For those who grow nostalgic over the hard-shell/big-hearted glamour of old Hollywood, directors John Catania and Charles Ignacio offer up Charles Busch — grande dame of drag and the subject of “The Lady in Question is Charles Busch.” An affectionate, energetic documentary, it targets the existing fans of Busch’s Broadway and off-Broadway exploits, but is likely to win a lot of converts, too — largely through Busch’s endearing personality.
Told in a talking head-meets-flashback style, replete with yards of fabric and footage, “The Lady in Question” (the title of a Busch off-Broadway show) rolls out in the same way as many of Busch’s favorite old movies — particularly “Auntie Mame.” Having lost his mother at age 7, Busch was rescued by his aunt, Lilian Blum, who shanghaied him from the suburbs to Manhattan and exposed young Charles to the kinds of art (and artifice) that has informed his work from his salad days in East Village hellholes to his two-year Broadway run with “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife.”
Some of Busch’s early collaborators are missing from the film, largely because of the AIDS plague, which claimed so many among the gay, artistic community of New York during the late ’80s — when the film gets to this period, the mood understandably shifts, and the early energy ebbs.
But others are around to sing Busch’s praises, including longtime partner Eric Myers, longtime ingenue Julie Halston and various observers of the New York stage scene.
The film is rich in archival footage of Busch’s earliest attempts to carve out his niche, including film from the original “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom,” for instance, which began as a lark and became an East Village institution. This was followed by “Theodora, She-Bitch of Byzantium” and other efforts at cross-dressing insanity, followed by glossier production of Busch work (and eventually, films) such as “The Lady in Question,” “Red Scare on Sunset,” “Psycho Beach Party” and “Die Mommie Die.”
The real engine of the movie, of course, is Busch’s stage persona, which may alter a bit from role to role but always maintains the brassiness of Eve Arden and the clueless bravada of Norma Shearer. (If there were a template Busch movie, it would be “The Women.”)
Busch is a New York institution, and “The Lady in Question” is a worthy and entertaining tribute.