Reflections on Susan Tyrrell (18 March 1945 - 16 June 2012)
“Actor often cast in sleazy, raunchy roles.” That was the headline for The Guardian’sobituary of the maverick cult movie actress Susan Tyrrell (18 March 1945 – 16 June 2012), who died last month aged 67 after a very tough life. Seriously: what greater career summary could an actress possibly hope for?
Since her death I’ve devoured all Tyrrell’s obituaries and found the outrageous anecdotes about this tempestuous outlaw / outsider actress so fascinating, it prompted me to do my own (belated) tribute. I hadn’t thought of Susan Tyrrell much since reading the tragic news of her losing both her legs in 2000 (they had to be amputated when she was stricken with a rare blood disease; considering her health problems, Tyrrell's death wasn’t entirely unexpected) or kept abreast of her subsequent film appearances. It’s sad when it takes death for someone to be reappraised, but there’s been a genuine outpouring of affection for Tyrrell online in the past month – a recognition we’ve lost a true original. I hope I can do justice to Tyrrell’s weird charisma.
Prior to her death, I mainly knew Tyrrell from just two films. Like many people of my generation, she made a vivid impression as raspy-voiced, gum-snapping hillbilly matriarch Ramona Ricketts in the John Waters juvenile delinquent rockabilly musical Cry-baby (1990). Many years later, I saw her as Carroll Baker’s mousey, tremulous and down-trodden daughter-in-law in Andy Warhol’s BAD (1977). (I know I’ve seen Big Top Pee Wee (1988) at some point, but it’s been so long I need to re-visit it to refresh my memory of Tyrrell in that).
Polaroid of Tyrrell as Ramona Rickettes and Iggy Pop as Belvedere Rickettes in John Waters's Cry-baby (1990). I want to look like them when I grow up
Tyrrell as Mary in Andy Warhol's BAD (1977). You can read my blog about this film and Tyrrell's performance in it here
Since then, I’ve loaded my LOVEFiLM request list with Susan Tyrrell films (not many of which are available on DVD in the UK, sadly) and seen Forbidden Zone (1982). But what all of Tyrrell’s obituary writers unanimously agree on is that her crowning achievement was her performance as the volatile alcoholic Oma in Fat City (1972).
When people lament wistfully about the golden age of gritty, small-scale 1970s character-driven American films, they mean films precisely like Fat City, John Huston’s downbeat and soulful study of melancholy losers. Set in a peeling, shabby vision of skid row Stockton, California, Huston’s tone is hard-boiled but sensitive and compassionate if ultimately pessimistic (“Life is a beeline for the drain,” one of the characters despairs towards the end). The action mostly shuttles between boxing gyms, derelict welfare hotels and dark dive bars where the characters chain-smoke and drink away their troubles while mournful Country & Western music emanates from a Wurlitzer jukebox. (The Kris Kristofferson ballad “Help Me Make It through the Night” plays under the opening credits and sets the mood for the ensuing film).
Fat City contrasts the stories of two couples: Jeff Bridges as a promising teenage boxer on the ascent and his naive girlfriend Candy Clark, and the stoical, battered Stacy Keach as a past-his-prime boxer and Tyrrell as his booze-sodden love interest Oma. (The older pair is far more interesting).
Tyrrell as Oma in John Huston's Fat City (1972)
The role of juicehead Oma was originally intended for Faye Dunaway, then at her zenith. No doubt Dunaway would have been fascinating in the part, but Tyrrell invests it with a totally idiosyncratic frowsy, bleary-eyed kewpie doll strangeness. (Dunaway would eventually get to interpret a similar role much later in her career, as the drunken Wanda Wilcox in the 1987 film Barfly).
