Charles Busch: Broad Appeal
It’s been 25 years since Charles Busch’s outrageous play Vampire Lesbians of Sodom made him a star of Manhattan’s East Village performance scene. Since that unlikely long-running sensation, Busch has channeled his obsession with Hollywood’s Golden Age — and a penchant for drag — into a legendary theatrical career crowned by his Tony-nominated 2000 work The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife. Now, the actor, playwright, novelist, director, and screenwriter behind campy genre parodies such as Psycho Beach Party and Die, Mommie, Die! is back off-Broadway portraying three delicious female roles in his new too-hard-to-summarize show-within-a-show sci-fi mob comedy The Third Story at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. There’s no trimming this Busch as he recalls romancing costar Kathleen Turner and his other favorite divas.
Advocate.com: I spotted you in the audience of Liza's at the Palace on Broadway back in December. What did you think of the show?
Charles Busch: I thought it was thrilling. It’s the kind of show business that just will not exist anymore. And I saw it under wonderful circumstances. I remember I was 13 and at sleep-away camp when Judy Garland was at the Palace the last time, so I was devastated that I had to miss it, but my aunt sent me the clippings from all the papers. I was the only 13-year-old at summer camp getting clippings about Judy at the Palace. Now I have this 16-year-old protégé — this young kid I’ve known since he was 12 — so I took him to see Liza at the Palace, which is the closest thing to Judy. It was great seeing it with him particularly. I enjoy exposing him to all sorts of cultural events. We went backstage afterward, and it was like going to see Santa Claus at Macy’s: You’re led into a bright red room, there’s a mythical creature sitting there, you say a few words, you have your picture taken with her, and then you’re ushered off.
Did Liza know your work?
Gosh, I’ve met Liza Minnelli maybe six times now, but I wonder if she really knows who I am. She always greets me with great enthusiasm and says, “I’m a huge fan of yours,” but I’d know if she’d been at one of my shows, and I wouldn’t count on her having seen Die, Mommie, Die! I think she just has very good manners.
I also noticed you chatting up Judith Light at intermission.
Judith Light was sitting in front of us by herself, so we kind of ended up being her dates for the night. She’s a lot of fun.
I hope you asked for a cameo on Ugly Betty.
Well, it seems like everybody else is getting one these days.
Speaking of big celebrities, your new play, The Third Story, costars Kathleen Turner, who does double duty as a German doctor and an alcoholic 1940s screenwriter. So is this the first time that you’ve starred opposite another man in drag? Sorry, I couldn’t resist.
Aww, be nice now! I’m crazy about Kathleen Turner. She’s a big, ballsy, brash gal, and I’m having a ball with her. I think she’s also having a very good time. She hasn’t been in an off-Broadway show since early on in her career, so she’s roughing it a bit. I may be a lady, but I’m also a gentleman, so I gave her the private dressing room — and the last bow too.
How’d you get her for the role?
We’d done the play at La Jolla Playhouse last year with Mary Beth Peil in the same role, but I’d done a big rewrite that really changed the whole character: She had been an elegant, ladylike mother, but it seemed to suit the play more if she was this garrulous, hard-drinking dame — which is just not Mary Beth Peil. Bernie Telsey, one of the producers, is also a major casting director. Kathleen had approached Bernie about another play that she was interested in doing, and he said, “Would you consider working off-Broadway?” She said, “Yeah!” So he sent her my play. When he mentioned Kathleen Turner to me I thought, Oh, it’s a nice idea, but she’ll never do it. I do sometimes go to the negative place. But she wanted to meet with me and Carl Andress, the director. So we went over to her apartment — which has this extraordinary view of the Hudson River — and she had the play laid out on the dining room table. We sat down on either side of her, and she said in that lethal baritone, “Boys, I am intrigued, but not hooked.” So I laid all the jewels on the table: I said, “It ain’t much money, but we’ll treat you with the respect that hasn’t been seen since the days of Bernhardt and Duse.” I think she liked that. When we left I told Carl, “Man, she has some poker face, because I could not tell you which way she’s going to go.” The next day, though, she said yes.
What’s your favorite Kathleen Turner film?
I haven’t seen it in years, but I loved Prizzi’s Honor. That was a wonderful movie. She really did have a great stretch of first-rate movies. I read somewhere that the average life of a glamorous movie actress is five years, so she’s been very smart about extending her career by taking challenging roles in the theater.
You’re both 54. Have you bonded over your age?
No, but I’m glad that I’m not the oldest person in the room. Lately, that’s been happening to me, and I don’t much care for it.
The New York Times recently ran a picture of the two of you laughing and drinking together at a cast party. I loved it, but the fabulous chenille toque hat that you wore threatened to upstage Miss Turner!
When you don’t have that much hair, hats become very important. My life has always been a search for the perfect hat. I’ve got so many hats sitting in my closet that I never wear, because I’ll say, “Well, this isn’t really a woman’s hat. It’s not gender-specific.” Then I buy it, wear it, and realize I look like somebody’s Aunt Sheila. The secret is that when you do find a good hat, you’ve got to buy two of them. I’ve lost more hats in taxis — it’s almost like losing a child.
The Times piece quoted you as saying that you’re often up until 3 or 4 in the morning following performances.
All my life that’s been a problem. I never liked going to bed. Even as a young kid, I’d set the alarm clock to 4 in the morning because a Norma Shearer movie would be on. And I know this is going to make me sound a little loony, but the curse of my imagination is that I have the wildest dream life. Sometimes I’m almost afraid to go to sleep at night. I don’t have nightmares, but every dream I have is like an epic, full-length movie — quadruple features. Sometimes I wake up more exhausted than before I went to sleep.
