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My So-Called Rotten Life

Photo by Anne FishbeinIn late April of this year, after taking an unexpected fall, then finding herself unable to stand up and walk again, actress Susan Tyrrell was taken to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where extensive diagnostic tests revealed she had something called “essential thrombocythemia,” a rare disease in which the bone marrow produces an overabundance of platelets in the blood, which may cause sudden and severe clotting in the extremities. Only one case in 100,000 is diagnosed each year, an incidence far too rare to be spotted during normal medical checkups. Moreover, the clotting had been steadily worsening for some time, undetected, choking off the circulation.

Four days later, Tyrrell had both legs amputated below the knee. She remained in a semicomatose state for several days, hovering near death, and spent much of the next three months in institutional recuperation — at least part of it in the fabled Susan Lucci Suite at the Motion Picture Hospital in Woodland Hills. She was forced to move from her longtime Echo Park hillside compound because she could no longer negotiate the stairs, and currently faces staggering medical debts.

SuSu, as Tyrrell insists on being addressed by friend and interviewer alike — diminutive, elfin, a reluctant gamine with a vocabulary on her that would peel the blush off a sailor — is widely remembered today for her role as the drunken boxer’s moll in John Huston’s Fat City, for which she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 1972. Like Goldie Hawn, Karen Black or now, perhaps, Mira Sorvino, she received her strongest accolades at the very start of her career, where, like youth itself, they were squandered on the young. Yet far from slipping into formula comedies, self-parody or tabloid romances — those tragic concessions that pay the bills and perpetuate the limelight, but scour the soul — Tyrrell, over the course of 30 years, in some 60 films, has continued to work, largely as a character actress. She’s the infant’s mewling mother in Andy Warhol’s Bad (1977), Bukowski’s Method barfly in the Italian production Tales of Ordinary Madness (1983), Hemingway’s whorehouse madam in Islands in the Stream (Franklin J. Schaffner, 1977), and Doris, Queen of the Sixth Dimension, in the seldom-seen Richard and Danny Elfman musical Forbidden Zone (1980). She has acted in films by Amos Poe (1981’s Subway Riders), Paul Verhoeven (1985’s Flesh + Blood) and John Waters (1990’s Cry-Baby), as well as her share of cult items, from erstwhile Kubrick/Polanski producer James B. Harris’ prison drama Fast-Walking (1982), to Bill Fishman’s hipster indie Tapeheads (1988), to Randal Kleiser’s Tim Burton follow-up Big Top Pee-wee (1988), to Victor Salva’s beleaguered Powder (1995), to a 1974 rock & roll version of Othello called Catch My Soul (a.k.a. Santa Fe Satan), directed by The Prisoner star Patrick McGoohan. A member of the prestigious Lincoln Center repertory company in the ’60s and early ’70s, and a stage fixture on both coasts throughout her four-decade career, she was last seen in the independent film Buddy Boy (Mark Hanlon, 2000), in which she played, ironically, a shrieking one-legged harridan.

More than anything else, though, Tyrrell’s life has been an ongoing travelogue — through money, poverty, fame, obscurity, East Coast bohemia (Warhol, Amos Poe), West Coast bohemia (Forbidden Zone, Silver Lake royalty), and vicissitudes of character in the noblest and most pejorative senses. Born into the industry (her father was a prominent agent at William Morris), she has fled from stardom more than once, on rarefied paths along which she stockpiled a lifetime’s worth of world-class stories. And she has become one of L.A.’s genuine eccentrics — Norma Desmond and Norma Jean rolled into one — a life she recorded in her 1989 one-woman play, titled My Rotten Life: A Bitter Operetta. (Tyrrell has also written two unproduced screenplays: an adaptation of My Rotten Life, and Santa Lana’s, For Your Pleasure, which she describes as “a cross between Night of the Iguana and Freaks,” as well as parts of a memoir, Wait Till You Get There, with the late D. Montgomery.)

