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The Lady's a Star

Drag theater legend Charles Busch is showcased in two new films. logo
Charles Busch at the Quad
(Photo © Michael Portantiere)
Charles Busch has at least four careers: drag artiste, Broadway playwright (The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, Taboo), TV actor (Oz), and movie star! As we speak, he's lighting up the silver screen in The Lady in Question Is Charles Busch, a documentary about his life and work. (In New York, it's playing at the Quad on West 13th Street.) And A Very Serious Person, a movie that he co-wrote and directed -- and in which he plays a male role! -- will premiere on April 28 in the Tribeca Film Festival. I recently had the opportunity to speak with him about both flicks.


THEATERMANIA: Charles, your film career is skyrocketing!

CHARLES BUSCH: It's so marvelous, because movies have been a part of my life since I was a kid. It's been a slow process; I started out doing bit parts in some big movies like Addams Family Values and It Can Happen to You, then a supporting part in Psycho Beach Party, and finally the lead in Die, Mommy, Die. Now I'm getting the chance to direct and star in A Very Serious Person, and there's also this wonderful documentary about me. It really is amazing. About five years ago, John Catania and Charles Ignacio approached me about wanting to do the documentary, and I innocently thought that it would take a couple of months to put it together. Two years later, I was ready to kill them -- but it's all been worth it.

TM: How did you get involved with them in the first place?

CB: They were producers of [the PBS-TV series] In the Life, and I did a lot of things with them over the years. They said they wanted to make a feature film and they were thinking of doing it about me, so they asked whether I had any performance footage. I said, "Do I have performance footage!!!" In truth, most documentaries about theater people have little if any of that, because theater is so ephemeral. But so many of my plays were done with my own theater company, Theatre in Limbo, and we were all best friends who just wanted to see ourselves on TV, so we videotaped all of the shows numerous times. It was really for our own amusement and narcissism, but it turned out to be an enormous archive. For this movie, it's great that we can illustrate our anecdotes with actual footage from the shows and can pick any scene we want.

TM: You performed an invaluable service in making people laugh during the darkest days of the AIDS crisis, but I wonder, did you ever consider dealing directly with the crisis in your shows?

CB: Well, at that point, my aesthetic was tied up with doing genre parodies, so I don't know how we would have done that. We did touch on certain contemporary subjects in those period pieces; Red Scare on Sunset had a very political edge. But I think our function at the time was allowing people to escape. Before AIDS, gay nightlife tended to be so S&M-oriented. When people dressed up, it was supposed to be in leather. Then, at the height of the AIDS crisis, a lot of gay people wanted and needed to just have fun with their friends, and going out in drag became less politically incorrect.

TM: But were there ever moments when you thought, "I can't be funny anymore?"

CB: No, I really did feel that we were kind of entertaining the troops in those days. The WW-II analogy struck me when we were doing Swingtime Canteen. It was a 1940s musical and, late in our run, Maxene Andrews came into the show. One night, there was a young man in the audience who was in the last stages of AIDS. He came backstage in a wheelchair, and Maxene was so gentle with him. As he was leaving, she said, "Good luck to you, kid." It was totally something she might have said to a young soldier during the war. For me and everyone who was involved in our shows, it's been a very moving experience to see this movie. Arnie Kolodner has been going with me to a number of different festivals, and Julie Halston is going to join us. We've embraced our past.

TM: And now, to the present: What was the genesis of A Very Serious Person?

CB: A couple of years ago, I directed a short film for Showtime called Personal Assistant, starring Kathie Lee Gifford. I showed it to Daryl Roth, who was one of the producers of The Tale of the Allergist's Wife on Broadway and also is one of the producers of the documentary. She said, "When the day comes that you want to direct a feature, give me a call." I thought, "Whoa, I'd better come up with an idea before she changes her mind." So I called my frequent collaborator Carl Andress; he set up a schedule for us, and we got right to work on the script. It had to be something that could be shot on a very low budget. One idea was to do this wacky caper movie, until I realized that it would cost about $40 million. Our little, low-budget movie had scenes in Berlin and Hong Kong. I said, "Carl, we're defeating the whole point of this exercise!" Then I was lying on the sofa one night, thinking about my aunt raising me and about our relationship when I was growing up. I thought, "Maybe we should do a personal film about people in a realistic situation." Carl and I finished the script very quickly, showed it to Daryl, and we were shooting it six months later. It really is kind of amazing; I don't think that sort of thing has happened since 1932 at Warner Brothers!

TM: When I read the synopsis, the first thing that occurred to me was that the Polly Bergen character is based on your aunt.

CB: Yes. The movie is emotionally autobiographical, not factually -- but most of the dialogue that Polly says is verbatim what my aunt said. On the first day of shooting, I had Polly wear some of my aunt's jewelry. I felt very much like I was James Stewart and she was Kim Novak in Vertigo.

TM: You play a male nurse in the movie. I didn't get to see you in You Should Be So Lucky Off-Broadway some years ago, but I remember that some of the critics had trouble accepting you in a non-drag role. Do you think that might still be an issue?

CB: I'm sure there will be a number of people who would prefer this movie to be Die, Mommy, Die, but I don't think that I should ever stop trying to grow. I've no intention of giving up playing female characters -- that's a very important part of me -- but I must say that I've been doing much less drag as far as personal appearances go. Until recently, whenever I would show up at a benefit or an awards show, I was always in character. I think I was afraid that I wouldn't be funny otherwise. It's a challenge for me to play male characters, because I'm not used to it. That actress has worked continuously for 25 years but, except for Oz, that actor hasn't worked much at all.

TM: Tell me about PJ Verhoest, who plays the boy.

Polly Bergen and Charles Busch in A Very Serious Person
(Photo © Annabel Clark)
CB: He was in the ensemble of Oklahoma! and I think he was one of the Wednesday matinee boys in The Boy from Oz. He also did the national tour of Beauty and the Beast, and he was in The Rivals at Lincoln Center. He's been around! At first, I thought, "Oh God, I'm going to have to whisper in his ear 'We shot your dog' to get him to cry," but he's actually such a good actor that he made me kind of nervous. When I had to play this one big scene with him, I suddenly turned into Helen Lawson. Afterwards, I asked Carl, "Is that brat wiping the screen with me?" He said, "You're holding your own, but it's nip and tuck."

TM: What a cast you've assembled: Polly Bergen and Dana Ivey in the same movie...

CB: ...and Julie Halston and J. Smith-Cameron! I've got a lot of theater ladies working for nothing. We nearly murdered all four of them; for most of the filming, it was about 105 degrees with no air-conditioning, no trailers. They all got dressed in this one room in a basement in Rockaway, and they were remarkably good-natured about it. Originally, we wrote the story to take place on the Jersey shore; but there are so many incentives to shoot in New York City, and we wanted to take advantage of that.

TM: It sounds terrific.

CB: I thought it was really important to write something about a gay kid. There are too many people in the world who think that, at the age of 18, we all suddenly decide, "Hmm, wouldn't it be fun to be gay?" The movie is about a kid who by nature is very open to who he is, and about these adults who are doing their best to help him grow up in a wonderful way.

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