* VALE: Your show incorporates some startling music and dialogue,
aken not only from records but films as well-
* LYPSINKA: I'm obsessed with films-that's really my great passion, even though I've never made any-I just like to look at them. A film I saw at a drive-in when I was a kid affected me a lot: I Want What I Want, starring ANNE HEYWOOD as a man who enjoys being a transvestite and wants to have a sex-change operation. I grew up in Mississippi, where they showed more films like that than an where else, and it possibly changed my life! It undoubtedly sparked a certain train of thought. I also saw RUSS MEYER movies, not knowing what they were or what impact they would have later. I remember seeing Vixen; now I know the star, ERICA GAVIN-she's the top salesgirl at Fred Segal in L.A. She looks quite different than she did then.
My absolute favorite movie is Imitation of Life by DOUGLAS SIRK with LANA TURNER. It functions on so many different levels. It's an out-and-out melodrama, it's a backstage story, it's a women's picture, it's a satire on American life at that time. It's a "black" comedy-in more ways than one-although you have to see it a hundred times to realize that Douglas Sirk is making a joke out of everything. It's really glamorous-the clothes and the colors. And just the fact that Lana Turner is in it, being as phony as she can be...
Also, it's a ROSS HUNTER production. Ross Hunter saw only one aspect, which was entertainment and gloss; he didn't see the irony that Douglas Sirk put into his films. So in the movie there's this dichotomy: Sirk has the upper hand, but it has Ross Hunter written all over it as well. And I watch it over and over; I never tire of it. But that's true of a lot of my favorite films-every time I watch Marnie or Sunset Boulevard or Valley of the Dolls I find something new and exciting.
I adore Hush Hush... Sweet Charlotte. Most people prefer Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, but I always prefer the more obscure things in life! It's a little more desperate. I also like the setting in the South in Louisiana, and the script is not quite as good-which makes it nutty, too. Plus, it's kind of a sequel-not the same characters but the same style of film.
Another film I like is Madame X (1966). CONSTANCE BENNETT plays to the hilt the supercilious, rich, upper-class Texas mother who despises the "trashy" bride her son brings home. As she's throwing Lana Turner out of the family mansion, she hisses, "You're still a shop-girl from San Francisco and you should have stayed on the other side of the counter!" The camerawork is by RUSSELL METTY (who photographed all the Douglas Sirk films) so it has the "look" but none of the irony of Sirk. Nevertheless, it's fascinating in its bathos.
NATALIE WOOD's Gypsy was also an early influence-I think I saw it advertised as "all color, all stripping!" and when I saw it at the age of eight I was entranced. It's aged rather well-just like Hello, Dolly! At the time, people were going, "We've had it with these overblown musicals!" but in retrospect Barbra Streisand was fantastic in Hello, Dolly! The production values made it into what is, by today's standards, a lavish, beautiful film.
I recently read Directed by Vincente Minnelli (written by Stephen Harvey) which changed the way I look at everything. The author dissected the themes ru ning through Minnelli's films, tied them all together and made you realize he was almost subliminally the consummate artist. He explains why Brigadoon was such a big mess. Part of the problem was: should it be Cinemascope or not? So they filmed it both ways, on a sound stage instead of on location, and it just looked phony-which for Minnelli should have worked, but didn't. [laughs]
* V: Why do you like RADLEY METZGER-
* L: I've only seen Camille 2000 and The Lickerish Quartet. But what I'm interested in most, whether it's art or music or films or theater, is style and stylization-preferably both in one. Metzger's films were little more than softcore low-budgets, but they were arty because he did them with style. The Lickerish Quartet has this bizarre scene with people rolling around naked on huge pages blown up from a dictionary. And Camille 2000 had great '60s mod clothes. He also made The Opening of Misty Beethoven. So, basically, if somebody does something with style, I want to see it!
* V: How did you become "Lypsinka"? Obviously, you weren't encouraged in school-
* L: I grew up in a small town in Mississippi, in a family that really didn't encourage the arts. My father is an athlete and wanted me to be an athlete, too. I tried sports, but I just couldn't get interested. I was always more interested in music and reading. I studied piano-my teacher discouraged me from playing or even listening to anything other than "classical". She got very upset when she caught me picking out "Georgy Girl" on the keys-
* V: She was "high culture" oriented-
* L: Right. Playing the piano became a form of escape for me. In the back of my mind I always knew that I wanted to be an actor or performer, but I was afraid to say it. Everyone in my town took piano lessons-that was accepted-but to actua ly make a career out of that was another thing. Everyone wanted me to get my teacher's credentials because they didn't think I could "make it" playing piano-I proved 'em wrong! [laughs] I ended up playing rehearsals for the American Ballet Theater for years. I also played saxophone in the high school band, and studied pipe organ as well.
My favorite organist is ETHEL SMITH. She plays the role of a music teacher in Bathing Beauty (1944) with Red Skelton and Esther Williams. It's set at an all-girls' school, and there's a scene where the girls come in and say, "Oh, don't play any Bach today-why don't you play 'Tico Tico.'" So she starts playing it-she has a big '40s pompadour, and she just goes to town on the organ. That was her big recording hit; it sold over a million copies. I think she's in Saludos Amigos (1942), and The Three Caballeros where she's "live" but everything else is animated, and she's flying around the sky playing the organ. It's really wonderful. I also saw her in a hillbilly movie when I was a kid-never forgot her. CHARLES PIERCE used to take her on the road as his opening act.
