Busch Dresses Up His 'Mommie'

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 31, 2003

Female impersonator Charles Busch has his way with Douglas Sirk in "Die Mommie Die," his part-parody of, part-homage to the 1950s director. As the film's title character, a washed-up singer named Angela Arden, Busch also delivers a surprisingly graceful nod to Lana Turner and Susan Hayward in their most histrionic roles. If last year's "Far From Heaven," by Todd Haynes, sought to establish Sirk's highly pitched tone and bold visual style as worthy of serious, subversive rethinking, "Die Mommie Die" sends him up, albeit with affection, for the master of lurid, superficial pleasures that he was.

Based on Busch's play of the same name, "Die Mommie Die" traces the downfall of Arden as she seeks to free herself from a strained marriage. When she first married the movie producer Sol Sussman (Philip Baker Hall), she was a pop singer with a bright future; years later, his socially conscious blockbusters are losing audiences, gastrointestinal distress is interfering with their love life, and Angela hasn't had a hit in years. What's more, she's estranged from her daughter, Edie (Natasha Lyonne), and her college-age son, Lance (Stark Sands), has just been kicked out of school for seducing the entire -- male -- math department.

This dysfunctional martini needs only a gentle stir to blow sky-high: Enter Tony Parker (Jason Priestley), a bisexual gigolo who has set his sights on Angela, Edie and Lance. Part sexual farce, part murder mystery and mostly tragicomic melodrama, "Die Mommie Die" makes a wacky hash of Oedipus, Electra and Nancy Drew as Angela seeks to dispatch the inconvenient Sol while coming to terms with some of her own complicated family history.

Filled with graphically bawdy humor and self-conscious, in-joke references, "Die Mommie Die" will probably appeal most to Busch's fans (he's made one other movie, "Psycho Beach Party"), as well as followers of John Waters's celebrations of camp. Busch and first-time director Mark Rucker have essentially created a series of verbal and visual one-liners, but they know exactly when to play it, you should pardon the expression, straight. In the midst of all the double-entendres and genre sendups, Busch disappears so completely into Angela's persona that viewers may quickly forget it's a man inside that red wig and those extravagant gowns. Even the actor's voice, a husky Lauren Bacall purr, doesn't betray him (although an occasional 5 o'clock shadow does).

Busch's co-stars gamely support him throughout this let's-put-on-a-show romp ("Die Mommie Die" was reportedly filmed in only 18 days); Priestley is especially good in a role that might once have suited Tab Hunter, and Frances Conroy pours a distinctively Southern syrup of molasses and bile onto her lines as the Sussmans' dipsomaniac maid, Bootsie. Kelly Evans and Joseph B. Tintfass deserve special mention for their cinematography and production design, respectively. With its lush Technicolor palette, rear-projected backdrops and overstuffed, ersatz glamour, "Die Mommie Die" seeks to go even further overboard than Sirk himself. It succeeds, with a big, false-eyelashed wink.

Die Mommie Die (90 minutes, at Loews Georgetown as part of the Sundance Film Series) is not rated. It contains strong language, drug use and adult themes.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company