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Charles Busch on Bruno, homophobia, gay film, and how he researches his drag-queen diva roles

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Charles Busch, best-known as the gay drag-queen diva creator and star of such camp favorites as “Psycho Beach Party,” recently went to see “Bruno,” the movie about a gay Austrian fashionista created by and starring Sacha Baron Cohen, whom Roger Ebert felt should get a “Knighthood of Bad Taste” and Ben Child in the Guardian called “hugely patronising…of gay culture” — and Ebert and Child liked the film. Other critics did not, thinking it (as did the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) homophobic.
Anthony Lane in The New Yorker: “’Bruno’ feels hopelessly complicit in the prejudices that it presumes to deride.”
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A.O. Scott in The New York Times: ”The film demonstrates, at a fairly high level of conceptual sophistication, that lampooning homophobia has become an acceptable, almost unavoidable form of homophobic humor, or at least a way of licensing gags that would otherwise be out of bounds. An early sequence that graphically shows Brüno and his lover exerting themselves in various positions and with the assistance of, among other things, a Champagne bottle, a fire extinguisher and a specially modified exercise machine, derives its humor less from the extremity of their practices than from the assumption that sex between men is inherently weird, gross and comical. The same sequence with a man and a woman — or for that matter, two women — would play, most likely on the Internet rather than in the multiplex, as inventive, moderately kinky pornography rather than as icky, gasp-inducing farce.”
Steven Rea in The Philadelphia Inquirer: “Cohen’s no-holds-barred comedy featuring a super-swishy, super-idiotic celebrity wannabe and his outrageous ramblings around America, Europe, and the Middle East, isn’t just homophobic. It’s people-phobic. Misanthropic. The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation should not feel alone.”
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So what did Charles Busch think of the movie, and of Sacha Baron Cohen?

“I loved Bruno,” Busch says. And Baron Cohen? “I think he’s a crazy genius. I totally got the point of satire. I love that he skewers homophobia by being such an outrageous, stereotypical queen that his targets can’t hide behind any mask of acceptance. I really wish I could meet him and tell him I think he’s fantastic.”

It’s a mind-bending situation – the mainstream critics calling the movie homophobic, the gay celebrity defending it – until you realize that Busch has made a career of outrageousness himself.

Busch is most celebrated for his plays – he had long-running success Off-Broadway with the cult favorite “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom” and he was the playwright of the hit Broadway show “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife” – but it is his campy movie spoofs (he prefers to call them homages) that made him more widely known. He recently introduced his film “Die, Mommie, Die”, his take on the “Grand Dame Guignol” movies of the 1960’s (like “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane” with Bette Davis and Joan Crawford), at a new gay film series in Jersey City. Future offerings in the summer series include a horror film, a documentary, and a sci-fi film…which begs the question: What exactly is a gay film?

“It can be a movie by a gay filmmaker, even if not on a gay subject,” Busch explained back in his elegant duplex condo in the West Village. “It could be a movie about gay people or a gay subject. Or it can be a movie that appeals to a gay audience, like ‘Valley of the Dolls.’” Busch is quick to add “I know very straight men who love Broadway musicals and gay men who hate Judy Garland.” But “if there is a gay sensibility, I had it” from an early age: He was maybe six years old when he was dumbstruck with a revelation while watching Judy Garland on her television show. “When I realized that the neurasthenic lady was Dorothy grown up, I was hooked.”

Why the fascination with old movies? Busch has a sociological and a personal explanation. “In the past, there were no positive images. Gay people had to read a gay subtext into, say, a vampire movie. I loved noble, suffering women who were indominitable, the kind of roles that Norma Shearer played.

“I got my main film education between the ages of 8 and 13. There were so many movies on TV then – there was The 4:30 Movie and the Million Dollar Movie and The Late Show. I could watch around the clock. I’m sometimes asked about something I’ve written, ‘did you do a lot of research?’ I say, I did my research between the ages of 8 and 13.”

Charles Busch at home in the West Village. Photograph by Jonathan Mandell.
Charles Busch at home in the West Village. Photograph by Jonathan Mandell.