Close Encounters of the Celebrity Kind...
The Lady in Question is MOST Definitely Charles Busch
EXPANDED EDITION from the 5-31-05 issue of Windy City Times
by Richard Knight, Jr.
The man himself, Charles Busch and (L-R clockwise from top) expressing his feminine side in The Lady in Question, a publicity
shot for his reunion show with close friend Julie Halston, caught in a menage a trois during Die! Mommie Die! and with partner,
author and publicist Eric Meyers
When Charles Busch and the other members of his fringe theatre company, Theater in Limbo, got a booking for his new play,
“Vampire Lesbians of Sodom” at the Limbo Lounge in New York’s East Village back in 1984 they decided to videotape it. “We were
all best friends,” Busch recalls, “and we thought it would be fun to watch ourselves on TV. It was supposed to be for the weekend
and it wasn’t like I was going to be a female impersonator or anything.” But as many avid theatergoers know, the play in which
Busch played the blood sucking succubus and major diva in drag among other characters, was a huge hit and began the long
succession of projects for the openly gay actor and playwright. Most of these have found Busch playing the lead role in drag –
usually in homage to one of his beloved Hollywood icons.
Over 20 years later, Busch has conquered Broadway via his rousing play “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife”, Hollywood with starring
roles in film adaptations of his parody plays – most notably in Die! Mommie Die!, TV with his recurring character on HBO’s “Oz” series,
and the literary world with his hilarious camp novel, “Whores of Atlantis.” Now the prolific Busch stars in his own life story, The Lady In
Question is Charles Busch, a new documentary by Jack Catania and Charles Ignacio that features a compelling and inspirational
portrait of Busch both in and out of drag (thanks to those old videotapes).
The film is having its Chicago premiere at a one night only screening this Friday, June 2nd at 7pm at Film Row Cinema at Columbia
College (1104 S. Wabash Avenue). A reception honoring Busch and the directors follows the screening. The evening, a benefit for
Chicago Filmmakers and Reeling, celebrates the 25th anniversary of the annual gay and lesbian film festival. Tickets are $75 and
available online at www.reelingfilmfestival.org or by calling 773-293-1447.
Highlights from our recent conversation:
WCT: First I just want to tell you that it’s an honor to talk to you. You have been a personal hero of mine for a very long time.
CB: Oh, how sweet of you. Have you seen the documentary yet?
WCT: I have and I must tell that it “spoke to me” for I, too, was a lonely little boy engulfed in movies growing up in…Nebraska of
CB: Oh dear.
CB: Well I think it came out terrific. The night before it opened in New York I was talking to my dear friend Julie Halston who’s in
the movie so much and I said, “I’m kind of nervous. It’s not my movie but it is sort of my movie” and she said, “What can you be
nervous about?” and I said, “Well, you know, somebody could say, ‘Who does Charles Busch think he is?’ and ‘Why should we give a
damn about his life?’ and ‘Who the hell is he and who cares what his fag moll friend Julie Halston has got to say about him?’ and
she said, “Oh yeah, you’re right – now I am scared.” So we were very lucky that it got some very good reviews and nobody said my
worst fear which is that I wasn’t worthy of such examination.
WCT: Actually, that was my first question…
CB: Do I think I’m worthy of examination? (laughs)
WCT: (laughs) Yes! How dare you!
CB: Who does Charles Busch think he is?
WCT: (laughing) Who do you think you are!? Seriously, after you saw the film it must have been very validating.
CB: It was very emotional. The filmmakers shut me out after they’d been stalking me for four years.
WCT: Wait, go back, how did the film happen?
CB: Jack Catania and Charles Ignacio for ten years were producers for the PBS series, “In the Life” and over the years I’d done a
number of stories with them and we always hit it off well and after they left “In the Life” they came over one day and said they
wanted to do a feature length documentary and they thought I would be an interesting subject. I don’t know, unless you’re a serial
killer, who wouldn’t it? Maybe that just shows my narcissism but I said, “Wow, okay, cool” because chances are I’m not going to get
an Intimate Portrait or E channel life story anytime soon. They started it I think in 2000. Our first day of shooting was the opening
night of “Allergist’s Wife” so that would be 2000 and they just kept hanging around (laughs).
