Film

Bianca Del Rio Discusses the Enduring Appeal of Rosalind Russell and “Auntie Mame”

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At two hours and twenty-three minutes, Auntie Mame (1958) is a long, lavish, big-budget Warner Bros. comedy, shot in glorious Technicolor. Morton DaCosta, the director of the stage production on which the movie was based, provides merely serviceable filmmaking in his screen adaptation, but he knows enough to get out of the way — the better to showcase the candy-colored set designs, delicious costumes, and exuberant ensemble, of which Rosalind Russell’s late-career performance, as Auntie Mame Dennis, is the standout. It’s the Russell turn that helped catapult the character into a twentieth-century pop-culture icon.

Auntie Mame peers into the lives of the eccentric Mame and her newly orphaned nephew, Patrick (Jan Handzlik when young; Roger Smith when older). The crux of the drama revolves around Patrick’s upbringing; he gradually grows into a strapping young lad under the influence of Mame’s inviting, inclusive principles at her chic 3 Beekman Place apartment (where the film principally takes place), often the site of gala parties. Checking in on flighty Mame and her friends is Babcock (Fred Clark) — Dickensian banker and overseer of the Dennis fortune — and his ilk (like a girlfriend who tolerates his interest in foreign films), who exert their exclusionary, conservative values on Patrick. In that budding youngster and the opposing political forces arraying him, Auntie Mame locates a culture clash and a critique of the WASP–y way of life.

It’s a little surprising that a film that essentially says, “It’s OK to be different” — or, in Mame’s own words, “Live, live, live!” — was so popular, particularly in the conformist Fifties. Auntie Mame was first brought to life in the 1955 bestseller of the same name by Patrick Dennis (née Edward Everett Tanner III), who carried on a double life as a husband with two kids and a gay man who cruised Greenwich Village at night. The story then went to Broadway in 1956, and Russell played the star role for two years. Later, Angela Lansbury and Bea Arthur received top billing in the 1966 Broadway version, which was then adapted into a 1974 film, Mame, with Lucille Ball as the aunt — the one bum version of the story.

Today, the 1958 Auntie Mame is a beloved and canonical film for generations of gays, perhaps owing to its encouraging message of being yourself within a surrogate family made up of different, yet loving, people. Mame plays this Saturday at Metrograph as a part of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ year-long residency at the repertory theater; Bianca Del Rio, insult comic and the season six winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race (2009­–), will introduce the 7 p.m. screening. Ahead of the event, the Voice spoke with Bianca over the phone about her favorite film and its enduring reputation.

When did you first see Auntie Mame?

Oh, gosh, I think I was sixteen or seventeen when I first saw it. A friend of mine recommended it to me, an actress in New Orleans by the name of Becky Allen. She’s a local celebrity and we became good friends over the years — still to this day — and at one point we were roommates. She was a lot like my Auntie Mame in general — I didn’t lose my parents, but [the friendship] introduced me to the world of theater. Of the several movies that I watched, that was the one that was my absolute favorite. I fell in love with it right away. Auntie Mame always. Lucy was fine [in the 1974 version]. The costumes are pretty in Lucy’s; they’re by Theadora Van Runkle. But I do without a doubt love the original Auntie Mame, with the Orry-Kelly costumes and Rosalind Russell.

How many times have you seen it since?

I watch it at least two or three times a year, especially with my travel schedule — it’s kind of wild. I have it on my computer and it’s one of those things that’s a great kind of take-your-mind-off-things-and-go-into-la-la-land. There’s always something new that I find in it.

What makes it special for you?

I think it’s such a heartwarming story without being too sappy and, for a gay man, it definitely [captures] a lot of our lives in a nutshell. I don’t know if that was the intention then, but I think gay men can relate to that. And it’s just so glorious to look at. The set and the costumes are absolutely genius. But it’s not too preachy, and it’s done in a funny way. You’ve got these beautiful, little tender moments, but then it goes back to complete comedic mayhem. I think it’s lovely on every level.

Do you channel a little bit of Mame when you’re onstage?

Probably I’m more of a Vera [Mame’s actress friend] in real life. You know, the drunk who just gets in a good line here and there. I love the glamour of Mame. I don’t know if I’m ready to have a child — I do have two dogs — but I think it would be very similar to my life. Truly in my heart, I’m definitely more of a Vera. Legitimately. But I think most drag queens do relate to [Mame]. She just possesses that style, and her comedic timing is the best. I would hope to be as fabulous as Rosalind Russell was, but I definitely think that most gay men can relate [to her]. She’s just fabulous, in every way.

