Nobody does “trailer park chic” like writer-director Del Shores, and two of his most notable works are being given new life. Sordid Lives has been released in a new Blu-ray/DVD combo pack, and Southern Baptist Sissies, the stage-to-screen adaptation of his GLAAD Award-winning play, makes its debut on DVD Nov. 4.
The world that Shores explores in both films may seem a bit over the top at times, but he gives that world a strangely fathomable logic — as if everybody has a rusty chain-link fence surrounding their house or an even rustier trailer next door. Both are the creations of a master at the top of his game, and they are a complete hoot to watch.
“It still works,” Shores says of Sordid Lives, which came out in 2000. “I just love that people are finding this movie still. There is that theme of love, forgiveness and family that’s basically at the core of Sordid Lives that people relate to.”
Billed as “a black comedy about white trash,” the film stars Kirk Geiger as Ty Williamson, a young, gay (but not yet out to his family) West Hollywood actor who’s seen no less than 27 therapists and says he’s needed all of them. Ty is reticent to return home to a small Texas town for the funeral of his grandmother, Peggy, who died after a fall in a seedy motel room. She tripped over the two prosthetic legs belonging to her neighbor, G.W. Nethercott, with whom she was having an affair.
It just gets better from there, as we meet three generations of her eccentric and dysfunctional family and friends and the hilariously trashy truths of their sordid lives are revealed.
For instance, 23 years before, Peggy had her Tammy Wynette-obsessed drag-queen son, Earl (a.k.a. Brother Boy), locked up in the state asylum. There, Brother Boy is subjected to some harsh therapy for his “severe case of homosexuality” by Dr. Eve Bolinger. Not since Nurse Ratched has the screen seen such a depraved psychiatric professional as Dr. Eve.
As the child-like Brother Boy, Leslie Jordan has easily won audience’s hearts, and his performance here has practically become synonymous with the entire movie itself. Jordan is Shores’ secret weapon in getting his points across, and he’s a genuine gay goodwill ambassador.
Yet if Brother Boy has any competition for our affections, it’s Beth Grant as Aunt Sissy. The first third of the film takes place in her living room as Sissy’s two nieces — Latrelle (Ty’s mother, and the ever-so-prim “good girl” daughter of the deceased) and her sister LaVonda argue over Brother Boy’s confinement and whether he should attend his own mother’s memorial service.
LaVonda may be the town hussy, but at least she’s got a more understanding perspective on her brother and nephew’s homosexuality. (“All I’m sayin’ is that Ty has more in common with Brother Boy than you’re willin’ to admit,” LaVonda spits at Latrelle. “I think you blame Brother Boy for ‘the way’ Ty is!”)
Ty decides to be true to himself and attend his grandmother’s service, where he confesses both to her (in her casket) and to Latrelle: “I’m gay as a goose — gayer than Uncle Brother Boy.”
“No one’s that gay!” his mother retorts.
Played by Bonnie Bedelia, Latrelle’s a walking tempest in a tea pot. (“He calls it ‘art’—I call it trash!” she seethes at one point when recalling how she paid her son a visit in Los Angeles to see him in a play in which he got to cavort “in the altogether” with a bunch of other naked men). As her sister, Ann Walker (who also appears briefly in Southern Baptist Sissies) super-charges LaVonda with over-the-top aplomb.
Meanwhile, rounding out the cast are Beau Bridges as Nethercott, the adulterous amputee whose trailer home is next-door to Sissy’s, and Delta Burke as his distraught wife, Noleta, a role Burke portrays with fast-talking, Southern-fried perfection.
Sordid Lives also marks a return to country music for Olivia Newton-John. She came to the United States back in the 1970s as a country singer before changing to a more pop sound. The film’s catchy title number has become something of a hit for her and is highly requested at her concerts. She plays Bitsy Mae Harling, an ex-con turned honky-tonk bar singer who is a bleached blonde, complete with dark roots.
In Southern Baptist Sissies, produced in 2013, Shores, who is himself the son of a Baptist minister, explores the frequently caustic rhetoric of dogmatic religions like the Southern Baptists and its effects on the fragile development of adolescent homosexuals.
By filming the stage play directly instead of adapting it into a larger movie, Shores maintains the more intimate experience of the theater. The production reveals the many complicated emotions of the confused child, the struggling adolescent, and the damaged adults these boys become.
