I couldn't believe it when it popped up on my Facebook status. I thought it surely must be one of Susu's gags, but when it turned out to be true, I was stunned. She was actually gone. Last Sunday the 17th, to be exact.
Susan Tyrrell, the defiantly individualistic actor, artist and bent bon vivant never hesitated to speak her mind. In an interview with Psychotronic magazine in 1990, she opened up about her career and her life as a Hollywood fringe-dweller. I quote heavily from that original article for my reminiscence.
Her usual response when one of her films was brought up in the interview was "I hated it!", but she'd always follow up with an insightful anecdote. John Huston, who directed her to an Academy Award-nominated performance in Fat City (1972) screwed her over badly, physically and mentally, and she insisted that he really was Noah Cross, the creepy, manipulative character he played in Chinatown who got his own daughter pregnant.
When she made the disastrous Flesh + Blood in 1985, she quickly developed a profound hatred for director Paul Verhoeven and especially co-star Rutger Hauer. One day, she said, "He told me, 'I just want to suck on Marlon Brando's nipple' so he could learn how to act. I said, 'You'd better start with his dick 'cause you've got a lot to learn.'" That's prime Tyrrell — and what a great rejoinder to such a ridiculously pretentious comment.
She hated Andy Warhol's Bad, too, yet she hilariously switches tones in midstream when discussing it. Her quote: "I hated it. I don't like making anything. It's no fun, none of this is fun until you see it and it's a hit. But if it comes out a piece of drek then I'm just pissed off. Bad was just so ugly it wouldn't wash off at night. Everybody was so bad and beautiful, and I was so good and ugly. I love to watch it, I think it's very brilliant, very funny."
That's our Susu. But I love to watch it, too, and it's true — she really is good and awful-looking here, always lugging around an astoundingly ugly baby until, at one key moment, she is startled into dropping it on the floor.
She enjoyed playing Doris, Queen of the Sixth Dimension, in Richard Elfman's Fleischer cartoon-come-to-life, Forbidden Zone (1980), and she seems to have been charmed by her co-star, the pint-sized Hervé Villechaize as well. She admitted to having a long-term affair with him in a 2010 interview.
1982's Night Warning (aka Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker), directed by Bewitched creator WIlliam Asher, got another schizophrenic review from Tyrrell. "It was a piece of crap! I mean I liked it because it gave me a chance to go berserk. I always like that, but I don't need a piece of shit movie to make me go berserk."
I can believe that. Anyhow, she plays Cheryl, a lonely and rather desperate woman who engineers the fatal car accident of her sister and brother-in-law so she can adopt their infant son and raise him as her own. Years pass, and the boy has grown into a teenager (Jimmy McNichol) with interests of his own, and she becomes insanely jealous of his interest in girls and desire to get out from under her smothering embrace. Of course, she goes completely off the deep end and we get trademark insane, murderous Susu.
Big Top Pee Wee was the awful sequel to Tim Burton's breakthrough hit Pee Wee's Big Adventure. Tyrrell played the 6" tall bride of Kris Kristofferson. And what did she think of it? "It was horrible. Everybody on the crew said I was such a bitch to work with, and I was. I was so ashamed to be in the fucking thing." No objections here – it really is a terrible movie.
Her career started in the early '60s when she moved to New York and got a part in As The World Turns (!). She lived for two years with Warhol superstar Candy Darling, who she claimed as her best friend. Of Candy, she said, "She was so velvet, so helpless, and so funny and beautiful. She was in Vogue, she was ravishing, yet so tacky. She had no teeth in front, two were rotted out; she looked like Ollie from Kukla, Fran and Ollie with this fang that came down."
Except for the dental issues and helplessness, the same could almost be said about Susu. She could make herself look unbelievably glamorous or unconscionably hideous. And it wasn't just make-up. Somehow she could manifest these changes in appearance from within.
I had the privilege of meeting her in 1991 when she did her one-woman show, My Rotten Life, at a nightclub in Los Angeles. She played a dead actress who, with her equally dead poodle by her side, reminisces about her time on earth. It was hilariously profane, and she proved that she had a great singing voice, too. She was sitting out in the lobby greeting the audience after the show, and she looked stunningly beautiful. When I asked her to sign my program, she said, "I'd be honored." Now that's class.
And I still have the t-shirt. It's embellished with her face on the front with the title of the show, and on the back is a picture of the poodle with one of her character's outrageous lines: "God, I miss my pussy."
Losing her legs in 2000 to essential thrombocythemia, she updated her fans about her condition through her web site and even posted video of herself working with her new artificial limbs. She also still did some film work, and she kept up with her painting, which is as bizarre and out-of-control as the woman herself. You can see samples on her site.
One of her final Facebook posts, in May of 2011, was this:
Will somebody do a re-make of fucking "Freaks" before I fucking
croak!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Love, and Fuck you all!--from the bottom of my
heart!! Your Chicken Hag!
We're gonna miss you, Susu...and about the news of your death?
"I fucking hated it!"