"The last thing my mother ever said to me 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."- Susan Tyrell
Truer words were never spoken....Ms. Tyrell celebrated the destitute, broken characters of the American dream. Her acting is a legacy of hapless, feckless women who grabbed for fame and got nothing for their troubles...and yet, they survived, both onscreen and in our memory.
This was true of Susan herself....she contracted a rare blood disease in the late 90's and had both of her legs amputated in early 2000. This did not dampen her spirit or resolve. She just completed her 79th film appearance in "Kid-Thing" where she plays a homeless woman trapped in a well. I have not seen this film yet, as it is showing on the festival circuit, but it will always be a testament to Susan's will to survive and flourish in an industry that chews up and spits out many great talented actresses.
Her first major film of note was John Huston's "Fat City" (1972).She was nominated for an Academy Award for her portrayal of Oma, the barfly who hooks up with down and out boxer Joe Tully (Stacy Keach). Her acting is a revelation. Where most actress glamorize themselves, Susan does the opposite, making herself unseemly and downright obnoxious. The audience is both repelled and strangely drawn to this broken woman.
Much of Susan's filmography were of similar characters to Oma....Joyce Lakeland, the earthy prostitute who unravels Lou Ford (again, Stacy Keach) into revealing himself as a serial killer in the original version of Jim Thompson's "The Killer Inside Me"....Mary Aiken, the innocent daughter of Carroll Baker in "Andy Warhol's Bad"-a pitch-black comedy that shows the audience no mercy....Vera, one of Ben Gazarra's drunken concubines in Marco Ferreri's "Tales of Ordinary Madness"...Solly, a down and out street-person in "Angel" and it's sequel "Avenging Angel.....I could go on and on.....
No matter what her characters' situation was, Susan always played them with a dignity....it is this trait that makes them memorable, pitiable and this dignity etches her portrayals in our minds forever.
And in complete contrast, Susan could be incredibly funny. She will always be Queen Doris of the Sixth Dimension in the musical masterpiece of madness "Forbidden Zone". I cannot explain this movie...you just have to see it for yourself....but Susan emotes the role with such gusto and earthy sexuality, that it is impossible not to laugh. And, she is paired with Herve Villechaize (Tattoo from the original "Fantasy Island).
I didn't know this fact until I researched this article, but Herve & Susan were a legitimate couple before filming "Forbidden Zone". And it's reported that the set was full or shouting matches and hysterical arguments. I am sure that all the great talent in that movie (Danny Elfman, Joe Spinell, The Kipper Kids) were just mesmerized and slightly frightened by all the goings on.
And "Forbidden Zone" isn't the only evidence of Susan's comedic talents...she had the small role of "Boobies"-Elijah's girlfriend in the vastly underrated "Loose Shoes"..Chuck the Bartender in the Rock'n Roll vampire flick "Rockula"....and of course, the piece de resistance.....Ramona Ricketts in John Water's camp musical "Cry Baby"...and she's married to Iggy Pop!!!
And this brings us to what I consider to be Susan's greatest contribution to film...as the uncredited narrator to Ralph Bakshi's "Wizards".
Oh my God...THAT VOICE!!!...steeped in alcohol and cigarettes...scratchy and yet so melifluous at the same time. It's as if Susan took the trials of her life and gave a resonance & timbre to each disappointment she ever had. It is an amazing thing to hear, and one of the main reasons I rewatch "Wizards" at least 2-3 times a year.
Susan later regretted not taking a credit for the film, but also admitted that much of the work she was hired for after "Wizards" was because of her narration. That is the ultimate testament to her work. Her voice is so unique that we all remember it....as we will always remember Susan. Stacy Keach said it best...."She was like the Billie Holiday of the dispossessed".
Susan now looks down upon us from the Sixth Dimension....along with Herve Villechaise, Joe Spinell, and all the wonderful characters of "Forbidden Zone". She is smiling...her trials and tribulations are all over now, and she's at peace.
"I've been here for my own pleasure. Strictly. I even found pleasure in displeasure. I would ride those seas and walk those planks. Arrgh."- Susan Tyrell