This Movie Changed Me

Justin Sayre

Auntie Mame

Last Updated

November 26, 2019


“Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death!” So declares the title character in the 1958 comedy Auntie Mame. She introduces her Bohemian world to her nephew, Patrick, who comes under her care after he is orphaned. The movie’s celebration of individuality and independence inspired comedian Justin Sayre to embrace his own — whether as a gay person or a queer artist. “You don’t have to do anything you’re told,” he says. “You just have to be kind. And you just have to never stop looking. That’s it.”

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Guest

Image of Justin Sayre

Justin Sayre is a writer, performer, and a regular fixture of the downtown cabaret scene in New York. His comedy album is The Gay Agenda and he’s also the author of a series of young adult  novels — Husky, Pretty, and most recently, Mean.

Transcript

Lily Percy, host: Hello, fellow movie friends. I’m Lily Percy, and I’ll be your guide this week as I talk with Justin Sayre about the movie that changed his life, Auntie Mame. I spoke with Justin at a live event as part of WNYC’s Werk It Festival, in partnership with NewFest, New York’s LGBT film and media arts organization. Don’t worry if you’ve never seen Auntie Mame — we’re gonna give you all the details you’ll need to follow along.

[music: “Prelude and Theme” by Bronislau Kaper]

I had seen the movie Auntie Mame before with my father who loved Turner Classic Movies and AMC and all the old Hollywood classics, but I have to admit that I didn’t really get it growing up as a kid. I think I dismissed it as a movie about a rich lady with lots of costume changes. And watching this movie now, I realize what an amazing figure Mame is.

[excerpt: Auntie Mame]

She’s so ahead of her time, and she’s celebrating difference everywhere, in her friendships, her relationships, even just the way she lives her life. Everything about her is a celebration.

[excerpt: Auntie Mame]

[music: “Mame Goes Abroad” by Bronislau Kaper]

Auntie Mame tells the story of Mame. She’s a wealthy, bohemian New York socialite in the 1920s played by the actress Rosalind Russell, who adopts her conservative brother’s 9-year-old son, Patrick, after her brother dies unexpectedly. In the movie, we watch Mame introduce Patrick to a world he’s never seen, with art, passion, and freedom. Freedom of choice but also the freedom to be true to yourself and try whatever you want.

[excerpt: Auntie Mame]

[music: “Tip-Toe thru’ the Tulips with Me” by Joseph A. Burke]

Mame’s celebration of difference was something that Justin Sayre, a comedian and writer, really took in as a kid growing up. For him, seeing someone like Mame represented what was possible, all the things that were outside his own realm, but that he clearly saw could be possible for him in his life as a gay man. One of the biggest life lessons that Justin took from Mame was this idea of celebrating difference and being open to difference. Throughout his life, he’s asked himself one of the key questions at the heart of Auntie Mame: How do we remain open to each other and to ourselves?

Ms. Percy: So I’d love to take you back in time for a second.

Mr. Sayre: Take me. I’ll look so much younger.

Ms. Percy: [laughs] I’d love for you to just take a couple of seconds to think about the first time you saw Auntie Mame and how old you were and where you were, and just give us an idea of what that first experience was like.

Mr. Sayre: Well, I think with a movie like this, the first thing you are done in by is the color of it. It is so unbelievably colorful. The set changes; there’s different themes; she has different color hair — it’s a smorgasbord of colors for your eyes. And I remember seeing it, I think — I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania, and I was often at my grandmother’s house. I saw it in her living room on a big console television, if you remember those terrible things. And I think I was kind of done in by the color at first.

But it was also at a time — around that time, and this sounds maybe entirely too precocious, but it was true — where I was realizing that there was a whole different life besides the one that I was living. And my grandmother had a very nice house; she was very chic; she dressed beautifully. But there were no books in the house. We didn’t ever discuss art or anything like that. And then, next door, Kate Kerrigan, who’s a musical theater writer here in New York, her grandmother lived next door to us, and she was an artist. And I would go and play with Kate and see this house that was filled with books and music, and my mind just kind of exploded. And I remember being seven or eight years old and saying, that’s what I want.

And Mame, in that perfect conflagration of things, hit me in that moment of saying, this is what it is. You want to think outside the box. You want to have a life that is not ordinary, and is excited about not being ordinary.

Ms. Percy: It’s celebrated.