According to Tyrrell, Pauline Kael once referred to her as an entire school of acting (this was not intended as a compliment), and Rex Reed wrote, “She has a body like an unmade bed.” Andy Warhol, himself no slouch in the out-all-night department, claims in The Warhol Diaries that his favorite party ever was the one Tyrrell threw at the Hancock Park mansion she shared in the early ’80s with an aerospace engineer and a singing cowboy, where she spiked the punch with LSD and stayed up cooking ’round the clock for three days. During rehearsals for Camino Real at Lincoln Center in the late ’60s, Tennessee Williams once confided to her, “My favorite actors are 50 percent male and 50 percent female. You, my dear, are neither.”

“The last thing my mother said to me,” Tyrrell purrs during a recent chat, “was, ‘SuSu, your life is a celebration of everything that is cheap and tawdry.’ I’ve always liked that, and I’ve always tried to live up to it.”

Today, Tyrrell comes across neither hyperdramatic in the manner of Norma Desmond and other, real-life grande dame survivors, nor especially bitter, although her clear-eyed cynicism might be mistaken for such. To the civilian, how much of this is real and how much is a theatrical lifer’s seasoned technique is impossible to judge. “I only give line readings,” she says, by way of discussing her craft. “I love line readings — they just all have to be buried. That’s my style of acting. Buried line readings. Buried overacting.” Consoled by Willie, the now-aged poodle who traveled as her companion into the next world in My Rotten Life, and against a constant background of rap (“Thank God for rap music — without it, I would slit my throat”), Tyrrell curls up on a plush settee in her modest Pasadena bungalow within a gated enclave rumored to have once interned Japanese immigrants during World War II, and begins — over several days and nights — to rattle off her collected tales of extraordinary madness.

Spend any time with SuSu, and you fall into one of those endless rabbit holes of reminiscences that would be asterisked on anybody else’s life calendar, but that seem to have accrued to her as a function of who she is. Mention her Oscar nomination and the career opportunities it must have afforded, and she’ll relate in great detail how she instead fled to Morocco, where she lived in a black tent atop a Leyland Tiger double-decker bus surrounded by driftwood furniture and Moroccan rugs, fell in unrequited love with a Berber whose genitals had been deformed by syphilis, set out on a caravan up the Atlas Mountains, jamming pointed sticks into the rectums of the donkeys to edge the procession toward the top, where her fellow expatriates planned to process the recent hash harvest in the olive-oil presses, and where she contracted a hideous, wrenching illness that resulted in her being dragged on a mat of leaves behind one of the donkeys, until some Bedouin villagers fed her a tea brewed from the grass that was growing everywhere, which left her, miraculously, well again.

Or double down on the bet, let her keep going, free-associating at will, just to see if she can top herself, and you get an epic tale of flying to a film festival in Cartagena, Colombia, where she befriended statuesque porn actress Edy Williams, famous for crashing festivals worldwide for the sake of the paparazzi and the crowds. (Tyrrell recalls Edy surrounded by young boys on the beach, and compares Edy to the hapless Sebastian in Suddenly, Last Summer, moments before he is cannibalized by Roman street urchins.) Perpetually wired on the local cocaine, SuSu falls in with a tribe of golden-haired, green-eyed natives whose mothers are South American and whose fathers are Nazis, revels on the beach with Gabriel García Márquez, conducts what she believes is a discreet affair with a black lifeguard with whom she rendezvous nightly at a secluded “love hotel” in the jungle (and later spots her name in a headline in the local paper that translates as “Susan Tyrrell Is Seen With a Different Black Man Every Night”), is smuggled out of the country by the head of the film festival (where she was named Best Actress for Fat City), only to be taken off the plane and strip-searched for drugs, probably on a tip from an actor in the Marlon Brando picture ¡Queimada! (Burn!), who was incensed she wouldn’t sleep with him and his girlfriend at their vast palazzo, from which she escaped running naked through the jungle, attacked by giant insects . . . The story ends, finally, with Tyrrell sitting at LAX at midnight, surrounded by the taxidermic specimens she has spent all her money on and somehow gotten past customs, wondering how she will ever get home to Echo Park, when the skycap listening to her woes exclaims, “Well, look who’s coming — it’s Mr. Ed McMahon! Come on, Ed, you can give the little girl cab fare, can’t you?” Ed, of course, heartily complies.