I was also surprised by your admission of being a reality-television addict.
It’s an obsession. Is there a 12-step program? I really need one. Though I like to convince myself that I’m only addicted to high-end reality TV. I’ve never missed a single episode of any season of Survivor. I really like Project Runway, Top Chef, Top Design, American Idol, Dancing With the Stars… I went so far as to attend a taping of Dancing With the Stars. And for some reason, I keep running into all the winners of my favorite shows on the street, so I accost them. I never know if they know who I am or if they just think I’m a kook.
Doing Dancing With the Stars seems like a logical next step for you.
[Laughs] I don’t know. When I have to dance in a show I’m like one of those old star ladies who doesn’t move while the chorus boys do all the work. In fact, I think my next play will be something where I can just wear a kaftan and sit on a divan. I’m so tired of learning blocking.
Explain your choice to star in The Third Story after not having taken on the female leads in your plays Our Leading Lady and The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife.
Not everything I write is in the same style. The Third Story suits my genre-parody style, so I wrote that for myself. The characters aren’t supposed to be real women; they’re comments on star-acting. Allergist’s Wife, for example, was much more naturalistic, and having me play one of those roles would’ve made it seem like it was in the same style of Vampire Lesbians of Sodom. Although sometimes I wonder if I’m being hypocritical, because I had to really fight hard to get the rights to play Auntie Mame. The Lawrence and Lee estate didn’t ever want to allow a man to play that part because they didn’t want it to turn into a camp piece. I had to write letters saying that I was going to play it very much like Roz Russell, and that I wasn’t making fun of it. At the same time, I would receive letters from theater companies who wanted to do Allergist’s Wife and cast a guy in drag in one of the roles, and I said, “Absolutely not. You can’t play Allergist’s Wife like you’re doing Psycho Beach Party."
What happened to plans of a film version of Allergist’s Wife?
A wonderful producer optioned it and paid me a lot of money to write the screenplay, and we both felt that the screenplay was an improvement on the play. Then he had a terrible time getting a production company to make a movie about middle-aged Jews in New York. One studio head said, “Can you make the Michelle Lee character 20 years old?” So it’s sitting in limbo. At one point we sent the script to Barbra Streisand, and there was a brief flurry of e-mails about her doing it at HBO. Then some emissary basically said that if Streisand was going to return to the screen, it should be in a role of import. Of course, then she did Meet the Fockers. But who knows what Streisand really wanted or if she really even looked at it.
If I were a young homosexual in desperate need of classic cinematic education, what would be my required viewing?
The two essentials would be All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard. It’s interesting because they’re two of the most totemic films in gay camp culture, and yet both movies were written and directed by very heterosexual men. Then one of my favorite movies of all time — and it’s never on anybody’s top 10 list, but I’m a major Judy fan — is Judy’s last movie, I Could Go on Singing. That would be number 3. Actually, I conduct an unofficial film course for new friends — mainly young actors who come to my plays and haven’t seen a lot of old movies — and I have a list of films they should see. It’s an idiosyncratic list, but I think it’s a good one. I differentiate between “movies you should see” and “movies you should see just because I love them.” In a way I get very jealous thinking of all the pleasure they’ll have seeing these movies for the first time. It’s fun to watch them again with someone who’s never seen them before. It’s almost like seeing it fresh.
In one “Charles and Julie” YouTube episode with your friend Julie Halston, you said, “The best movies have been made, and the best plays have been done.” So why get out of bed in the morning, Charles?
Wasn’t that a terrible thing to say? It does get a little discouraging when some people die and we don’t really have anyone to replace them. But I loved Milk, actually. I thought that was a wonderful film. It was particularly fun for me to watch because when I first performed in San Francisco in 1981, it was at this marvelous gay performing arts center called Valencia Rose. It was a great dream of mine to perform in San Francisco because I’d read all of the Tales of the City books. This was just a couple of years after Harvey Milk was killed, and all the people in his circle used to hang around at the Valencia Rose cabaret. I got to be friendly with Scott Smith, Cleve Jones, and Danny Nicoletta, particularly. At the time, I felt like I was in an Agatha Christie mystery, talking to all these people who had known this man, hearing their different points of view.
Finally, settle a bet: Was the long blond wig you wore in your 2006 film A Very Serious Person the same one you wore for a guest spot in an episode of Lipstick Jungle in March 2008?
Yes! I paid more for that wig than somebody might pay for a car, and you can’t use it for much. When they called me to go on Lipstick Jungle and play this Karl Lagerfeld kind of designer, I didn’t want to look like myself. I wanted to look more theatrical, so that wig came in handy. I thought I looked pretty good.
And it was good to see you on prime-time network television.
Well, I’ve often been asked to play those kinds of little parts — the bitchy fashionista or the vicious desk clerk. But I’m very, very grand and like to see myself as a cult star, so I don’t want to play those kinds of parts. They’re gay stereotypes, and they’re usually only a couple of lines. I once told an agent, “Any part that I’m right for, I wouldn’t want to play.” But then Lipstick Jungle came along. At first I said no, but then, being grand, I said, “Well, if you give me fabulous billing, that would be exciting.” And they did give me wonderful billing for a part that was only four lines.
Any behind-the-scenes drama on set?
I do have one story about someone being a bitch, but I’ll have to tell you later, off the record!