Charles Busch: Broad Appeal

Charles Busch talks Liza and Judy at the Palace and takes Kathleen Turner camping off-Broadway in The Third Story.

BY Brandon Voss

February 02 2009 1:00 AM ET

 Jennifer Van Dyck and Charles Busch in a scene from MCC Theater’s production of The Third Story 04 XLARGE (JOAN MARCUS) | ADVOCATE.COM

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!

Tags: Theater

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