by Marty Demarest

I finally discovered what television is good for: Die Mommie Die! which was produced by the Sundance Channel, a cable channel that runs independent movies. For some reason, they had the good sense to fund the work of Charles Busch, a drag performer who is best known for his campy plays. Busch's work has already been translated to the screen once, in the giggly sex-surfer flick Psycho Beach Party. But given the freedom of independent filmmaking, Busch decided to create a full-scale motion picture about other movies.

The list of cinematic references in Die Mommie Die! will keep film geeks delighted for weeks. The plot is derived from the Greek play Agamemnon, but the setting in this instance is 1960s Hollywood. Instead of a queen, there is a drag queen, Busch, as the fading singing sensation Angela Arden. With her career on the decline, her age showing and her family disintegrating, she lashes out in a psychotic, murderous frenzy. Most notably in the supporting cast, Jason Priestly puts his 90210 soap-opera training to good use, and doesn't blink as he beds every member of Arden's Hollywood home.

This is the stuff of Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. Busch's Arden is a film-festival's worth of heroines from 1940s noir films to hallucinogenic thrillers of the early 1970s. He flits in and out of spotlights, wearing a different hairstyle in every scene, swinging his emotions from Judy Garland innocence to hamster-squeezing hatred. Watching Busch's screen tests (included on the DVD), it's possible to see his creative process as he works with the lighting, masking parts of his face in shadow to accent his expression. It's that form of low tech known as talent, and it's more expressive than anything in Shrek 2.

The fact that Die Mommie Die! is a drag show might turn off some viewers. But all movies, with their adult dress-up and heightened escapism, are drag shows too. The strengths of cinema and the strengths of drag are in the same place: on the surface. In Die Mommie Die! Busch has mined that veneer for all the gold and rhinestones he can find, and blended them together like a modern jazz virtuoso riffing on a classic. In this case, the result is a contribution to that other great American performing art form, the Hollywood Motion Picture, courtesy of a television channel.

Publication date: 07/29/04

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