Saturday, July 28, 2012

Gloriously ‘cheap and tawdry’: Deceased Artiste Susan Tyrrell

Some of the best character performers are folks whose faces you know and whose names you’ve forgotten. Susan Tyrrell was one of the few whose name was easily remembered, because she was not only a character performer but also gave several extremely odd (or should that be “incredibly strange”?) performances in films that became cult favorites. One thing’s for certain: like many character people, Tyrrell was often the best thing in the movies she appeared in.

She died a few weeks back at 67 in her adopted hometown of Austin, Texas, and leaves behind a wealth of unusual, scene-stealing performances. She was the daughter of a William Morris talent agent and a British diplomat — but the most interesting fact that appeared in one of the write-ups was that her diplomat mama had an affair with none other than wrestling sensation Gorgeous George!

“Susu,” as she liked to be called by friends, was born in San Francisco, but her decisive move was the one she made as a young woman to Manhattan, where she appeared in off-Broadway shows (her career had started on the summer stock circuit).  As a mentor she chose Warhol superstar Candy Darling, with whom she was strongly infatuated. After appearing in Broadway shows like Cactus Flower, she established herself on a national level with her amazing supporting performance in John Huston’s Fat City (1972), for which she was nominated for an Oscar. Her early Seventies headshots make her look curiously like a smaller, more street-smart version of another Oscar-nodded actress from that period, Ellen Burstyn.

She is nothing short of incredible in Fat City, given that she was only 27 at the time of filming. She tells a story in the single-best interview with her that you can find on the Net (a compulsively readable profile from The L.A. Weekly, found here) about sleeping with Huston, something she later regretted (she was obviously indebted to him as an actress for her first major role, but described him as “Methuse-fucking-lah”).

In that same L.A. Weekly article she described her acting style as “Buried line readings. Buried over-acting.” She maintained that “character work is soul… [it’s] what I love and what I do best.” And she was fucking incredible in a lot of her film work, delivering two very different kinds of performances: she was either the weepy, forlorn, life-battered woman (as she did so magnificently in Fat City or Andy Warhol's Bad, above) or she was an over-the-top alpha female whose every movement and outburst (usually obscene) was wonderfully overstated (the apogee of this being the live-action cartoon Forbidden Zone).

She received many bad reviews throughout her career — perhaps the nastiest coming in person from Tennessee Williams who commented to her that “My favorite actors are 50 percent male and 50 percent female. You, my dear, are neither.” Pretty much all of her detailed obits included a seminal quote from the same L.A. Weekly story that she maintained was her most essential review, from her mother: “SuSu, your life is a celebration of everything that is cheap and tawdry.” Tyrrell’s response? “I’ve always liked that, and I’ve always tried to live up to it.”

Tyrrell’s life took a very odd and tragic turn in 2000, when, due to a rare blood disorder, she had to have both legs amputated below the knee. She bounced back from this crisis, though, by continuing to act (albeit in roles that kept her seated) and by exhibiting her sexually-oriented paintings, which are on display at her website.

There has never been another like her, and there never will be. Tyrrell was an original who can best be appreciated by watching her film work — and seeing the movie recede around her when she’s onscreen.

There’s an excellent hour-long megamix montage of her film work on her website. (One warning: only visit the photo gallery page on her site if you have a super-new, super-powerful computer, as it’s a single-page “tiled” Flash nightmare that has to build over 150 thumbnails before it can be fully viewed.)

The nicest clip I found on YT was a fan’s montage of her many faces, done as a birthday tribute and set to her version of a song called “Tickle His Fancy”:

Two of Tyrrell’s best performances were in films starring Stacy Keach (who spoke very well of Tyrrell in a 2003 Canadian TV interview). My favorite scene in Fat City is a terrific hungover conversation between Keach and Tyrrell in which he swears to her that he will be there for her “right down the line.”

That particular line is missing in the only version of the clip that is in plain sight. I urge you to see that film whenever you can, and in the meantime watch this sexy and psychotic segment from the 1976 film version of the Jim Thompson classic The Killer Inside Me, which found Keach reunited with Susan:

Tyrrell excelled in small roles in films that exuded sleaziness. She seduces Ben Gazzarra in Tales of Ordinary Madness (1981), the extremely odd yet stylish adaptation of Bukowski by Marco Ferrreri. Her scene can be watched here (but dubbed in Italian). She is one of many odd women in the dark comedy Andy Warhol’s Bad (1977):

I first saw “Susu” on the totally forgotten 1981 sitcom Open All Night about a couple who run a convenience store. She was in “crying” mode on that show, which starred her and the great George Dzundza. I was very happy to see the show crop up on YouTube:

Tyrrell was in some jaw-droppers, some amazing cult movies. One such rediscovered joy is the very sleazy, and heavily, bizarrely homophobic, Jimmy McNichol thriller (yeah, you read that right) Night Warning (1982). The whole film can be found here, but this scene conveys quite well what the movie is like:

One of the finest (read: sleaziest) Eighties exploitation movies was Angel (1984), which, of course was promoted with the tagline “High school honor student by day, Hollywood hooker by night!” Susan played “Solly,” our heroine’s foul-mouthed lesbian landlady with hastily drawn-on eyebrows.

The whole film is, again, available on YouTube, but I draw your attention to the scene at 12:37, where she plays cards with Dick Shawn as a transvestite hooker, the guardian for our high school honor-roll hooker. Dick was not a man to underplay any role, but he actually gives a somewhat understated performance (for him, at least) in Angel:

Susan reappeared as Solly in the sequel to the above, Avenging Angel (1985), which had the equally stirring tagline “When you get to hell, tell ‘em an Angel sent ya!” The trailer is here. Jumping ahead a bit, let’s see Tyrrell in the Nineties, in another ZONE of acting, in the utterly forgettable Digital Man, in a scene with (among others) seasoned character man Phil Bruns:

In more recent years, being interviewed about her art in Austin:

I was never able to see her one-woman show “My Rotten Life… a Bitter Operetta,” since she never brought it here to NYC. But thankfully a fan has let us see two of her musical numbers, both of which have gotten less than fifty views on YT (which is depessing). First, a nice torchy valedictory, “Here’s to Life”:

And what looks to have been the show’s final number,“Oh Burnin' Star”:

Perhaps her most extreme (and thus best beloved, by me and many others) cult feature was Richard Elfman’s live-action cartoon Forbidden Zone (1982). Susan plays the Queen of the film’s imaginary kingdom. As for her king, well — the most welcome piece of information I encountered while writing this was the fact that she counted among her fondest memories her relationship with Herve Villechaize, with whom she lived in a Laurel Canyon house for two years. Now that, my friends, was a pairing, forged in Cult Movie Heaven!

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