At the tender age of seven, two events indelibly shaped the life of gender-bending playwright, actor and force of nature Charles Busch: His mother died, and he saw Joan Sutherland perform. Soon another Joan—Crawford—would inform the talented lad’s sensibilities, along with other alpha gals in the sorority of “embattled women”: Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Rosalind Russell. Busch’s own aunt Lillian would even become a real-life analog to Russell’s Auntie Mame, enrolling the restless suburban boy in New York City’s High School of Music and Art.
“He had to perform—it was like a drug,” one interlocutor notes of Busch in this doc, rich in archival material, if slightly too reverential. Busch himself, cuddly with a red turtleneck and bald pate, comments sanguinely throughout, from the days of firetrap venues like Limbo Lounge on Avenue C (where his unhinged Tinseltown-inspired fantasias such as Vampire Lesbians of Sodom were hatched in the ’80s) to grand success above 14th Street with his script for The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife in 2000. Perhaps the only revelation in this tidy doc is that donning female costume is, well, a drag: “Putting on the dress means so little to me; that’s not fun,” he says. “It’s the spirit of these women [that’s] a comfort to me, and an inspiration.” When he strolls out in a pantsuit looking like Helen Lawson, you know Susan Hayward must be proud. (Opens Fri; Quad