It’s jarring to realise Tyrrell was only 26-years old in Fat City: with her matted rat’s nest hair, face screwed into a mask of misery and slumped, defeated body language she could pass for someone a good fifteen years older. (Tyrrell always looks vaguely forty-something in all of her films, regardless of her actual age). Her performance is the quintessential study of the jaundiced bar stool mama, the kind of drunk you pray doesn’t spark up a conversation with you at a bar while you’re waiting for someone (and they always do). She’s such a hardened barfly that when Oma makes a rare sojourn outside in daytime, the jolting unfamiliarity of sunlight makes her blink and turn unsteady. Tyrrell nails the stormy mood swings of an alcoholic: sherry-swilling Oma is alternately tearful, petulant, maudlin, raucous, self-pitying and needy. When angered she turns shrewish, a harridan. “Screw everybody!” she slurs. She and Keach have a piquant argument at one stage (Him: “Screw you!” Her: “Up yours, cowboy!”). She’s also prone to drunken philosophising: “The white race has been in decline since 1492 when Christopher Columbus discovered syphilis!”
Once Keach’s initial infatuation with Oma wears off, he realises what exactly he’s lumbered with. “Every time she opens her mouth, I think I’m going to go crazy!” he despairs. Yes, Oma is a nightmare, but Tyrrell scalds the screen every time she appears. While the rest of the cast give low-key naturalistic performances, Tyrrell is on an entirely different register – out-sized, bravura, Bette Davis-ish intensity. She’s an actress out on a limb, risking embarrassment. Tyrrell was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance, but rather than herald greater things Fat City sealed her fate and set a bar she’d never be able to reach again for various complex reasons -- perhaps her own tumultuous personality, or maybe Tyrrell was so convincing as an unstable drunk it scared off producers?
Fat City certainly guaranteed Tyrrell would never be a conventional leading lady (probably not her destiny anyway). Luckily she saw herself as primarily a character actress: she was beautiful enough to be a mainstream star (sculpted cheekbones, feline eyes, heart-shaped mouth), but instead opted to embrace her inner freak. (One of the defining characteristics of Tyrrell's career was her willingness to look grotesque).
But looking back at Tyrrell's wayward, erratic filmography, she deserved better films. Tyrrell probably belongs to the elite tradition of actresses too uncompromising, eccentric, decadent and individual for Hollywood to know what to do with: think of loose cannons / trouble makers like Louise Brooks or Tallulah Bankhead (and more recently, Sandra Bernhard). In fact, in Barry Paris’s essential 1989 biography of silent cinema’s wild child Louise Brooks he quotes a friend of hers recalling asking Brooks how – when she was almost overburdened with beauty, potential and star quality – she wound up exiled from Hollywood and unemployable. Brooks admitted, “I like to fuck and drink too much.” I suspect that’s equally true of Tyrrell (who could swear like a truck stop prostitute). And it clearly rankled her: in interviews Tyrrell repeatedly bewails the quality of her films. In 1992 she starred in an avant-garde one-woman performance art stage piece about her career disappointments entitled My Rotten Life: A Bitter Operetta. You can watch it here: it’s like David Lynch meets Kurt Weill and Tyrrell is on scathing form.
The other Tyrrell film I’ve seen since her death is Forbidden Zone. Very deliberately striving for cult movie status, this zany musical looks great and has some amazing moments (it’s remarkable what was achieved on a clearly small budget) – but it’s also frequently shrill and annoying, and the music of Oingo Boingo is pretty much nails on a blackboard for me. As the vicious Queen Doris of the Sixth Dimension, Tyrrell walks off with the film. Boiling with sexual energy and fury, gleefully luxuriating in her own evil (Eartha Kitt's Catwoman in the 1960s Batman TV series would appear to be her template), Tyrrell demonstrates (for a heterosexual woman) a profound understanding of camp in this performance. In fact her only potential threat in the film is the superbly deadpan former Warhol superstar Viva, who makes a cameo appearance and delivers with peerless nonchalance the killer line, “See you guys later – I need to change a Tampax.” (In a climactic moment, Tyrrell and Viva roll around on the ground in a cat fight. It needs to be seen to be believed).
Once you’ve seen this clip, you’ve pretty much seen the highpoint of Forbidden Zone. Tyrrell clearly knew how to deliver a musical number with real verve. A definite added bonus in this song is The Kipper Kids in go-go boys mode shaking their asses in jock straps. Damn, those two were built like tanks! One of them is now married to Bette Midler. Boy did she luck out!