Mr. Sayre: There’s enthusiasm, endless enthusiasm. So I think they really just hit at the same time, hit at that same moment, for me, as a very young child, that I was like, “OK — we’re different. Let’s just be different and be fine about it.” And it’s ruined me ever since. [laughs]

Ms. Percy: It’s so beautiful, because what strikes me in watching the movie now is how bold she is and how much she celebrates how she is different.

Mr. Sayre: Sure. And — well, and it is something that I go back to all the time, because it is profound. And I think it gets a bad rap because it’s campy. But I think — for me, as a gay person, as a queer artist, camp is my holy grail. It’s the way that my people have made sense of the world for centuries. So it is profound, for me. And even though people can toss this away as a light comedy, what you’re really dealing with is a woman that grew up under a very different set of circumstances, who turned herself into anything she wanted to be and, in doing that, always kept her eyes on the future and more to see and an ever-expanding view of what humanity was.

It’s funny to cry over Auntie Mame.

[laughter]

Ms. Percy: No, I understand.

Mr. Sayre: But I also — I think it’s just also this thing that I’ve been thinking about recently, about just how so much of — you said this interesting point about, you don’t see a lot of movies like this.

Ms. Percy: No.

Mr. Sayre: Well, this is a movie about a woman inventing herself.

Ms. Percy: Over and over again …

Mr. Sayre: Over and over again.

Ms. Percy: … which you also don’t get to see.

Mr. Sayre: No; and in relation to another person, in relation to a young boy; but she is always in the front of that. And I think that it doesn’t get taken seriously, because it’s a “woman’s picture.” And it’s a “camp” picture, and it “performs” itself and is very colorful. But within that, I think there are very deep messages. And I think that it is systematic of ways in which women and queer art is often dismissed, because it’s “oh, it’s just soft, and it’s feel-good, and it’s — there’s too much glitter on it.” And the truth of it is that glitter matters to a lot of people.

[excerpt: Auntie Mame]

Ms. Percy: There’s this amazing sculptor and artist and physicist, this Cuban artist, Enrique Martinez Celaya, who talks about, what if we looked, not for the ways we’re alike but instead looked for the strangeness in each other?

Mr. Sayre: Oh, absolutely.

Ms. Percy: And I love that idea. And when I was watching this movie, I thought, I really sense her strangeness and her giving me permission to be strange.

Mr. Sayre: Absolutely. And also there’s a subtle thing — there’s also this permission to fail. That first scene, she walks in, and she said, “Oh, I thought my loom was in here. I guess I gave that up a couple months ago. Now I’m sculpting.”

Ms. Percy: [laughs] Exactly.

Mr. Sayre: And it’s like, no, she’s just trying it out.

Ms. Percy: Trying out hobbies, trying out men, trying out …

Mr. Sayre: Hair …

Ms. Percy: Exactly. [laughs]

Mr. Sayre: But she’s trying it out with enthusiasm and a lust for life. And why not try it and fail? Why not see if you like it?

Ms. Percy: I also love her resilience. And it actually reminded me of something that you said in an interview with LOGO. You were asked to define gay culture, because of course, you can do that.

Mr. Sayre: I get asked that a lot.

[laughter]

Ms. Percy: Which just — yeah, it’s a very odd question.

Mr. Sayre: It’s a lot of pressure.

[laughter]

Ms. Percy: No kidding. I think you did a great job …

Mr. Sayre: Thanks. I’m glad. [laughs]

Ms. Percy: … because you brilliantly said, “Gay culture is finding a broken figurine on the street and turning it into a lamp. Queer people are resilient. We find beauty and a sense of fun with what many people throw away. You can trace it throughout our history. I call it gay ingenuity. Gay artists are great at turning our small corners of the world into something grand and fabulous” — which, I feel, really gets at Auntie Mame.

Mr. Sayre: Oh, absolutely.

Ms. Percy: Mame is exactly that.

Mr. Sayre: Absolutely. I mean, that’s the thing. [laughs] I love gay people, because — not just because many of them will have sex with me …

Ms. Percy: Yes.

[laughter]

It’s a good reason to love them, yes.

Mr. Sayre: I send them a Christmas card every year: “Thank you for a wonderful year of doing it.”

[laughter]

No, but I love them because you will walk into an apartment or into a house, and you will see things. You’ll be like, “Wait a minute. You —” like I went into my friend’s house, one time, and his kitchen was green, and the theme was dolls.

