The lady in question is not Charles Busch
I got the assignment from my editor: talk to one of the biggest drag stars ever, Charles Busch.
You remember Busch: the megastar who arrived from Broadway with a bevy of accolades and awards already under his skirt. He made a string of successful films before stepping out of the spotlight in 2003 for mysterious reasons.
Now I was in the enviable position of speaking with one of the greatest of them all, the Gloria Swanson of drag. I imagined a rundown palazzo on Sunset, Busch descending a great staircase in full Angela Arden drag, a dead chimp in his arms.
Of course, I’ve probably just seen Busch’s masterpiece Die, Mommie, Die far too many times. What I actually got was an interview with a down-to-earth regular guy with a passion for old movies that also just happened to have written some of the most successful plays on Broadway since he started his Theatre in Limbo in the late seventies.
And now, after a three-year absence from the screen, he has launched his comeback — or rather, his “return” — in the heartwarming A Very Serious Person, his directorial debut. But it’s not his deft direction that has raised the arched eyebrows of the country: for the first time ever, Busch will be out-of-drag as the male nurse Jan.
Jan is at once one of Busch’s most memorable characters, part Mary Poppins, part Nurse Ratched and part Harriet Craig.
Jan has been assigned to an aging Mrs. A, played by the incomparable Polly Bergen. But the real star of the film is Mrs. A’s grandson Gil, brilliantly brought to life by P. J. Verhoest. Gil has been visiting his grandmother every summer for as long as he can remember, putting on plays and watching old movies, and the two of them are very close, more like best friends or siblings than grandmother and grandson. But this summer there is a dark cloud over the home Mrs. A shares with her assistant Betty (Dana Ivey – the Thelma Ritter of our times!)
Mrs. A is dying, and not expected to survive the summer. After a string on unsuccessful nurses, Jan arrives and throws the house into a tizzy with his unconventional methods of care. Mrs. A responds almost immediately and shows improvement, which convinces Gil and Betty to warm to the cold strange man from Denmark.
The plot sounds a bit familiar, and it’s quick to see why. Gil and Mrs. A’s story could almost be that of Charles Busch and his aunt Lillian Blum. Busch’s mother passed away when he was very young, and a troubled Busch was sent at twelve to live with Aunt Lillian in New York City and attend the High School of Music and Art. Her guiding hand turned his life around and became a source of strength and inspiration to the talented young man.
“She was Auntie Mame meets the Miracle Worker,” Busch says from his apartment in New York, where he is busy with the new production of his hit 1988 play The Lady in Question, a send-up of 40s patriotic film noir like Notorious.
“In this film, I wanted to explore how parental figures give themselves the impossible task of trying to create a young person free of emotional baggage. No matter how hard they try, their own complexities intrude on their best intentions. One can only hope the child will find his own strength and will ultimately forgive.”
Mrs. A and Jan both witness their own influence on Gil as the movie progresses and wonder if he is ready for life after Mrs. A’s passing. The parentless Gil is apprehensive about his distant cousins, who await his arrival in Florida.
However, to say that Busch is sans drag in the film is a bit of a misnomer. Jan is a sort of drag character. The Danish nurse will surprise fans of Mr. Busch’s over-the-top characters, but it only speaks to the actor’s brilliance that he is able to pull off both character types with such finesse. Busch uses an accent and minimalist emotional range to convey Jan’s withdrawn life, having been a caretaker practically his entire life.
There’s also one other scene that Busch’s drag roots start to show. Gil, anxious with the inevitability of Mrs. A’s passing, decides to put on a production for her, and casts the reserved Jan as his underwater princess. It’s a nod to Sunset Boulevard in a way as Jan descends the staircase in full marine regalia, like an aquatic Norma Desmond.
I asked Busch what it was that motivated him to continuously send-up and at the same time celebrate classic movies and themes.
“I have always had a fondness for the time period between the 20s and the 60s – especially in movies,” he said.
In fact, it was movies that originally comforted a young Charles when he lost his mother. When reality had become too much for him to bear, he retreated into a world of black and white celluloid melodrama.
“I do love old movies,” notes Busch. “I tend to watch the same ones over and over. I do love TCM, but they aren't scheduling as many rare old films as they used to. [Some of my favorites are] Marie Antoinette with Norma Shearer, Waterloo Bridge with Vivien Leigh, I Could Go On Singing with Judy Garland, The Hard Way with Ida Lupino, Random Harvest with Greer Garson and Ronald Coleman, I'm No Angel with Mae West and a zillion others.”
His research has certainly paid off. His writing is full of his reverence, the true emotion and unintentional hilarity of the classic actresses. Maybe that’s why Busch is the only modern day “actress” that can pull off the camp appeal but still provide a moving and nuanced performance.
Of course, A Very Serious Person works largely without the glamor and the melodrama of the majority of Busch’s work. This is due in part to all of the main actors, each of which give a heartfelt and sincere performance that makes the story sweet without being sappy, heart-wrenching while still hilarious. But it’s Busch and Carl Andress’ writing, and Busch’s expert direction that make the movie an instant classic.
A Very Serious Person is currently available on DVD. It is available for both purchase and for rent at OutLoud! Books and Gifts, located at 1703 Church Street. You can also find it at many other retailers and online.