busch’s role in the film was small, and he decided to write himself a new stage piece to perform in L.A. In the audience for one performance were Rucker and producer Dante Di Lorento. Busch had been discussing various film projects with Di Lorento and his coproducer, Anthony Edwards (yes, the "ER" guy), and the four men quickly decided to put the film together. Shooting took just 18 days, a feat that was accomplished in part by using a blue-chip roster of film actors. Among Busch’s co-stars are Frances Conroy, Philip Baker Hall, Natasha Lyonne and Jason Priestley. Busch had originally envisioned using some of his regular theatre collaborators — the part of the housekeeper was written for Ruth Williamson but ultimately went to Conroy. In retrospect, though, he’s glad the casting worked out the way it did: "While the movie might have been more antic with true comic actors in these roles, I think they bring a richer emotional texture."

Busch’s performance won a special jury prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and the Sundance connection earned "Mommie" a plum spot as the final entry of this year’s Sundance Film Series. Sundance arranged for theatres in ten cities to show four films for a minimum of two weeks each; the series has already spawned one success story, Michael Winterbottom’s refugee drama "In This World."

And just as the movie of "Chicago" boosted attendance at the Broadway production, Busch feels "Die Mommie Die!" may generate further interest in the original stage work. "I had never had the play published," he says, "so what I’ve actually done is gone back to the play and tried to make it more like the movie."

As if Busch’s two "Mommies" aren’t enough, he also has a major Broadway musical in rehearsals — he’s supplying a completely new book to the Boy George musical Taboo). "It’s a very ambitious show, and it’s very dramatic," Busch says. "From most of my previous work, a lot of people will say, ‘Oh, Charles Busch will come in and make it campier and zanier.’ But this is my O’Neill, and I’m not talking about Take Me Along."

He still hasn’t acted on Broadway, and he hopes his long-standing connection with Manhattan Theatre Club might lead to a Busch production on MTC’s new Biltmore space next season. But for now, "I’m just enraptured about doing movies." He’s working on a screenplay that pays to the "Mad Mad Mad Mad Mad World"-style caper films of the 1960's. There’s a juicy female lead, of course, and he’s even considering directing. "I’m drawn to having it be my ‘Yentl,’ but I don’t have the stamina that Barbra has."

*****

Procrastinator that I am, I have saved the four-hour "Iceman Cometh" for last in my traversal of the first set of American Film Theatre DVDs. This month’s viewing was Stacy Keach as Martin Luther in John Osborne’s polemical and relentlessly humanizing "Luther."

The first hour focuses a lot more time on feces than on theses — Brother Martin talks about his recalcitrant bowels incessantly, including the classic line "If I break wind in Wittenberg, they might smell it in Rome." The centerpiece of Act I is a confrontation between Luther and his disapproving father; Osborne posits that the Protestant Reformation stemmed largely from Luther’s dad wanting him to be a burgher. As if this isn’t reductive enough, a narrator pops up from time to time in centurion garb and says things like, "So the praising ended and the blasphemy began."

Things pick up in Act II, when the internecine skirmishes among Luther and various emissaries of the Pope begin. Several of the confrontations are well staged, and Keach has a field day with this agonized, frothing character, but the piece overall feels like a dumbed-down "Man for All Seasons."

And I would like to lodge a formal complaint about how the AFT series markets its actors. Judi Dench is billed second on the "Luther" box; she and Keach are the only actors listed. She appears in less than two minutes of the film. At least six other actors have far more screen time than she does, but AFT splashes Dench’s name across the front of the box in letters as big as John Osborne’s. "Butley" did a very similar thing with Jessica Tandy, and I don’t like it.

****

Joan Ackermann has seen several plays produced over the last 15 years or so — a few of her plays have premiered at the Humana Festival, and The Batting Cage provided Veanne Cox with a memorable tour de force at the Vineyard in 1997. Ackermann adds screenwriter to her credits on Nov. 7, when "Off the Map" opens in limited release. She adapted her own play, a memory tale of a young girl growing up poor in New Mexico, and director Campbell Scott has assembled a pretty impressive cast, including Joan Allen, Sam Elliott and Amy Brenneman.

This is also a good month to see movies featuring people who’ve shared the stage memorably. Crucible co-stars Laura Linney and Liam Neeson join Alan Rickman, Emma Thompson and Hugh Grant in "Love Actually." It opens Nov. 7, the same day as "Elf." The previews for the latter film haven’t exactly gotten me revved up, but among the cast members are Amy Sedaris and Andy Richter; they co-starred in an unforgettable play by David and Amy Sedaris called Incident at Cobbler’s Knob. (It featured the priceless line, "A friend is just an enemy waiting to happen." I love David and Amy Sedaris.) And Eartha Kitt (Nine) and Alix Korey, who appeared in competing Wild Party musicals in 2000, join forces in the low budget musical "Anything But Love," which also opens Nov. 7.

Also look for Anna Deavere Smith in "The Human Stain" (Oct. 31), John Hurt and Ian Holm in the rerelease of "Alien" (Oct. 29, just in time for Halloween), Mark Ruffalo in "In the Cut" (Oct. 22) and S. Epatha Merkerson and the Broadway-bound Alfre Woodard in "Radio" (Oct. 24).

***

My Favorite Thought: A number of people wrote in expressing dismay at the idea of the father being alive in the movie adaptation of "Proof," a possible change that I mentioned in the last column. Assuming Anna saw a final script (and it sounds like she did, since the crew was filming at the University of Chicago last week), I got some bad information:

"I read your column about the filming of ‘Proof’ and just wanted to let you know that I've read the screenplay, and it's nearly verbatim the original script, actually. Catherine's father is dead in the beginning, seen in flashback. I know the play extremely well, and when I read the screenplay, I was kind of astounded at how incredibly faithful the adaptation is; it's barely an adaptation, really. It's basically the text of the play transplanted into the film script.

"They're shooting parts of the movie in Chicago before they go to London, and I was recently in the office of Film and Television (or whatever it's called) in Illinois. I was waiting for an appointment and picked up a copy of the screenplay there. I didn't make it through the whole thing, but I read enough to know that there's no resurrection, which I think is good. There is an extended flashback of Catherine meeting her dad's student and her later love interest, Harold Dobbs, but I don't remember how extended is extended."

Your Thoughts: Well, that’s a relief. Thanks for the sleuthing, Anna. Onward to "Die Mommie Die." Who here is in a Sundance Film Festival town? Does Busch’s drag style play on the big screen?

Eric Grode is a 2002-2003 American Theatre Affiliated Writer, associate editor of The Sondheim Review and a theatre critic for Back Stage. He can be reached at egrode@hotmail.com.