“I’m a loner,” Tyrrell offers by way of explaining both the mismatched assortment of people whose lives have so implausibly collided with hers, and her circuitous path to relative enlightenment. “I don’t like beautiful people, but I find beauty in the grotesque. And in the sweet soul inside someone who has been able to get through their life without being a rat’s ass. Such people should be collected, should be swept up immediately and kept in a box of broken people. I’ve collected people my whole life. Sometimes it ends badly, but it’s absolutely never on my part. Because I know how fabulous I am. You’re just going to have to take my word for it — I’m an incredible person. I do good deeds, and I love people, but the only way I can do these things is to stay apart. Because you can just stand so much. But the people who you meet in your life, who cross your path, the ones who are decent, should be collected.” For Tyrrell, these have included the already â famous, like the aging, desiccated Ava Gardner (“She had saddlebags of vodka on the side of her eyes, but what a beauty”), who confided to her over a smart lunch in Madrid: “You need to get the fuck out of Spain, because the guys all have little dicks, and they’ll fuck you in the ass before you can get your panties off.”

Or the just incidentally famous, who seem to populate even her earliest memories. SuSu was conceived in Hawaii and born in San Francisco to a storybook couple named Jack and Jill. Her mother, a fading British beauty who was raised in a British convent, had been in the Diplomatic Corps in China and the Philippines in the ’30s and ’40s, had lost five brothers in the RAF during Word War II, and was reportedly never the same after she was forced to shoot her eight prize Irish setters when the Japanese invaded Manila. SuSu’s father — an agent for Leo Carrillo (“a Mexican actor who now has a beach named after him”), Loretta Young, Ed Wynn and Carole Lombard, among others — left show business for an advertising career in New Haven, Connecticut, and died two weeks after breaking off a doomed affair, from a (possibly self-inflicted) bee sting.

“Mother took me and my two sisters to Palm Springs,” SuSu recalls. “We were in a very beautiful motel, very ’50s, and there was this very beautiful man with long blond curls, and he would wear bikinis with zebra- or leopard-skin prints, and he would be in my mom’s bedroom. I would call him Uncle George. Later, I found out he was Gorgeous George, the wrestler, and my mom was having this thing with him. I fell madly in love with him. He was my first sexual obsession, at 4 or 5. I used to jump on his cock on purpose in the pool. It was like a big feather cushion, that thing.”

Or the soon-to-be-famous. Following an emotional breakdown and a brief stay in a Harlem mental hospital, SuSu deposited herself in the Manhattan theater world of the early ’60s. Bulimic, still a virgin, naive yet uninhibited (a dangerous combination in any city), Tyrrell soon came under the thrall of future Warhol superstar drag queen Candy Darling, who starred in the Warhol films Flesh and Women in Revolt and shares the dubious distinction — along with Holly Woodlawn, “Little Joe” Dallesandro and Jackie Curtis — of being enshrined in the Lou Reed song “Walk on the Wild Side” as a poster child for sexual adventurism. (She died, at 26, of leukemia.)

“Every day was a new adventure with all these New York freaks. A lot of Andy Warhol people. A lot of homosexuals, and I had never in my life met a homosexual. The Warhol crowd I thought for the most part were a bunch of drips. They were all these vacant geniuses. We were down in the Village having breakfast, when this beautiful blonde creature entered who looked exactly like Marilyn Monroe, with ghostly, lily-white skin, a white-blond wig and a black-velvet coat to the ground, and these large hands that reminded me at that moment of the Wicked Witch when she’s holding the apple, because they had these tremendous knuckles. And I fell madly, completely in love, in, like, five seconds. I crashed into this person. It was an accident, an utter complete love accident. In a matter of months we were living together, in a railroad flat with the bathtub in the kitchen. I loved every little trick about her.