[laughter]

And you would think that’d be real creepy; and I’m sure, with the lights out and after a couple of mai tais, it was. But I walked in, I thought, “This is brilliant. Oh, my God.” And Mame does that over and over.

Ms. Percy: Over and over again.

Mr. Sayre: “I’m going to go dragons.” You know? Or, “We’re gonna have movable furniture.” And it’s just, yeah, why not try it? Why not delight yourself?

[excerpt: Auntie Mame]

Ms. Percy: And something that also really struck me about her resilience that I didn’t really find many people talking about in relation to this movie is that — you know when the stock market crashes, and she loses all her money? She doesn’t — first of all, she takes care of the people who work with her — like, work in the house. And then she goes and gets a job; several jobs. She’s bad at them.

Mr. Sayre: She’s bad at them.

Ms. Percy: But she goes out and finds work. She wasn’t gonna wait for someone to save her.

Mr. Sayre: No, and someone —

Ms. Percy: Someone does…

Mr. Sayre: You could say, thematically, somebody does; but no, she’s not — because I think it would be easy to write her off, as a character, if that were the case. If she were just some flippant woman with a lot of money, who decorated her — yeah, it would be easy to write her off.

Ms. Percy: That’s why I struggled with even calling her a socialite, because, I thought, it doesn’t do her justice.

Mr. Sayre: She’s a real Bohemian, in that you are looking at life from a different angle. You are trying to get away from bourgeois modernity and rules, and you are trying to experience people for how they are.

You talk about the scene where she goes to ride a horse, and she’s never ridden a horse before. So, Patrick reads her a book on how to ride a horse.

[laughter]

Ms. Percy: [laughs] She can’t put the boots on.

Mr. Sayre: She can’t put the boots on.

Ms. Percy: She can’t figure it out, so she’s walking…

Mr. Sayre: No, but she goes. And she — “ All right, we’re gonna ride a horse now.”

Ms. Percy: And I love it because it’s because she falls in love with the most seemingly unlikely man, this Southerner, who —

Mr. Sayre: Beau.

Ms. Percy: Exactly, who — in every stereotype, you would think, if you were thinking of stereotypes — then, he would be the complete opposite of this bohemian woman. And yet, he completely accepts her — not only accepts her, celebrates her.

Mr. Sayre: Oh, sure. Well, that, again, in this structure of a “woman’s picture,” she’s one of the few female heroines, I think, in all of film, who doesn’t have to make a compromise to any man in any part of this movie. And that’s different. And I think there’s a — it’s written by Patrick Dennis, who was a gay man; there’s certainly a gay underpinning to the whole thing. But I think there is that strength in it — there’s a line in a song by Mary Gauthier that says, “You pray that the people you love will catch up to you.” You don’t wait for them. You don’t ever put yourself on the back burner until they warm up. You just go, and you hope they catch up. And I think that’s what Mame is all about: you hope they catch up.

[excerpt: Auntie Mame]

[music: “Lady Iris” by Bronislau Kaper]

Ms. Percy: I hope you’re enjoying my conversation with Justin Sayre about the movie that changed him, Auntie Mame. Each week in our newsletter we ask you to reflect and share the movies that have changed your life. Dalene Rogers from Brunswick, Maine was changed by the movie Boys Don’t Cry. She says:

Boys Don’t Cry had a double impact on me. It educated me about gender identity and gave me a deeper level of compassion and acceptance for a later time in my life when my daughter married a transgender man. On the day we saw the movie, my partner and I were deeply moved and felt a need to take action, so we rounded up some friends and took a road trip to Washington, DC. for the March on Washington for gay rights.”

Thank you Dalene for sharing your story with us and for being a part of our movie-loving community.

[music: “Tip-Toe thru’ the Tulips with Me” by Joseph A. Burke]

Ms. Percy: We’ve talked a little bit about this already, and what she has meant to you as a gay man. But I’d love to quote you again, because you’re just such an amazing, amazing writer.

Mr. Sayre: Sure. I’ve said so much good stuff.

