Friday May 11, 2001

     Playwright Del Shores has long been an acclaimed mainstay of local theater--and a veteran TV writer as well. With their crowd-pleasing blend of wisdom and laughter, his plays--"Daddy's Dyin' . . . Who's Got the Will?," for example--have enjoyed long runs and won many awards. Shores adapted "Daddy's Dyin'," with Jack Fisk directing, to the screen in 1990 with mixed results, and now Shores has directed as well as adapted another film version of one of his hits, "Sordid Lives."
     Sad to say, but it's more miss than hit.
     The problem is not the material or the large cast of numerous notables, but that Shores' broad humor, affectionate satire, shameless heart-tugging and flourishes of caricature and travesty--which come across the footlights like gangbusters--fall flat on the screen. The occasional winning scenes get lost amid stretches of overly exaggerated and therefore artificial-seeming shenanigans.
     That's because the camera imposes a fierce, withering aura of reality on the intensely theatrical that can be overcome only by a complete rethinking of a play as a movie, combined with a strong sense of cinematic style, pace and imagery. It can be done, as the recent "Kingdom Come," which has a plot very similar to that of "Sordid Lives," demonstrates. But it's no small challenge. "Sordid Lives" is most likely to be appreciated by Shores fans simply grateful to have one of his plays preserved on film.
     The bizarre death of the matriarch (Gloria LeRoy, expressive even laid out in a coffin) of a working-class Texas clan sets off fireworks within her dysfunctional family. LeRoy's Peggy Ingraham died from striking her head on a motel room sink after tripping over one of her married lover's wooden legs. These circumstances scandalize her determinedly proper daughter Latrelle (Bonnie Bedelia), who is in denial over the fact that her son Ty (Kirk Geiger), an actor trying to make it in Hollywood, is gay, and is relieved that her only brother (Leslie Jordan), a gay drag queen and dedicated Tammy Wynette impersonator, has been confined to a mental institution for 23 years simply because he is homosexual.
     Latrelle's brassy sister LaVonda (Ann Walker), however, thinks it's high time--to say the least--that their brother is sprung from the institution and has a perfect right to attend their mother's funeral. Meanwhile, Ty, who has strived hard to accept his homosexuality and to be out in his acting career, realizes that there is no way he can return home for his grandmother's funeral without coming out to his mother. Shores, who is openly gay, has said "Sordid Lives" in some aspects is autobiographical.
     As the sisters argue over the funeral plans, driving their Aunt Sissy (Beth Grant) back to chain-smoking, Delta Burke's Noleta, LaVonda's best friend, is so enraged about her husband G.W. (Beau Bridges) two-timing her with the late Peggy--he hasn't even noticed that Noleta has shed 42 pounds--that it's a wonder she doesn't make firewood of his prosthetic legs.
     The film's most inspired and effective segment finds Jordan's Brother Boy wonderfully, even innocently, resistant to the mental institution psychiatrist's increasingly desperate and frenzied attempt to "dehomosexualize" him. Jordan has such innate dignity and is so amusingly expressive that he's the film's strongest presence, well-abetted by Rosemary Alexander as the rigid therapist he's all but driving mad in her frustration to "cure" him.
     Geiger grapples with Ty's dilemma credibly, and Burke, who looks sensational, discovers an impressive range of amusing nuances and shadings that bring more dimension to Noleta than Bedelia and Walker have been able to bring to Latrelle and LaVonda.
     Olivia Newton-John, as a local bar singer, sings a clutch of songs at various intervals that effectively express the film's shifting moods while tying together various plot strands.
     "Sordid Lives" has its moments here and there, but not nearly enough of them to add up to a satisfying movie.


Sordid Lives, 2001. Unrated. A Regent Entertainment release. Director Del Shores. Producers Victoria Alonso, Max CiVon, Sharyn Lane, J. Todd Harris. Screenplay by Del Shores, based on his play. Cinematographer Max CiVon. Editor Ed Marx. Costume designer Jim Echerd. Music George S. Clinton. Production designer Steve Cubine. 1 hour, 51 minutes. Beau Bridges as G.W. Nethercott. Delta Burke as Noleta Nethercott. Bonnie Bedelia as Latrelle Williamson. Leslie Jordan as Brother Boy. Kirk Geiger as Ty Williamson. Olivia Newton-John as Bitsy Mae Harling.