“We had a falling out, and I never got to kiss her goodbye. It was so sad, because I used to go with her to get the shots, her hormone-treatment shots. It was with this really scary doctor down in the Puerto Rican part of Alphabet City. They didn’t have chairs to wait on. They had planks. There were pregnant women there, too, so he was a jack-of-all-trades. But Candy was there for hormones so she could grow breasts. She ended up dying of that. And damn it if she didn’t know, sitting there on those planks. There were friends of hers who had already died. That’s how bad she wanted them. God bless her.”

After almost a decade working in theater, SuSu improbably aced an audition, at age 26, for the roll of a middle-aged drunk in John Huston’s Fat City, on the recommendation of co-star Stacy Keach, after a promised role opposite him in the Frank Perry Western Doc (1971) had been handed to the more famous Faye Dunaway at the last second. Invited by Huston, just prior to shooting, on a coastal road tour of Northern California in which he was to trade pieces of pre-Columbian art with his fellow millionaires, SuSu jumped at the impending adventure over the objections of her agent, who was far too familiar with the procedural pitfalls of the Hollywood casting process.

“I was totally thrilled. The great John Huston, this grandfather figure. I’d just lost my dad, I hated my mother, and now here’s another parent figure to cuddle me. I can sit on his lap. To me, he’s like 100 years old. I know he lived a long time after, but to me this is Methuselah. Methuse-fucking-lah. The last thing in the world I’m thinking about is sex. They pick me up, and all the stuff is in the back. We’re in a caravan with three station wagons, with his goddamn oxygen tanks on top, and he says, ‘Get in the back.’ Now, I don’t know exactly how this works, but I do know I’m not riding in the back. So I said, ‘No, I get carsick. I have to sit in the front.’ And they were horrified. That burned his ass big-time.”

The next few days were a blur of drinking binges, nights spent in opulent four-star hotels in the company of all the other ingénues du jour (“scary girls who, to me, looked like prostitutes”), and day trips up and down the coast between San Francisco and Big Sur.

“So that night, we stop at this place that’s right up against the ocean, with the crashing waves below, where the bedroom windows are as big as a wall. It’s called the Sea Ranch. I was bombed by then, drinking and not eating. Matching them vodkas, drink for drink. Eventually, it’s 3 in the morning and he’s got me trapped in his room. I go in the bathroom and lock the door, and I’m just sitting on the toilet, shaking. It’s been a long time now, and there’s a knock. I hear [affecting a patrician drawl], ‘All right, dear. Are you ready? Time to go to bed.’ In that John Huston voice, like God is talking to you. And I’m thinking, ‘This is it.’ I’m scared shitless. At this point, I was just worn down. I was naked with a towel around me. I was totally nuts. But if we went to court, I’d lose. So we go to bed.

“Now he’s on top of me, and it was like the sagging flesh of a balloon, like an old balloon, and he held my tits and he was saying, ‘Oh my God. Oh my God. You’re beau-tiful!’ And I looked down at my tits, and I thought, ‘I am. I am beautiful.’ With the waves crashing against the cliffs below. I don’t even remember him being inside me. I don’t even think he got it up and got inside me, you know? He was just this thing on top of me. I can’t describe to you how horrible it was . . . but I’d rather fuck John Huston any day than some lame director.

“Goddamn it. Goddamn bastard. I still hate him, because what he took from me was huge. I totally believed in that world. I wanted to be an actress, and after that it was all over. I never wanted to act again. He stole something sacred from me. He’s the seed for all my behavior. And also the guilt, because I felt huge guilt that I didn’t run out of there. Titanic guilt, for laying down with him. But that’s how stupid I was. How naive. And I never got over it.

“I couldn’t tell this story for years,” Tyrrell concludes. “I’d look like a jerk, in the feminists’ eyes and in Hollywood’s eyes. I’d be swept out with the Clinton women. But you have to have balls. When you get to be my age, 55, it’s all balls — big, gelatinous balls. With the heart of a little child, and a face no mother could suckle.”