WCT: How was it seeing the finished movie the first time?
CB: I really didn’t see it until the opening night at the Tribeca Film Festival with 800 other people. It was very emotional seeing my
life pass before my eyes and at the same time the cold eye of professionalism was also working and thinking, “Oh gee, it’s
interesting how they pulled that off.” But the most intense thing for my sister and I was seeing our mother because she died when I
was 7 and my sister was 11 and she’s just a very mysterious figure, a sort of ghost in our lives. It’s all such a mystery how she
would have been and seeing her picture on this huge screen was really intense for us.
WCT: I would think so. One thing I didn’t see and I wonder if you want to talk about this – your father kind of disappears from the
movie after an early appearance.
CB: (laughs) Yeah, and he disappeared from my life as well. My mother’s sister really stepped up to the plate and adopted me
legally and I went to live with her. My aunt was extraordinarily wise and almost always right except that, due to her own fears and
insecurity, she felt somehow very threatened by my father and she had no reason to at all. My devotion to her and gratitude toward
her and affection toward her was so profound and yet it was never quite enough for her and so she really tried to turn me against my
father. And that was her one mistake. My father demanded so little and was so grateful for that I turned him off to sort of appease
the situation. Fortunately, in his last years I was able to somehow try to be closer to him. He was kind of like a gay guy in a way –
except for the fact that he liked fucking stewardesses –
WCT: (laughs) – except for that one little thing!
CB: Other than that he was totally gay. He loved opera and old movies and it wasn’t like he was into westerns. He loved Bette
Davis and Joan Crawford. He didn’t particularly care that I wasn’t athletic and was totally accepting.
WCT: There is a very serendipitous quality it seems to your life that you just keep moving forward with the things that you love and
all these wonderful things seem to happen.
CB: It does seem like everyone’s life is a wonderful story if you look at it that way. I see everything as narrative, really and
whenever I meet somebody I see their story but I do think mine is particularly gothic (laughs). Not gothic but so many things seem
to happen to me – awful and wonderful and I seem to get saved in the nick of time always. My life has been such a series of
miracles and things happening at just the moment when I needed them to.
WCT: I grew up with Judy and Bette and Joan but I sense when I talk to my young gay friends that this next generation isn’t quite
so into these gay icons. What’s your take on that? Are they still important to us?
CB: You know I have a theory about that because lately I’ve made friends with some young people who are totally into this. I have
a 19 year-old friend and a 24 year-old who are as knowledgeable about these people as we are. My feeling is that the majority of
gay people were never into these people. In the 70s most of the queens were into Donna Summer and all the disco stuff but they
weren’t that into the past. It’s always been a smaller group. I would think that in the 30s there were people into the young Bette
Davis and Katharine Hepburn but a couple of queens were really into Theda Bara or whoever was the camp figure from 30 years
before that. It’s always been more of a minority that’s been into this sort of thing. Today with TCM on 24 hours and Netflix and the
internet, if a young gay boy has any interest at all in the past it’s so available. I think it’s going to go on and on and on, my dear –
nothing to fear!
WCT: I think I just got the Bette Davis boxed set today, the new one? Didn’t I see you interviewed for that new documentary about
CB: Yeah but very little. I was so glad they didn’t use much of me because I was so painted up I look like a mime.
WCT: (laughs) I thought you were!
CB: I’ve got so much eyeliner I look like Elizabeth Taylor in Ash Wednesday. I didn’t look that painted up in the makeup room.
WCT: I must tell that when I saw it I thought, “Who the hell does that Charles Busch think she is?!”
CB: (worried) Did you really?
WCT: No, of course not. Honestly, I didn’t even notice it. I had the opposite reaction, I love all your comments in the Joan
Crawford boxed set as well.
