Monday, June 18, 2012

Susan Tyrell, R.I.P.

On Turner Movie Channel tonight they were running John Huston's 1972 film "Fat City", with Stacy Keach and Jeff Bridges. And Susan Tyrell, a cult favorite (or "thesp" as Variety calls her). I high-tailed it to the computer to look her up and discovered, among the Bing search results, that she has a web site ( which I looked up and discovered, to my shock, that she had died. I mean just died, on June 16.

She was nominated for an Oscar for her performance in "Fat City" and made a lot of movies thereafter, not many that could even remotely be called mainstream (e.g. "Forbidden Zone" in which she played Queen Doris of the Sixth Dimension). She was like some force of nature -- there's a scene in "Fat City" that takes place in a bar. Stacy Keach is telling a story to two other people at their table, and Susan just sits there, smoking, drinking, listening. She's not deliberately pulling focus or upstaging anyone. But even when she's just sitting there, looking off into the middle distance at God knows what, she's riveting. You can't take your eyes off her. (Pauline Kael called her "an entire school of acting", which was not intended as a compliment.)

Years ago in some magazine there was a photograph of her in a white hat and a 40's style dress with palm trees all over it, that I ripped out and copied in water color. Years later, when I was living in LA, my then-partner and I went to a little theater in Hollywood to see her one-woman show "My Rotten Life" which took a finely-honed meat cleaver to all those one-person shows about the triumph of the human spirit over whatever and what a swell person I am, even I can hardly believe it, the ups and downs of this business we call Show... She had none of it. In her version, she was telling the story of her life from Hell where she figured she'd probably wind up. I took the water color with me and gave it to her after the show, and she was genuinely touched.

"The last thing my mother said to me was, 'SuSu, your life is a celebration of everything that is cheap and tawdry'," she recalled to the author of a 2000 profile in the LA Weekly. "I've always liked that, and I've always tried to live up to it."

Even she probably didn't know just how rotten her life would become: in late April of 2000 she was diagnosed with an extremely rare blood disorder, "essential thrombocythemia. Only one case in 100,000 is diagnosed each year. Four days later she had both legs amputated below the knee. (For the full LA Weekly article, click the link in the Entertainment Weekly obit: The story of how she wound up sleeping with John Huston and its ultimate effect on her is clear-eyed and chilling and sad.

Yet she kept working and, apparently, maintained her spirit. The warped, sweet, fuck-you attitude that led her to love and identify with and "collect" life's misfits and cast-offs.

She wasn't someone whose career I followed or who, God knows, was very famous. But in a world where people like the Kardashians are considered role models... it just made me sad.

R.I.P. Susu.

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