[laughter]

Ms. Percy: This was for Out magazine. And you talked a little bit about the journey that it’s been for you, to come out as a gay man — not to others, specifically, but, you said, to yourself — to come out as a gay man to yourself. And you said, “I’m very gay now. I’ve taken my obviousness to another level. If everyone’s going to assume it anyway, why not give them a show? I wear an assortment of caftans, scarves are always in the rotation, and I never met a brooch I didn’t like. I put it out there, and I’m never leaving a room for doubt. I’m out. I break the rules of masculinity because I’ve always been an outlier there, and only after I came out to myself was I able to see that as my strength. Now people rarely ask me about my sexuality, and when they ask about my gender, I usually quote Fitzgerald and reply, ‘I know myself but that is all.’”

I just wonder, when you’re thinking about your identity, how Auntie Mame — how Mame, in particular, helped you think about that identity.

Mr. Sayre: Well, I think Mame, as a figure, is always in my mind a little bit, because —

Ms. Percy: I felt like you were channeling her, by the way, when I first met you. I was like, “Mame is here with us.”

Mr. Sayre: You’re not the first person to say that!

Ms. Percy: I know I’m not. I know I’m not. [laughs]

Mr. Sayre: [laughs] And I do think — it’s weird, because when I go back and watch this movie, I realize that I’ve picked up more Mame-isms without even having seen it. Like there’s a moment when she starts decorating her clothes with just things she finds off tables — I’ve done that.

[laughter]

I’ve done that.

Ms. Percy: Household items. It’s true.

Mr. Sayre: I’ve worn a tablecloth as a cape, and people were on the floor, gagging. And I was like, “This came off my table.”

[laughter]

“There’s a wine stain on my shoulder.”

Why I think of Mame: I think it’s — I never had a moment of being “in.” Everybody — since I was an infant, practically, everybody was like, “Whoa, wait. Trouble.” So I never had — there was no pretense. I think what comes up for me now is that it is not just an exploration of myself, but allowing myself room to explore further and, in doing so, allowing more people in, because I think that’s the thing, especially now.

I was asked, recently, about diversity. I get asked about diversity quite a bit.

Ms. Percy: Just like “Define gay culture,” “Tell us about diversity.” [laughs]

Mr. Sayre: And I’m like, you do see that I’m just a white kid from Pennsylvania, right?

Ms. Percy: It’s the accent. They’re confused.

Mr. Sayre: They are confused. They think they’re getting Julia Sugarbaker.

[laughter]

They’re waiting for me to really make a speech.

And I said, the thing I think about diversity — and, I think, the thing that we often get wrong about diversity is, it’s not about taking away seats at the table, because that’s where people get crazy. It’s like, “Oh, well, if I have to listen to your stories, you can’t listen to mine.” That’s not what it’s about. It’s about adding seats to the table. It’s about making sure we take out the leaf, and we extend the table so that everybody gets heard and allowing time for everybody to get heard.

When you live — and it goes back to that Mame quote, that life’s a banquet, most people are just starving — “Most poor sons of bitches are just starving to death” — it is saying, there’s room for more. You don’t have to feel limited. You don’t have to live in a mentality of scarcity, that there’s only a few stories that get told or only a few ways of telling. We have to live in an ever-expanding view of what it is to be human.

And that sounds very profound, coming out of this movie, but it is really something that I continually think about. And as a gay person, I think of that in how I can expand my own vision of who I am as a human being, but how the issues that affect me also affect so many other people around me and how that intersectionality is profound and real, and how we all get something really deep and wonderful out of it. So it sounds very coyly deep, but I really think that it is —

Ms. Percy: Well, I think you’re describing Auntie Mame; I think it’s coyly deep.

Mr. Sayre: Sorry, everybody. You thought it was just a movie about outfit changes, and I’m telling you, it’s a treatise on the human spirit. [laughs]

[excerpt: Auntie Mame]

Ms. Percy: The only misstep in the movie, that I really want to talk to you about, and you already know what it is…

Mr. Sayre: Please, tell me.

Ms. Percy: …which is the Japanese butler.

Mr. Sayre: Oh, girl.

[laughter]

See, here’s the thing about America: it’s really troublesome.

Ms. Percy: Yes. [laughs] It’s like, I really want to celebrate — I celebrate so much about this movie; and then I’m like, what were they thinking? [laughs]

Mr. Sayre: I was home, two nights ago, watching a Judy Garland musical. And I thought, “Oh, this is — oh!” And I’m just sitting there, going, “God, this is great! This is so good.” And then she comes on in blackface. And I was like, ohhh.

[laughter]

Oh, what? What? Out of nowhere — out of nowhere.

Ms. Percy: Oh, God. Wow.