In Forbidden Zone, the sadistic Queen Doris is married to King Fausto of the Sixth Dimension, played by dwarf French actor Herve Villechaize (yes, Tattoo from Fantasy Island). In one of the extra features on the Forbidden Zone DVD, Tyrrell is interviewed and discusses her relationship with Villechaize (they’d been romantically involved, but split by the time they co-starred in the film). She reminisces about the first time she ever saw Villechaize, onstage in a play. As the play progressed, Tyrrell found herself drawn to him and it gradually dawned on her: “I want to fuck a midget!” When the interviewer splutters with nervous laughter, Tyrrell clarifies, “In a very loving way!”
As a nice postscript, this is Tyrrell interviewed in Lee Server’s excellent 2006 biography of Ava Gardner, recalling her encounter with the ailing veteran actress in Spain in 1984. It reveals much about Tyrrell's warmth, generosity, hedonism and ribald sense of humour.
“I was in Spain doing a film ... had two fabulous lunches with (Gardner). She had saddlebags of vodka on the sides of her eyes. But what a beauty. You’re just in awe, it’s like taking in the Taj Mahal of beauty. But she was a real girl. “Honey honey” and smoking smoking and the beauty of this face and drinking and laughing our asses off. She was trying to get me out of Madrid. She said I had to get out of there – get the fuck out of the country. And she leaned over the table, and she said, “You need to get the fuck out of Spain, because the guys all have little dicks and they’ll fuck you in the ass before you can get your panties off.” I loved her so much. We laughed so hard ... What a genius. She had a lot of vodka in her, boy, that’s for sure.”
I think I want to go to for a boozy, debauched lunch with Susan Tyrrell and Ava Gardner ...
Tyrrell is survived by her mother, but sadly they were estranged and hadn't reconciled by the time of her death. In 2000 Tyrrell recalled, "The last thing my mother said to me was, 'SuSu, your life is a celebration of everything that is cheap and tawdry.' I've always liked that, and I've always tried to live up to it." “A celebration of everything that is cheap and tawdry”: talk about words to live by. RIP Susan Tyrrell.
Tyrrell’s leading man in Fat City, Stacy Keach pays her a sensitive and lyrical eulogy in the Huffington Post online. “I loved her whiskey voice, always reeking of soul and sweetness,” Keach recalls. “She was like the Billie Holliday of the dispossessed. She sang the blues with every word she spoke, and the unique colors she brought to the behavior of the characters she played always embraced a vivid portrait of a highly sensual woman. Sexy and vulnerable, not unlike the qualities of a battered Marilyn Monroe.”
Michael Musto (doyen of the downtown NYC nightclubbing scene and Village Voice gossip columnist) has posted some hilarious recollections of the times he interviewed Tyrrell in the 1980s (once for Soho Weekly News and then for Details magazine, when it was still hip). Read some scathing excerpts from the 1983 Details interview here and here.
Nice, thoughtful piece on Dangerous Minds, praising Tyrrell's ability to "ignite flicks that strained to be weird with flashes of her eccentric brilliance, often salvaging otherwise unwatchable pieces of crap" and calling her "Cinema's Gonzo Goddess."
It was Dennis Cooper’s typically excellent blog about Tyrell (a treasure trove of photos, clips and juicy info) that prompted me to do my own in the first place.
Susan Tyrrell's own website (check out the outrageous photo gallery!)
Finally, the mother of all Susan Tyrrell interviews is Paul Cullum’s insightful and incendiary masterpiece from The LA Weekly News in 2000, subtitled “Susan Tyrrell’s Sentimental Journey through Money, Fame, Sex and Amputation.” Against a soundtrack of rap music (“Thank God for rap music — without it, I would slit my throat”), Cullum meets Tyrrell (accompanied by her geriatric poodle Willie) right after her legs have been amputated and finds her in a remarkably sassy, un-self pitying frame of mind – what a resilient tough cookie. I especially love Tyrrell tenderly reminiscing about her friendship with the doomed Warhol drag queen superstar Candy Darling. Less happily, her account of how she got the role in Fat City will forever tinge your opinion of John Huston (the man, not the director) and make you recall his sinister role in Roman Polanski's Chinatown.