Die Mommie Die!

(2003) *** R
90 min. Sundance Film Series. Director: Mark Rucker. Cast: Charles Busch, Frances Conroy, Natasha Lyonne, Jason Priestley, Philip Baker Hall.

I'm not sure what accounts for the bizarre nexus this year of Girls Will Be Girls and Die Mommie Die!, two drag homages to washed-up, boozy, drug-addled Hollywood royalty and the back-stabbing such queens (wink, wink) inspire. Both films take inspiration from sixties schlock like The Big Cube (a Lana Turner vehicle which Die Mommie Die! directly quotes) and Sirkian 50s melodrama, as well as the mama of all faded-glory diva pictures, Sunset Boulevard. Though predicated on the same meta-gender joke as Girls Will Be Girls, Die Mommie Die! is classier and more rigorous in its parody and satire of Old Hollywood. I emphasize the relativity of "classier," since Die Mommie Die includes among its many ribald references a plus-sized, arsenic-laced suppository at which even a late-period Joan Crawford would blanch.

Writer and star Charles Busch channels Crawford and other movie divas in his portrayal of Angela Arden (apologies to Angela and Eve), a once-popular pop singer in the Doris Day mold. The opening credits accompany black-and-white footage of Busch lip-syncing a tune called "Why Not Me?", including the mirrors-within-mirrors lyric "Let me be who I am." Arden's husband is crusty message-picture producer Sol Sussman (Phillip Baker Hall), whose refrain is "Make it big, give it class, leave 'em with a message." This message is Busch's advice to first-time director Mark Rucker, who serves Busch's subtext that repression is hugely destructive, even as the film makes hay out of Busch's hidden-stiletto performance. Busch honed his drag act in the original stage production on which the mostly house-bound film is based.

Though I never laughed out loud at Die Mommie Die's major plays for guffaws, I was consistently amused by the stylistic ropery--which includes meticulously parodied picture-perfect costumes, purposefully cheesy photographic effects like a rear-projection car ride, and soft-focus closeups under starlet-prescribed light and shadow--as well as the double entendres and allusions to Tinseltown icons like Carol Lynley, Peter Lawford, and Donald O'Connor. Busch's straight-faced dialogue, in the arch style of its 50s forebears, drolly locates the confused allure and repulsion between the characters. Try this run on for size: "Who are you, Tony Parker? You've slipped into my life as easily as vermouth into a glass of gin. Quickly and a bit too smooth. Your life is a locked file cabinet of dark, ugly secrets." One climactic bit of scripting has the heroine rave, "This is a time for Angela Arden. This time, it's for me, for me, for me!"

Die Mommie Die! succeeds, barely, by virtue of its demented commitment to its low-budget approximation of its mid-20th century models (the film inevitably play as a younger sibling reaction to last year's Far From Heaven). The supporting cast--including a self-mocking Jason Priestly as a bisexual gigolo--takes big, gleeful bites out of the campy material, but this is Busch's show in every sense. His Arden is a substantial mock-tragic character, a Clytemnestra in disguise, or, should I say, in this guy?

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