Sometimes bad films are so bad they become iconic: The Room (2003), Michelle Visage’s favourite Showgirls (1995) and even the nightmare-fueled Cats (2019) have become cult classics. On the other side, sometimes great films have huge success and go on to be universally acclaimed by critics and audiences alike: think Citizen Kane (1941), The Godfather (1972) and even Titanic (1997). The least memorable films sit right in the middle: never good enough to be truly great, but never bad enough to be iconically awful. Stage Mother is one of those films.
For a film about death, drag queens and Lucy Liu being blonde, Stage Mother (2020, Thom Fitzgerald) is painfully average. The film opens to show drag queen Ricky Pedia (admittedly a great name) taking a lot of drugs and then dying on stage. The rest of the film follows his estranged mother Maybelline Metcalf as she leaves behind her husband (and Ricky’s dad) to travel to San Francisco for the funeral. Caught up in memories and regrets, she quickly tries to run away, only to stumble into the discovery that she has inherited the drag bar in which Ricky lived and died. Maybelline decides to reconnect with her late son through the drag queens, friends and lovers that surrounded him.
Britney Line Time: “French finger tips, red lips / Bitch is dangerous”
There are snippets of quite great writing hidden in this film: as well as Ricky Pedia, we also meet drag queens named Tequila Mockingbird, Dusty Muffin and Joan of Arkansas. I did chuckle at the occasional one-liner, but it’s only been a few hours since I watched the film and I don’t actually remember what they were; they certainly weren’t side-splitting, but entertaining enough.
Altogether, the plot and the dialogue feel stilted; the writing is prescriptive, basic and obvious. As with any film, a lot of context needs planting to set the scene, to create the universe. Stage Mother tries to deal with many (well, perhaps too many) themes: identity, sexuality, acceptance, domestic abuse, divorce, memory, grief, parenting ー all of these come up, and so their related plotlines have to be introduced. When cramming so much into an hour and thirty minutes, some of the segues are bound to be sloppy.
Top Tip: stick it out to the end, because the final sequence is quite wonderful
Such a strained script and cliched dialogue must make acting a difficult job. Within the struggles (as within Maybelline’s bleach blonde locks), there are highlights and lowlights.
The titular Stage Mother Maybelline is played by the captivating Jacki Weaver (no, not that one). As the film’s lead, she appears in almost every scene, and manages to steer the film away from disaster with her commanding presence, charming Texas drawl (impressively accurate considering she’s Australian) and complex emotional journey.
When it comes to appreciating Weaver’s talents, one short sequence, around halfway through, sticks out to me. Returning home after spending a night supporting Joan, one of the queens who is struggling with drug abuse, Maybelline stares out the window of a taxi. In her smudged make-up and red dress, the sun’s bright light flickers over her, hinting at a new vision coming into focus. Though visibly worn, she seems refreshed, enlightened, with a certain air of new-found clarity. Lasting just twelve seconds, this is a mere snapshot of the enigmatic arthouse creation Stage Mother seemed desperate to become.
Adrien Grenier plays Nathan: Ricky’s boyfriend and Maybelline’s eventual business partner. He is as undeniably handsome in this film as he was playing across Anne Hathaway as Nate in The Devil Wears Prada; unfortunately, not so handsome as to disguise his acting. He gets into his groove more towards the end ー as, indeed, the film does ー but he spends the first forty five minutes sulking and shouting like a teenager. As a prominent character, this grates.
On the flipside, unsurprisingly, the most memorable (and, quite frankly, best) acting performance in this film is of a trans woman playing a trans woman,
For a deeper exploration of why this it is important for trans people to tell trans stories on-screen, check out my review of Netflix’s seminal documentary Disclosure.
Mya Taylor is at once honest, passionate and touching in her portrayal of drag performer Cherry. Behind the weak dialogue, she still feels present, real and authentic. As in many trans stories, she has to face her past in order to move forward, but this is not the focus of her narrative; rather, we see her on-stage confidence grow to a powerful crescendo.
It would be remiss not to praise this film for including trans and gender non-conforming characters within the group of drag queens it portrays: after all, this is the reality of drag, and always has been. However, the drag shown on screen is still, perhaps, a little limited in its scope.
To all intents and purposes, the film is set in 2020; and yet, the drag seems set in 1990. To attempt to create a 2020 drag scene without the presence (or even a mention) of Drag Race is a brave choice; not one, I think, that paid off. All of the drag we see is very traditional in its look: more Southern pageant than it is infamously messy and genderfuck San Francisco. Everyone acts like Maybelline has invented the concept of live singing when she suggests that over lip syncing for a new show to revive the bar; in the story, this reveals to be the key to success. As a drag performer myself (who doesn’t sing live), I found this absolute duality problematic.
Biggest Gay Mood: performing in drag to a crowd of 5 people
When Maybelline goes out to market the new show, the types of people and locations she approaches are rather mundane and vanilla ー not the kind you’d expect for the crowd of a drag show. She, and more largely the film itself, seems to see appealing to the everyday person on the street (okay let’s just say straight people) as the pinnacle of success.
In trying to be both a movie about drag queens and one that appeals to mainstream audiences, cramming in as much thematic content as possible, Stage Mother betrays the initial charm of its premise. Pair that with mediocre script-writing and at times off-puttingly bad acting, and the result falls forgettably flat.