In an interview, I read that you’re an avid reader, and I was wondering if you read Patrick Dennis’s novel?

Yes, and I also read — there’s another one — But Darling, I’m Your Auntie Mame! [by Richard Tyler Jordan]. It’s a behind-the-scenes book that gives you insight into what was going on inside Dennis’s head. Dennis also wrote Little Me, which is another favorite of mine. But the Mame book was obviously a little more complex and a lot longer [than the movie]. This other I’m Your Auntie Mame book is the juicy backstage gossip.

And Patrick Dennis originally had Rosalind Russell in mind.

It’s so crazy! Did you know, in I’m Your Auntie Mame, it talks about how Lucy wanted to play it then [in ’58], and that’s all she wanted. She was tired of television, and there was this big deal about her wanting to play it then, so she insisted on playing it, which, of course, didn’t happen for another sixteen years after, even though she was a little long in the tooth. They didn’t bother to film the musical with Angela Lansbury because she wasn’t a big enough star. Isn’t that insane. Angela. Lansbury. Are you kidding me?

Do you have a favorite scene or a favorite costume or dress from the movie?

Oh god, there are so many. One of my favorite outfits is at the very end, the Indian-inspired one, with her grandson — well, grandnephew, I would assume. It’s a very short one when she’s got the silver hair. But my favorite setup is the blue with the silver fox fur, when [Mame has] got the hat on while she’s out shopping during the Depression, and she takes that hat off and her hair is perfectly coifed. You know there’s some queen that was sitting there going, “Oh, no!” Cut straight to her, she’s wearing her clothes and feathers, and then all of a sudden, “Bloop!” There it goes.

But there’s so many scenes that I love. Anything with Mother Burnside makes me cackle. Also, when Mame’s doing Midsummer Madness with Vera. “What the hell have you got back there? Reindeer?” I love that line. Another favorite outfit is in the opening with Mame’s pajamas, evening black with the orange coat. There’s just something about that that I love. Those color choices; it’s the brightest thing. When you look at that scene, you can’t take your eyes off of her out of everybody in that entire apartment. And the apartment, really, I mean, come on!

The apartment is great.

I would live in Beekman Place!

Color coordination and everything. The violets —

Oh, beautiful! It’s like a gay man’s dream. That’s how I feel. You dress according to your home. But there’s so many scenes that I love. Russell is brilliant in everything, and it’s rare that you can say that about anybody. There are a few films that you watch and go, “That’s a star turn completely.” I think a lot of that had to do with the fact that Russell had done the Broadway show, so she knew where to go with it. She handled it beautifully. Here was one of those few times that someone who originated a role on Broadway was actually playing the role in the film. I think at that time — that was pre–Streisand and Funny Girl, which even then was a big chance, too. Here is a major film being made with theatrical talent.

It probably helped that she had previous film experience too.

Oh, she knows her angles, honey.

Is there anything else specifically that you think makes Auntie Mame an enduring and endearing movie?

As I was saying, it has something to do with the fact that here is someone who probably didn’t plan on having children and then was faced with this choice, and then her life changed and she jumped at the challenge and did the right thing. And then, when Babcock and everyone else is saying, “No, it has to be done this way,” she still did it her way, and it turned out wonderful. So I definitely think there is — Patrick Dennis obviously understood, or was foreshadowing, gay life and how it is, and how Norah and Ito become family, and Vera, as well, and Lindsay, for a short moment. But it is fascinating how this little group of people is like a band of misfits that bond, make a path for themselves, and help each other out.

I think that’s what makes it endearing, because you’re not even realizing that it’s happening, because it’s not happening — with the exception of the Christmas scene — it doesn’t really beat you over the head with it. You suddenly realize, “Oh, wow.” It’s a zany, crazy life, but how wonderful it is that they all have each other. It wasn’t until years later that I began to realize that side of the film, creating a family. It’s like, “Oh. I get it. That’s very similar to what a lot of gay people experience.” So, it’s nice to see, and it’s nice to see that it was done back then.

Bianca Del Rio introduces Auntie Mame at Metrograph on Saturday, December 16.

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