Watching writer and director Del Shores's Bible Belt parody, Sordid Lives, is like driving through the boondocks, finding only honky-tonk radio and listening to one of those raunchy tunes; it's unusual in a humorous way and you find yourself humming along. Based on the Shores play of the same name, Sordid Lives sounds like a typical gay-themed movie—and a bad one at that: an old woman's funeral brings a small Texas town to a standstill, as the town's characters rehash their trashy lives one by one, including a man with wooden legs, a tattooed barfly, a transvestite in an institution and more two-timing than the Texas two-step.
Given the outrageous plot, one might expect a freak show. Not so with these sordid lives. Writer Shores knows how to weave parody with skillfully subtle touches of humanity. The result is a rollicking good time.
Though it's safe to say those laughing loudest are probably from the Bible Belt, grew up gay or have a pair of nylons tucked into their drawer between the boxers and briefs, people on Main Street are more likely to belly laugh than those on Castro Street. The crafty, if bawdy, humor pokes fun at everyone, including gays, which may be why Sordid Lives has hardly been a huge hit among those whose possessions are plastered with pink triangles.
The laughs begin slowly, as Sissy (scene-stealing Beth Grant), is talking on the phone about her recently departed mother, who died after tripping over the wooden legs of her married lover (Beau Bridges). With a momma having dropped dead in the middle of an illicit affair, the family is in serious disrepute—and Sissy's moralistic sister, Latrelle (Bonnie Bedelia at her best since Presumed Innocent) is filled with shame. Another sister, bosomy LaVonda, (Ann Walker), who relishes the salacious nature of her mother's demise, baits prissy Latrelle.
Twin family wounds form the lightweight theme that being a good person means doing one's best under the circumstances. One shameful family secret forms the story’s conflict: the women's lone, male sibling—Earl "Brother Boy" Ingram, (flawless Leslie Jordan), a tattered, old transvestite who plays country and western singer Tammy Wynette like he's starring on Broadway. Brother Boy's tucked away in an asylum with a therapist (Rosemary Alexander) whose career depends on transforming him into a heterosexual male. The ridiculously implausible sessions provide the funniest moments.
The other sore point frames the narrative. Deeply religious Latrelle's son, Ty, (Kirk Geiger), an actor who is gay, struggles to overcome his strict upbringing (though a gay play his mother abhors is truly rotten). There are more subplots than an episode of Dynasty, including Delta Burke's wronged Noleta, Newell Alexander's bartender Wardell, and the perfect thread for Sordid Lives: Olivia Newton-John (Grease), strumming her guitar as a butch barfly named Bitsy Mae Harling.
Bitsy Mae sings the catchy title tune and several other songs and gum-snapping Newton-John portrays the twangy ex-convict as someone that her Grease character Sandy might have become decades after donning those skintight black pants. By the time Newton-John sings her last note—fans should linger for the closing credits—Texans are better than one might expect and the most tired cliches ring true amid the most peculiar lives and, in the end, everyone gets what they deserve.
Sordid Lives is trailer trash supreme—it’s destined to become a camp classic—and, though it's been said before and with a lot less hair, these bromides make for a foot-stomping good time. Never mind the over-the-top performances, low production values, and more hamming it up than Meryl Streep, something intelligible (and, ultimately, likable) comes through: that life, no matter how sordid, can be improved—and, in any case, it beats the alternative.
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Mary Kay Place, Mary Steenburgen, the late Tammy Wynette—each were supposed to (and did not) appear in this camp favorite, according to information on the generously equipped DVD. Creator Del Shores, taking rightful ownership of what's clearly a labor of love, makes the story of getting this made for under $500,000 interesting. Included are two of Olivia Newton-John’s uncut gospel songs, interviews with most of the cast and a commentary with Shores, Bedelia and several others and everyone has a good time. Best bit: a 15-minute feature with Shores and producer Sharyn Lane, side by side, talking about their resolve to make a movie.
Originally posted on Box Office Mojo in 2003.