Review: Charles Busch's Latest, 'The Sixth Reel,' not a Classic... but Close Enough

by Roger Walker-Dack

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday October 11, 2021

'The Sixth Reel'
'The Sixth Reel'  (Source:Outfest)

The multi-talent that is Charles Busch was born in the wrong era. He is the perfect epitome of a glamorous Hollywood star of the 1930s and 1940s: He doesn't just look the part, but he lives it so convincingly, with all the mannerisms and melodrama, that watching his new movie we revel in turning the clock back for the next 90 minutes.

It's surprising to find that, despite a resume that covers every area of high drama, "The Sixth Reel" is only the second movie Busch has actually directed (or, co-directed, as he does here with his co-writer, Carl Andress). The story is a hilarious caper with Busch doing what he does, i.e. turning camp into a high art form.  

Busch plays Jimmy, and, like many Busch fans, we found it a  little difficult at first to adjust to seeing him in male clothing. Frankly, it doesn't suit him or his performance. His Jimmy is obsessed with old-Hollywood memorabilia, the more obscure the better. He's barely eking out a living, and is so behind in paying for his shabby rent-controlled Manhatten apartment that the landlord is trying to evict him.

He seems to pass most of his time visiting several old friends on their death beds. When the latest one dies, Jimmy is happy enough to sort through the man's jumbled apartment, as there has always been a rumor that somewhere amongst all the trash there is a precious lost reel of a classic Tod Browning horror film.

Like every Busch project, this melodrama is made with love. He is surrounded by a celebrated cast of actors he has worked with regularly. Each of them plays a scheming character desperate to get their hands on this "sixth reel" so they can get rich quick  

André De Shields stars as Gavin Plimsol, and Margaret Cho plays Doris, the best memorabilia dealer in town. Tim Daly appears as Michael, the aging gigolo who will sleep with anyone. Julie Halston features as Helen, the dead man's pushy niece, while Patrick Page plays the wealthy Mr. Beltrane.  All of them give the over-the-top performances we would expect from them. We could never imagine Busch telling anyone to bring it down a notch or two.

The whole thing comes alive when Busch finally dons his drag and does his femme fatale act in order to retrieve the film that he had found, but had lost again.   

This may not quite reach the heights of Busch's celebrated 2003 film "Die, Mommie, Die!," but it comes close enough, especially for his many devoted fans.

"The Sixth Reel" screens at OUTshine Fort Lauderdale and NewFest (NYC)

Roger Walker-Dack, a passionate cinephile, is a freelance writer, critic and broadcaster and the author/editor of three blogs. He divides his time between Miami Beach and Provincetown.