The International Writers Magazine: DVD Review

Die Mommie Die!
Directed by Mark Rucker
Charles Busch - screenplay

Dan Schneider

hy is it that the most banal and straightforward films get lauded by the Motion Picture Academy, while films that push boundaries and take risks, especially if comedies, get ignored? And why is it that there is no separate category for comedies and musicals for the Oscars?

In watching the DVD of the 2003 Sundance channel film Die Mommie Die! I could not help but have these thoughts. It’s a truly brilliant film, with an Oscar caliber performance by Charles Busch, playing a Joan Crawford/Susan Hayward/Gloria Swanson/Bette Davis/Doris day-like hybrid character in a spoof of the Grand Dame Guignol classic films of the 1960s that inspired such 1980s television soap operas as Dynasty and Dallas. What makes it so brilliant, aside from the dominant performance by Busch, is that it works both as camp, in the vein of the films it parodies, and also as a lampoon or satire of camp. Achieving excellence in one of these veins is difficult enough, but to go two for two in the same film is damned near miraculous. And given that the Grand Dame Guignol genre is so campy to begin with, it’s even harder to achieve than in parodying other stock forms, such as science fiction, in the recent The Lost Skeleton Of Cadavra, itself a terrific spoof of 1950s sci-fi, but far easier to pull off than this film’s aims were. The moments that are the most memorable, and which make this film soar, are the not quite sure if one should laugh moments, because there is a sense that there is genuine emotion being felt by the ridiculous characters within. This is brilliance, and it all goes back to a terrific screenplay written by Busch, a renowned drag queen, who adapted the screenplay from a late 1990s one man show. Busch, in a red wig, also looks remarkably like Eve Arden, and although it’s been years since I saw 1960s sitcom The Mothers-In-Law, which starred Arden and Kaye Ballard, I’m sure that Busch loaded a few sly references to the actress upon whom both the name and look of his character is derived.

The basic premise of the film is that Busch is washed up actress/singer Angela Arden, in a loveless marriage, who takes on many lovers. Her twin sister Barbara died years earlier, her movie producer husband, Sol Sussman (Philip Baker Hall), is failing in health and business and manipulates their maid Bootsy (Frances Conroy), who is in love with him, her daughter Edith (Natasha Lyonne) is a bitch who hates her, and her son Lance (Stark Sands) is a mentally unbalanced homosexual. Add in Lothario tennis pro Tony Parker (Jason Priestley), who also wickedly savages his own tv soap opera persona, and the makings of a fun film abound. He also seems to be channeling a poor man’s Peter Lawford in his brim hat, tennis shorts and penny loafers.

There are numerous greatly funny sex scenes, such as where Edith and her daddy seem to be doing an incestuous song and dance on his bed, or when Angela is caught fellating one muscular moving man as another is doggying her from behind. Yet, that’s nothing to the murder scene, where Angela laces Sol’s enema with arsenic, then rams him up the ass with it. The kids, and Tony (who, aside from being Angela’s lover, also trysts with Lance and Edith), believe Angela’s murdered Sol, but they cannot prove it. By the end of the film, though, everything unravels, after the kids lace Angela’s teas with LSD, to get her to confess the murder, and people we think are one way turn out to be really another, and ‘Angela’ is hauled off to jail, in a moment that evokes the cheesiest moments in Sunset Boulevard. Other classics that are spoofed are What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?, Mommie Dearest, Valley Of The Dolls, Trog, and Hush, Hush….Sweet Charlotte.

First time director Mark Rucker does well to evince the sort of acting that is broad, yet not quite over the top, and is necessary to sell the film as both homage and spoof, such as the lip synched musical number, performed by Angela, Why Not Me? Yet, the film, in its camp, subtly poses some real questions about love, sexuality, and mores, in its juxtaposition of the film’s era of the pre-Woodstock 1960s’ rejection of introspection with that of our own wink and nod superior attitudes toward them. In that sense, it also says alot more, and with more intellectual honesty, about the gay subculture than such PC tearjerkers like Brokeback Mountain ever will. Die Mommie Die! is more than a gay sex romp, as Busch respects this film’s targets too much to let it be just that. Yet, it is loaded with a bevy of memorable quotes that walk that fine edge between camp and melodramatic seriousness. Angela tells Tony, ‘You slipped into my life as easily as vermouth into a glass of gin;’ Sol tells Angela, ‘I own you just like I own every toilet in this house;’ Lance tells Angela about his homosexual sex scandal at college, by saying his professors, ‘found me spun around nude on a Lazy Susan, Angela then asks Lance, ‘Are you a cocksucker?’, and Edith pleads to Tony, ‘I’ve got money now. Stocks, bonds, and a supermarket in West Covina.’

 The DVD has many extras: a solid audio commentary with Busch, Priestley and Rucker; an Anatomy Of A Scene featurette; a deleted scene; two music videos of Why Not Me?, trailers, screen tests, a director’s introduction, poster slides, costume slides, and PDFs of cast biographies and production notes.
This is a film that never, in a billion years, would get nominated for an Oscar, the way Brokeback Mountain has, but it represents everything artistically that Brokeback Mountain is bankrupt of- originality, daring, humor, humility, and terrific writing. The same sad fact of neglect also unfortunately applies to Busch’s great performance. There will come a time, though, when injustices like this even out, and when film lovers who are speaking of this film draw a blank when Brokeback Mountain is mentioned. Let’s hope that we’re all alive and kicking when that day comes.

© Dan Schneider, June 2006

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