CB: Yes, now I have this odd new career as film pundit.
WCT: It’s wonderful to have that knowledge and to put it to work. My mother saying, “If only you could get paid for everything you
know about old movies” is still ringing in my ears.
CB: Yeah, it is but what are my credentials -- nothing.
WCT: Well what are anybody’s? You’ve studied these films.
CB: I never studied film. I’ve just watched a lot of movies and read a lot of books. But I’ve been doing the commentary tracks on
these and I did the new Baby Jane DVD with Lypsinka and we had so much fun. He’s very smart.
WCT: Didn’t you two do a show together?
CB: We did The Women one night and Stage Door once and Caged – kind of one night events. We’re not really in the same style so it
would be hard for us to do something together. We have sort of a friendly competition and when we get together we always have
such a good time doing these commentaries. Actually, it was funny that Warner Bros. had contacted us and said that they were
doing this Davis-Crawford set and they asked me to pick five movies I wanted to do commentary tracks on so I picked five including
Baby Jane and we did the first one and I was ready to do the second one so I emailed the producer after she wrote “Oh you guys
were so marvelous, so good” and said, “Ready for The Damned Don’t Cry, the second one?” and then there was one of those “Well,
we're rethinking the whole thing” and we kept waiting and waiting and Lypsinka was asking, “When?” and finally I said, “Honey, they
fucked us once and they want two different whores for the next one.”
WCT: Well maybe when they do the next Crawford one. Oh, I hope they bring out A Woman’s Face.
CB: That’s not on DVD yet?
WCT: No! It’s one of my favorites.
CB: Mine too. It’s wonderful. As part of the Joan Crawford reclamation project that’s one of the movies that I keep sort of trying to
offer as proof that she could act.
WCT: Absolutely. Can you talk a little bit about A Very Serious Person which is a different kind of project for you? You wrote, star
and directed this movie. It sounds like a real departure for you.
CB: We haven’t really put it out on the festival circuit yet but yeah, this movie I’m so proud of it. It’s really where I’m going. My
friend Karl Andress co-wrote it together and it was my first real directing job. I did a short subject for Showtime a couple of years
ago. It’s emotionally autobiographical. Polly Bergen plays a lady very much like my aunt raising her 13 year-old grandson and
she's terminally ill and I play this rather austere Scandinavian male nurse who comes to take care of her and I become a reluctant
mentor to this gay 13 year-old. I’m very pleased with it. It premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival a couple of weeks ago and won
CB: We’re looking for a distributor and hopefully we’ll find one. It’s basically a dramatic film and I was thrilled at the screenings
that we got a lot of laughs in the same places but a lot of sniffles, too. I adored hearing that.
WCT: Jerk those tears.
CB: I hope everybody gets to see it.
WCT: Let’s talk about what’s bringing you to town.
CB: It’s a benefit I believe. I’m terrible. I never ask enough questions. You know one of these days I’m going to show up at the
benefit for the American Nazi Party.
WCT: “Oh no Charles, didn’t we tell you? It’s a surprise party for Mary Cheney’s birthday?”
CB: I sort of get the gist – everything with me is “the gist.”
WCT: Last question, what’s next for you?
CB: Well I have a new play that Manhattan Theatre Club is going to produce in December. It’s a play that I’ve been working on for
so long I can’t remember when I wasn’t working on this thing. It’s called “Our Leading Lady” and it’s based on episodes in the life of
this 19th century stage actress Laura Kean who was onstage the night Lincoln was shot. It’s a backstage comedy/drama about a
theatrical troupe who are performing in Ford’s Theatre and sort of collide into history.
WCT: Will you be appearing in the play, Charles?
CB: I hope not. I’m looking for an actress with a vagina.
CB: And if we cannot find her, if called, I will serve but I do prefer a wonderful actress who has a vagina.
WCT: That can do a monologue at the same time.
CB: Yes, must have a vagina and also be able to act.
WCT: A talking pussy – I’m sorry.
CB: You don’t have to act with your vagina but you have to have one.