Emerson Collins, a co-producer who also plays the role of Mark, was a huge influence on the decision to film the play. “He said, ‘You know, the play works so well. Have you ever thought of just filming the play as the film?’” Shores says.
Collins found that Shores concurred. “As a kid I was a real ‘theater brat,’” he says. “My mother was a high school drama teacher, so I thought that would be such an interesting approach — because the church is theater as well.”
Mark is our sometime genial, sometimes not guide on this odd odyssey, who recalls his days growing up in his small, conservative parish in “the buckle of the Bible Belt.” Through flashbacks, he introduces us to the four “sissy” boys of the title: himself, T.J., Benny and Andrew.
Speaking from his church, Calvary Baptist (which seems to be the hub of their communal lives), Mark tells us, “This is where we learned to hate ourselves.”
Luke Stratte-McClure is T.J., the pious bisexual golden boy for whom Mark clearly burns. “You are so righteous in your unrighteousness,” T.J. accuses Mark. T.J.’s inevitable and devastating rejection of Mark has the ring of painful authenticity.
Countering their near-overwhelming hostility though, is Willam Belli in a tour-de-force performance as Benny, the choir-boy turned “professional female illusionist” (also known by his stage name, Iona Trailer). The role gives Belli the opportunity to perform several songs, showing what a dynamic singer he is. Benny is ultimately the wisest character we meet on this often emotional and edgy voyage, and although some have nitpicked Shores’ supposed tendency to see gay men in light of cross-dressers, it is these characters in both films — Brother Boy and Benny — who prove to be the most likable, and in their own fashion, the best-adjusted.
Lastly, but perhaps most potently, is Andrew, played by Matthew Scott Montgomery. His story doesn’t really take off until the second act, but it is truly worth waiting for.
Shores says that he frequently thinks back to the boy he was while actually living the situations he outlines in Southern Baptist Sissies. “I think about that little boy sitting in the pews of the First Baptist Church having that big secret, and I’d like to give him a hug and tell him it’s gonna be OK — it does get better!”
Each film’s cast does a superlative job of navigating both the nuttiness of their given situations and, where appropriate, the gravity underlying them. This is thanks in large part to the solid core repertory company that Shores has assembled. It’s particularly intriguing to see these same performers in similar-but-different roles.
Among them, Newell Alexander gives a strong performance in Sordid Lives as Wardell “Bubba” Owens, a seedy bartender who has a touching change of heart regarding his vicious past mistreatment of Brother Boy. Then, in Southern Baptist Sissies, he’s equal parts fire, brimstone and self-righteousness as the domineering pastor at Calvary Baptist Church.
His real-life wife, Rosemary Alexander, so spot-on as the icy bitch Dr. Eve Bolinger in Sordid Lives, offers fine support in Southern Baptist Sissies as Andrew’s well-meaning but clueless mother, whose ignorance leads to tragedy.
Dale Dickey fleetingly appears in Sordid Lives as Glyndora, a gin-soaked jailbird who LaVonda and Noleta are locked up with after they get caught trying to rob a liquor store. She takes on a far more substantial role in Southern Baptist Sissies, co-starring as Odette Annette Barnet (her mama wanted twins, she explains). A faded barfly who’s “not a lesbian — just an alcoholic,” she pops in and out of the main narrative along with her little friend, Preston Leroy (or Peanut), played with puckish brilliance by Leslie Jordan. (Peanut’s a social drinker — “You have a drink and so-shall I!”) Although initially seen providing laughs to contrast the show’s heavier moments, in the end we learn the real desperate truth behind Miss Odette’s nightly sojourns to the local gay watering hole.
If you’re not familiar with Sordid Lives, this new Blu-ray/DVD combo pack offers the perfect opportunity to see a favorite of LGBT audiences. New bonus material includes interviews with the director and cast, including Kirk Geiger, Bonnie Bedelia and Leslie Jordan. A “vintage” commentary track is also included.
“Everybody’s so excited that this is on Blu-ray,” Shores says. “I think they want to see what the cast looks like now, and they’re all excited about the extra features on it. I interviewed a lot of the cast about the journey and how none of us really expected this to happen with this movie!”
Likewise, the availability of Southern Baptist Sissies on DVD and VOD from Breaking Glass Pictures offers everyone a chance to acquaint themselves with a moving masterpiece of gay theater.
For more information about Sordid Lives, check out www.WolfeVideo.com. For more about Southern Baptist Sissies, go to BG Pics or visit Southern Baptist Sissies.