Tuesday, 5 August 2014

GASH! revives Grande Dame Guignol

“Hag Horrors” (or Grande Dame Guignol) were a favourite sub-genre of film among many gay men of a certain age and their popularity seems to endure with each LGBTQ generation. During the 1960s and 1970s, several Hollywood actresses who were Oscar winners and top box office draws a decade or two prior, found themselves in a situation where the work was getting scarcer but their lifestyles still demanded a steady source of income. These films were an obvious (albeit sometimes regrettable) solution to their problems.

Although 1950’s Sunset Boulevard, starring Gloria Swanson, is sometimes considered a precursor to the genre, the classic doesn't quite register as a horror. The first true example of the genre is 1962’s Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?, starring real-life rivals Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Both women give over-the-top performances as aging sisters (one a former child-star, the other a retired actress) living together in a creepy old mansion. As the titular character, Davis seems to take a little too much delight in the psychological torture of Crawford’s wheelchair-bound Blanche throughout the film. The role garnered Davis her last Academy Award nomination for Best Actress.

Movie-going audiences loved the idea of seeing these “elderly” actresses losing their marbles and battling it out on the big screen. The potential popularity of the genre immediately caught on with film studio execs and a slew of similar films, with varying amounts of budgets and plots, were released over the next decade. Although most of the female stars who appeared in these flicks were only in their fifties, they were definitely considered over-the-hill by Hollywood standards at the time. Arguably, they were no longer leading lady material. However, some very strong, powerful performances came out of these films by actresses who weren't afraid of  a little hard work, no matter what their age.

While Baby Jane probably ranks as the best of the bunch among audiences and critics, other Psycho-biddyfavourites include:

Strait-Jacket - 1964 - Joan Crawford

Dead Ringer - 1964 - Bette Davis

Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte - 1964 - Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland and Agnes Moorehead

Lady In A Cage - 1964 - Olivia de Havilland

Die! Die! My Darling! - 1965 - Tallulah Bankhead

The Nanny - 1965 - Bette Davis

Berserk - 1967 - Joan Crawford

What Ever Happened To Aunt Alice? - 1969 - Geraldine Page and Ruth Gordon

What’s The Matter With Helen? - 1971 - Shelley Winters, Debbie Reynolds and Agnes Moorehead

Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? - 1971 - Shelley Winters

Blood And Lace - 1971 - Gloria Grahame

A Taste Of Evil  - 1971 - Barbara Stanwyck (TV movie)

Dear Dead Delilah - 1972 - Agnes Moorehead

Persecution - 1974 - Lana Turner

Those of us who can't get enough of these macabre movies are in luck! GASH!, a play that touts itself as "a faithful, outrageous celebration of Hag Horror films", opens at Theatre Passe Muraille this week as part of the SummerWorks Festival.

I recently asked playwright David Benjamin Tomlinson a few questions about the production...

Gay Theatre Toronto - 

How did the idea for GASH! come to you?

David Benjamin Tomlinson - 

Let's just say a woman in black dragging an axe entered my studio one dark and stormy night...
Actually, I grew up in a family of incredible, powerful women and have always been attracted to strong female characters in culture. When I did drag for the first time, I was struck by how people treated me differently. Why were they intimidated? Just because I had slapped on a giant wig and enormous boobs? There's something so captivating about the strength of the women in the Hag Horror genre, something I wanted to explore by writing this piece.

GTT - 

One crumbling estate. Two embattled sisters. A devoted maid. A handsome stable boy. An enigmatic doctor. A meddlesome neighbour. A terrifying thunderstorm. An escaped psychopath. One survivor.  - The ingredients for a great night at the theatre are all there. Can you tell me how GASH! takes the Hag Horror genre further? 


While GASH! definitely embraces the formula of the genre and plays by its established rules, the play takes the genre further by tackling it LIVE, on stage! Being an homage, GASH! takes the key  archetypes of the genre and compacts them into one piece, with some gender bending... both female and male actors get to explore the heightened female psyche. That being said, the cast of GASH! plays the melodrama with a modern sensibility and tongue in cheek humour.

The cast list is impressive. Elley-Ray Hennessy, one of Toronto’s finest stage actors, is in the piece. Can you tell me a little about her character?
That's a difficult question, because there are a number of twists and turns in GASH!, and giving away certain information would be spoiler-y.  Let me just say that Elley plays the character of Charlie....very, very well. There may be more to that answer, but you'll have to come and see for yourself!
GTT - 

Lastly – How much blood should we expect? Do I need to wear a raincoat?

DBT -  

No need for raincoats; this run of GASH! isn't wet. There is violence, absolutely... but for the most part, the blood is implied. We don't need a splatter zone - GASH! drips with creepiness, horror and hilarity. My friend jokes that at the workshop (performance) he could barely breathe from either too much laughter or too much suspense.

 GASH! runs from August 7 to 17 as part of SummerWorks. Tickets available at SummerWorks.ca

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