On Sunday, October 1, an “Evening of Music and Comedy” in support of Tyrrell was held at the Viper Room. (Tyrrell and Iggy Pop played Viper owner Johnny Depp’s parents in Cry-Baby, and Susan subsequently starred in Depp’s 1990 short film Every Little Thing, Neil.) Organized by producer-director Barry Shils (Wigstock: The Movie) and painter Jett Jackson, the event relied upon the kindness of friends and strangers alike. Comedian Taylor Negron, who has known Tyrrell for over 20 years, emceed. Actress Chloe Webb auctioned off the pair of shoes SuSu wore before her operation. Megan Mullally (Emmy recipient this year for the sitcom Will and Grace) sang, as did Alexis Arquette, in drag (with the real Holly Woodlawn, whose life story Arquette will essay on film), and the mighty Tenacious D. Nora Dunn (formerly of Saturday Night Live) and Mink Stole (from John Waters’ rep company) performed spoken-word pieces. But it was Shils’ video footage of Tyrrell resolutely demonstrating her prosthetic legs to the strains of Nino Rota’s score for Fellini’s The Nights of Cabiria that captured the evening. â That, and a heartfelt valediction by Sally Kirkland. By all accounts, the event came off a thorough success, a testament to the wide net of Tyrrell’s influence.

SuSu is currently recovering at her new home and weighing her options — writing, painting and, possibly, acting again, although only with people she respects. Too much time has been wasted already, she says. As for her current state of mind, she has one more story to tell, which she saves for the very end of our time together. It’s a good one, and it goes like this:

“Just to end this whole saga, I wanted to say what happened to me with the legs. By the time I fell on the floor and couldn’t walk, it was too late. Four days later, they were off. And then I was really ill, but I didn’t know it, because I wasn’t awake. I was gone for a long time, and saying all these unbelievable things — fuck this, fuck that. It was like I had Tourette’s. And everyone would hear this, and they’d say, ‘That’s our SuSu. She can’t be that sick.’ It was like coming to the surface of the ocean from almost drowning, that was the sensation. That’s how I came out of this thing, like from drowning to breathing air. And I was alone. There was nobody in the room, and it was night. And the unbelievable loneliness that I know now, that I never had known in my entire life. There’s nothing like a hospital room at night, and pain and loneliness and near-death and God knows what. But then you go, ‘I’m strong, I’m going to bite this bullet. I’m biting the bullet! Like Wallace Beery in that movie!’ I’m going, ‘Yeah, they just sawed off my legs.’ And I’m thinking movies, movies. You know, ‘Bite the bullet, here, take this stick. Yeah! You can do this!’ And it’s like a movie, and all these movies are coming into my mind . . .

“And then my hands are on my body, and I’m checking the rest of my body out. And I feel my legs, and they’re gone. And then I’m bringing my hands up my body, and I go, ‘Oh no, no, no, no.’ And my whole body is like 90 years old, it’s just been sucked off. My ass is hanging in my hands, just like John Huston’s ass. And my arm skin, my breasts, were just completely sucked off. All gone. It wasn’t just losing my legs, I was really into my tits and my ass. I loved them. I went through all of that, I couldn’t believe it. And then these car lights come into the hospital, and I’m holding my arm up, and I’m just seeing this flesh hanging down. And I’m thinking, ‘My life is over — I’m 90, I’m 90.’ And then this thing popped into my head: that I’m still horny. It was the most bizarre sensation, I can’t even explain it to you. But I was horny. And then I knew I wasn’t that bad. I’d be all right.

“Anyway. For all you gentlemen who are reading this article, I’d like to tell you that my tits and my ass are great now. They came back in a couple of weeks.”

Susan Tyrrell smooths away the tears that have welled up throughout this last tale, as much a product of the suddenness of the emotion as the freshness of the memory, which hasn’t yet been transmuted into the tempering anodyne of anecdote.

“That’s my life,” she says, cackling wildly. “To be continued.”

A fund has been established to help Susan Tyrrell with her ongoing medical needs, rehabilitation and care. Checks should be made payable to A Sweet Account, c/o 2415 S. Santa Fe Ave., No. 11, Los Angeles, CA 90058. Address questions to Jett Jackson at (323) 587-5513. Susan Tyrrell can be reached at susu@prodigy.net.


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