Playwright/scripter Charles Busch takes his gender bending off-Broadway play to the big screen in homage to Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and a bevy of 50’s and 60’s steamy potboilers with “Die, Mommie, Die.”
Angela Arden (Charles Busch) is a former singing star that gave up her career after the sudden death of her twin sister, Barbara. The chanteuse had gone solo when her sister was arrested for shoplifting and jailed. Barbara was a loser while Angela led a pampered existence with her husband Saul (Philip Baker Hall) and two children, Lance (Stark Sands) and Edith (Natasha Lyonne). But Angela has led a debauched existence with a string of young stud lovers and Saul has had it with her hedonistic life style. She has also alienated Edith who takes solace in the arms of her father while Lance gets thrown out of school for having sex with the entire staff of the English department.
With her latest boy toy, Tony Parker (Jason Priestly), in tow, Angela plans on making a comeback – if she can master that one problem note of high F over middle C. But, Saul not only will not help her, he plans to keep her a virtual prisoner as punishment for her infidelities. Meanwhile, Tony cultivates sexual relationships with both Edie and Lance. Angela, though, is undeterred by the familial intrigues and she goes forth with her plans to get rid of Saul and re-launch her singing career.
“Die, Mommie, Die” is to the schmaltzy femme mysteries of the 50’s, like “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane” and “Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte,” what Todd Haynes’s wonderful “Far From Heaven” is to the films of Douglas Sirk. Author and star Busch has done his homework and studied his inspirations well as the film opens with Angela walking through a cemetery dressed all in white. She is stopped, on her stroll, by a fan that recognizes the former star, giving her a bouquet of roses meant for the lady’s deceased husband’s grave. Angela gracefully accepts the gift and moves on – to the headstone of her dead twin sister, Barbara, where she lays down one of the roses. Flashbacks tell us of their fame as the Arden sisters, Barbara’s fall and Angela’s success.
The most notable aspect of “Die, Mommie, Die” is the great female impersonation performance by Charles Busch as the ardent Angela. At first, when Busch appears on the screen, my reaction was, “Hey, this is a guy dressed as a woman! You ain’t fooling me.” But, within minutes, because of the Busch’s accomplished performance, I forgot that I was watching a guy and completely believed Angela to be all woman. This cross-dressing actor gives a performance on a par with Dustin Hoffman in “Tootsie” and Terrence Stamp in “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.” Busch’s screenplay, too, is of note with its irreverent tone, sexually escapades and effectively banal dialog.
The supporting cast gives caricature performances with their corny line delivery that is perfectly in keeping with the goofy tone of the “Mommie.” Sexual innuendo and clever editing make this a bawdy but fun romp and the players are up for the task at hand. Philip Baker Hall is nicely cast as the had-enough husband, Saul. Frances Conroy, as family housekeeper Bootsie Carp, is the put upon servant who must withstand the evil intentions of her mistress and maintain her loyalty to Saul. Natasha Lyonne and Stark Sands are two-dimensional as the scion of Angela and Saul and this is just how they should be. Jason Priestly gives a performance that would be worthy of a bad soap opera star as he, I think intentionally, appears to be reading his lines from cue cards.
First-time helmer Mark Rucker makes an amusing debut bringing Busch’s stage work to the screen. His effort is nicely helped on the tech side with camera, makeup, costume and set design all capturing the look and feel of the films that this most amusing parody spoofs so well.
The campy nature of “Die, Mommie, Die,” with Charles Busch taking the limelight as the heroine, will make this a hit in the gay community. This is such an accomplished comedy and parody that, I hope, will get a chance to play a broader venue. This fun and clever comedy will definitely have a long, happy life on the video shelf. I give it a B+.
When Edith (Natasha Lyonne, "Party Monster") discovers her mother is having an affair with washed up television actor Tony Parker (Jason Priestley, TV's "Beverly Hills 90210"), daddy's girl is enraged. After Sol Sussman's (Philip Baker Hall, "Bruce Almighty") sudden death, Edith turns around mommy's boy Lance (Stark Sands) by convincing him that their mother was responsible for dad's death. Former singing sensation Angela Arden (writer Charles Busch, "Psycho Beach Party") is trapped amidst cries of "Die Mommie Die!"
Charles Busch delivers another campy homage to a film genre, this time paying loving tribute to the women's pictures usually starring Bette Davis or Joan Crawford. "Die Mommie Die!" is like "Far From Heaven" as imagined by John Waters, but although the film is often clever it runs out of steam and becomes a real drag. Busch is simply fabulous, though, in the lead he has created for himself and he does pull out all the stops to regain interest at film's conclusion.
Busch's screenplay is an intersection of Davis's "Dead Ringer" and "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" peppered with over the top dialogue ('You slipped into my life like vermouth into a glass of gin'), poisoned suppositories, LSD trips and a duplicitous maid . The film's plotting eventually overpowers it in its midsection. Some judicious editing would have raised "Die Mommie Die!" up a notch.
Busch, however, gets every line reading just right, traipsing his voice up and down the scale, alternately purring and growling. He can pull a laugh with an exaggerated eye movement and expresses Angela's emotion with his physical carriage. Busch is so convincing as Angela that we forget we're watching a man. Priestly is amusing, acting badly as a bad actor who romances not only Angela but her two children and Baker Hall adds weight as Angela's desperate but unyielding husband. Lyonne and Sands, however, play to the rafters as Angela's kids, too obviously camping it up to let "Die Mommie Die!" play as camp.
Technically, "Die Mommie Die!" gets the look and feel of the genre it plays with, particularly Dennis McCarthy's spot on score. As would be expected, costume design is integral and Michael Bottari, Ronald Case and Thomas G. Marquez have created many memorable numbers, emphasizing Lyonne's baby fat in a white flowered shift and framing Angela's face with a necklace that would have done Cleopatra proud. Philip Harrison milks more laughs with his editing, juxtaposing Angela's open mouthed kiss with Tony against Edith's overly enthusiastic embrace of her dad. Kelly Evans achieves the look of 1960's productions which showed up the fakery of props and back screen projection. Busch's entry in and out of Evans' eye lighting is another example of finding entertainment value by exposing technique.
"Die Mommie Die!" does run out of gas, but Busch's valiant performance and a finale that combines the excesses of "Mommie Dearest," "Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte" and "Sunset Boulevard" make it a marginal recommendation.
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