Mr. Sayre: And it is the thing, it is the trouble of American film, that just when you think — they get you. All of a sudden: racism …

[laughter]

… just crazy, crazy, profound, troubling racism.

Ms. Percy: So we’ll just leave that there. I don’t know what else to say about it. [laughs] So, I don’t know. He’s a total racist caricature, but he’s also funny. He’s very sweet to everybody. He’s a nice person.

Ms. Percy: And he is beloved. He’s a nice person. He’s part of the family.

Mr. Sayre: Beloved; he’s part of the family. But oh, it’s troublesome.

Ms. Percy: So this amazing writer and journalist, Hugh Ryan, he wrote a beautiful piece about —

Mr. Sayre: Oh, I know Hugh.

Ms. Percy: Do you know Hugh?

Mr. Sayre: Oh, he’s lovely; very smart.

Ms. Percy: Did you read his piece about Auntie Mame in The Guardian?

Mr. Sayre: Yes.

Ms. Percy: Well, he said this amazing thing, which — he talked about watching it over and over again. He was introduced to it by his grandmother.

Mr. Sayre: Sure.

Ms. Percy: And he said, “It’s not the story that gets me anymore, but that remembered feeling of sudden, wondrous possibility.”

I just wonder, as you’ve been watching Auntie Mame throughout your life, how it’s changed for you and how you’ve grown together.

Mr. Sayre: I think what changes for me, as I continue to go back to it — and luckily, in Los Angeles they do a big showing at The Egyptian of it, every year that I go to.

Ms. Percy: Oh, yes, every Christmas.

Mr. Sayre: Every Christmas, and I go, and all these queens wear beads that I wear, and we shake the beads — it’s very strange.

But I think what continually comes up for me is, again, this question of how do you stay open? How do you not get stuck in not allowing other people in your life and not allowing yourself to know about what other people are going through? Because I think that is what Mame is all about. She’s constantly inviting people into her life and constantly wanting to learn about new people.

It’s very funny to me, because I wrote these YA novels, and I went to a school to talk about them. And the kids that were there, they were talking to me about how they wanted to keep on top of trends. They were very concerned about knowing what the trends were, so they could keep on top of them. And I said, “Well, why don’t you just invent them? Why are you listening to people tell you what’s trendy?” It’s like, “Well, how would we know, if…” So, you do it.

And I worry all the time — since we live in a culture where it’s constant; everything’s pushed at us — that we’re losing room for self-invention. And I think, as I get older, things like Mame and the lesson of self-invention becomes more and more important; to say to other people, “You don’t have to do anything you’re told. You just have to be kind. And you just have to never stop looking. That’s it.”

Ms. Percy: And just be yourself.

Mr. Sayre: That’s it. That’s all you gotta do. That’s all you gotta do. Just keep going, and as you go, get those arms wider and wider. That’s all.

[excerpt: Auntie Mame]

[music: “Auntie Mame” by Bronislau Kaper]

Ms. Percy: Justin Sayre is a writer, performer, and a regular fixture of the downtown cabaret scene in New York. His comedy album is The Gay Agenda and he’s also the author of a series of YA novels — Husky, Pretty, and most recently, Mean.

A big thank you to all the folks at NewFest, WNYC, The Greene Space, and the Werk It Festival who helped make this live event happen. And a special shout out to Melissa LaCasse, Alicia Allen, Ricardo Fernandez, Cameron Thompkins, Duke Markos, Nick McCarthy and Radhika Rajkumar.

Warner Brothers produced Auntie Mame, and the clips you heard in this episode are credited entirely to them. Warner Brothers also produced the soundtrack, and Bronislau Kaper wrote the original score.

[music: “Miss Gooch and Finale” by Bronislau Kaper]

Next time on This Movie Changed Me, we’ll be talking about the beautiful Mira Nair movie, The Namesake. If you want to watch the movie before our conversation, you can find it streaming in all the usual places — and don’t forget your tissues. This one is a tear-jerker.

The team behind This Movie Changed Me is: Maia Tarrell, Chris Heagle, Tony Liu, Kristin Lin, and Lilian Vo. This podcast is produced by On Being Studios, which is located on Dakota Land. And we also produce other podcasts you might enjoy, like On Being with Krista Tippett and Becoming Wise — find those wherever you like to listen or visit us at onbeing.org to find out more.

I’m Lily Percy. As Justin Sayre says: let’s just be different and be fine about it.

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