* V: How did you take the step of moving to New York?
* L: Sheer nerve, and saving up money. When you're 23 you think, "I'm just going to do this!" I had played piano for a ballet class in Mississippi, so I moved to New York with a letter of recommendation and immediately got a job playing for the American Ballet. I was "green" as they come, even at 23-nowadays, young people know so much more. But for a 23-year-old from Mississippi in 1978 who was insecure and shy (with all the baggage that comes from growing up in the South), moving to New York seemed like a major achievement.
In Mississippi I had been an outsider; I was taunted for being a musician and for being effeminate. The irony is: now I use that effeminacy to make my living and my "name". It's definitely been a form of revenge to say to those people who made fun of me, "Well, look at me-I'm on TV with Sandra Bernhard; I'm in People magazine with Madonna; and I hang out with Karl Lagerfeld. I've met my idols. I've been hugged by Carol Burnett; I've chatted with Bette Midler"-how many people have done that?
* V: If you're not a dancer, you do a good job of faking it-
* L: [laughs] Mainly what I do involves body language with my upper body, and I learned that from just watching people for years; although I move my lower body as well-and I'm in heels the whole time. I throw in moments of impersonation of famous performers like JUDY GARLAND, or famous corny LIZA MINNELLI moves. I became a dancer because I had to. You can't do a lip-synching performance for an hour and just stand there; you gotta give the audience something interesting to look at. I never stop moving the whole time I'm onstage.
When I was growing up I just thought of myself as this skinny, gawky kid. But when I moved to New York I realized, "Well, I am skinny and gawky... but wasn't Veruschka? And she made it work for her. If I ever do anything in drag, I'll do it as if I'm this tall, thin, glamorous fashion model." And that's when the idea for this character, Lypsinka, started developing.
I studied photographs of fashion models like DOVIMA-she was in two or three scenes in Funny Face (1957) with Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire. She's unmistakable: a very tall, skinny, glamorous model with a white face and black hair; I'm sure you've seen Richard Avedon's famous photo of her with the elephants. So there's DOVIMA with those eyebrows and white face and incredible long body-the longest line ever. I thought, "My body's like that, too-maybe I can use that." She became the touchstone for the "look" of LYPSINKA.
Some of LYPSINKA's "energy" is taken from another actress in Funny Face, KAY THOMPSON. She's an incredible musician; she was Judy Garland's vocal coach at MGM and wrote lots of special material for her. She also wrote choral arrangements for many MGM films including The Harvey Girls. In Ziegfield Follies Judy Garland performs completely in Kay Thompson's style: high parody, very chic and soignée. She's Liza Minnelli's godmother; Liza worships her. And even though she's really the ultimate musician-performer, she's almost forgotten now.
Kay Thompson was never a movie star. She was in a Broadway show but was fired and never quite got over it. In the '40s she created her own nightclub act with the WILLIAMS BROTHERS (Andy Williams and his three brothers; the other didn't go on to fame and fortune the way Andy did). For her act, Kay Thompson created the character of Eloise, a little girl who lives at the Plaza Hotel and terrorizes everyone. People suggested that she write a book about Eloise, so she did, and an artist, Hilary Knight, illustrated it. A famous pastel drawing of Eloise still hangs in the lobby of the Plaza Hotel.
The actor John Houseman described Kay Thompson's act as "so mechanical, yet fascinating"-she's like that in Funny Face as well. There's nothing spontaneous, and yet somehow it fascinates you. So I take my "energy style" from Funny Face... from Kay Thompson and DOLORES GRAY.
* V: You started the "Lypsinka" character back in 1982-
* L: It takes awhile for a man who dresses as a woman to gain any recognition outside a certain community, because it's still perceived as "kinky" or "perverse." I think I'm making some headway against that,
although there still are misogynistic drag performers who make fun of women, and who project really absurd caricatures with big breasts. I find that distasteful. I don't hate women-why would I even bother doing all this research if I didn't like women?
What really motivated me to get my career going was the AIDS crisis. I was spending a lot of energy looking for a sex life; then I read about AIDS in the New York Times Magazine and thought: "You don't want to die. You want a career, but you haven't really put yourself out there to get one. Why don't you put your energy into having a career instead?" It wasn't easy, because when I went on the road with the American Ballet, I would have to drop out of the scene; when I came back it would be like starting all over again. But in 1985 I really started pushing myself. I wrote a show called Ballet of the Dolls, which is a parody of Valley of the Dolls plus the ballet world. It was a parody not only of the movie but also the book and Jacqueline Susann's lifestyle and all the people the book was allegedly based on. I wrote all the music and lyrics and produced, directed, and financed it myself, plus I played Jacqueline Susann. And I pulled it together in a month; we did 6 performances at the Pyramid Club and it was sold out every night. That's when I realized: you can do something.
Taken from "Incredibly Strange Music, Volume 1" published by V/Search Publications