One thing is certain. Charles Busch’s Hollywood Star-System-era, glamorama drag is fabulous. In Die Mommie Die!, the veteran performer channels Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in Angela Arden, equal parts steely reserve and “feminine” vulnerability. Angela’s costumes, designed by Michael Bottari and Ronald Case, evoke this duality, ranging from a natty cream-colored business suit to a silk shantung hostess dress. Above all, Busch’s performance makes clear that Angela is one dame you don’t want to mess with.
Die Mommie Die! references not only specific stars, but also classic “women’s” pictures like Now Voyager (1942), Imitation of Life (1959), and Sunset Boulevard (1950). The script (written by Busch, based on his stage play of the same name) pokes relentless fun at the conventions of the genre, the protocols of domesticity and the possibilities of women’s independence. Die! also pays tribute to Hitchcock, as the narrative is something of a murder and identity mystery.
Angela Arden is a former pop star who retired years ago, shortly after her twin sister Barbara (played in flashback by Busch) died under somewhat mysterious circumstances. As children, the twins were a singing sensation, with a hit song, “The Salt and Pepper Polka.” Angela was by far the more talented, and as the girls grew up, she continued in her career while Barbara fell into a life of working-class poverty. After her sister’s death, however, Angela just couldn’t hit the same notes.
In the film’s present, Angela (perpetually planning her comeback) lives in tony Beverly Hills with her dyspeptic movie mogul husband Sol Sussman (Philip Baker Hall). They have two children, Edith (Natasha Lyonne), who only has (inappropriate and incestuous) eyes for her daddy, and Lance (Stark Sands), a petulant momma’s boy who has just been kicked out of college for seducing the all-male faculty of the mathematics department. Add to the mix a busybody servant, Bootsie (Frances Conroy), and an opportunistic tennis-pro/gigolo, Tony Parker (Jason Priestly), and you have all the requisite elements for a dysfunctional family meltdown.
The disintegration of this outwardly “normal” family clarifies the film’s major problem, its excess. When Lance returns from college, he confesses his transgressions to Angela. She’s all motherly compassion and understanding. Gently prodding Lance with questions about his sexuality, she knowingly asks: “Lance, dear, are you a… “, she pauses and we expect “queer” or some other quaint euphemism with different resonance today. Angela, however, blurts out, “cocksucker?” The joke falls flat.
Similarly, Angela’s relationship to her husband is marked by such ho-hum over-the-top-ness. Sol is pissy all the time; his career is falling apart because audiences don’t like the “social message” films he makes, and Angela’s public shenanigans with Tony are an embarrassment, to say the least. In order to exert some control over at least one part of his life, Sol threatens to curtail her promiscuity by making Angela a prisoner in her own home. Not one to be tied down, Angela plots to murder Sol.
When he doesn’t drink the warm milk she has laced with arsenic, Angela is forced to improvise. Perpetually constipated, Sol has been ordered by his doctor to use anal suppositories. Aha! Clever Angela decides to use this as her arsenic delivery device. She soaks the dildo-sized suppository in the poisoned milk and proceeds to shove it up his ass. As the ongoing constipation “jokes” are annoying enough, we might have been spared this scene.
Here and throughout, the film’s verbal and visual insouciance refers to the repression and just-under-the-surface tensions of the 1940s and ’50s cinema Die! quotes. But for my money, the point would have been better made with less overt vulgarity. Repression, or more properly, censorship, was the point of these early films’ rectitude. Part of the pleasure of watching them for certain audiences then and today is precisely reading between the lines, decoding the barely hidden queer undercurrents. When these innuendoes are brought so clumsily to the surface, much of the fun is taken away. Die Mommie Die! is more irritating than it is offensive or even funny, and a bit surprising, since Busch worked this balance between excess and restraint in his far superior parody of ’60s beach blanket films, Psycho Beach Party (2000).
In the aftermath of the murder, questions arise and skeletons come out of closets: who is Tony Parker and why he is so calculatedly seducing Angel, Edith, and Lance? What information is he after? Why won’t Angela even speak about her departed sister? What really caused her death? And who is Angela Arden? The answer to that last question is the film’s great mystery, though the careful, or even just conscious, viewer will have figured it all out well before the last reel. The obviousness of all the mystery is Die Mommie Die!‘s second major failing.
Even for all this overkill and transparency, Die Mommie Die! is marginally successful in rethinking our past and present understanding of the genre called “women’s pictures” during the ’40s and ’50s. In this, the film seems to complement and extend the themes of Todd Haynes’s multiply Oscar-nominated Far From Heaven from last year. If Haynes’ film confronted us with the thinly veiled racism, sexism, class pretensions, and homophobia implicit within Sirkian melodramas, Die Mommie Die! demands we acknowledge the homoeroticism, camp, parody and queer pleasures simultaneously available within those same films.