Since the early ’80s John Epperson has been performing as Lypsinka, his stage persona who captivates audiences by lip-synching to a dizzying mix of melodramatic scenes featuring some of Hollywood’s most legendary leading ladies. Epperson is a film buff and his knowledge of classic movies is extensive to say the least. That’s why it’s fitting that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would reach out to him asking if he (as Lypsinka) would like to host a an upcoming screening of the Rock Hudson-Doris Day classic sex comedy Pillow Talk at Manhattan’s Metrograph.
We called up Epperson a few days before the screening to talk about his love for Hollywood, how movies comforted his friends during the AIDS crisis, and what he thought of Rami Malek’s teeth in Bohemian Rhapsody.
Why did you decide to host a screening of Pillow Talk?
It wasn’t my idea! [Laughs] The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences came to me with the idea. I’ve hosted movie screenings before, and I’ve curated a couple of series here in New York City, so I suppose these fellows at the Academy knew that I am a film buff and a self-taught film student and historian. And I guess they said, “Well, let’s ask him!” So they They presented two possibilities and asked me to pick one. One was Some Like It Hot, and the other was Pillow Talk. Some Like It Hot just seemed almost too obvious, with the men in drag. And Pillow Talk was a lot more complicated for all kinds of reasons, partly because Rock Hudson was in his real life a gay man who had been “passing,” as they used to say. He was living an imitation of life, if you will. And Pillow Talk was produced by a gay man named Ross Hunter, and he also produced Imitation of Life the same year with Lana Turner. So there’s all these complicated things around Pillow Talk that’s not just on-screen, but off-screen as well. It was an opportunity to tell some of the audience who may not know about Ross Hunter, and Doris Day’s troubled life, and to talk about some of that, but to also talk about the movie itself.
Is Pillow Talk your favorite Rock Hudson-Doris Day pairing?
Well, I think there were only three. Although I’ve probably seen the other two, but in a way, this one seems that it could’ve been the freshest because it was the first. They were just getting to know one another. I think Doris Day…it was kind of new for her to be working at Universal Pictures, I believe, because she had been at Warner Brothers for a very long time. And Rock Hudson was a Universal employee—as was Ross Hunter, the producer—so in a way, Doris Day was kind of stepping into new territory. And maybe that’s one of the reasons it’s fresh. But it’s also kind of new territory for Rock Hudson because most of the work that he had done up until then was not comedies. He’d been in one comedy in 1952, a small part. The movie was called Has Anybody Seen My Gal? And it was directed by Douglas Sirk, who later would direct the Lana Turner Imitation of Life. And Douglas Sirk then cast Rock Hudson in ‘54 in a movie with Jane Wyman called Magnificent Obsession. That was a very serious movie, a drama, and Rock Hudson became a big star. So he just kept making serious films for the next five years, a lot of them with Douglas Sirk and Ross Hunter. And then, along comes this movie with Doris Day—this comedy—and he jumps right in, and he’s very good at it. He was probably itching to do something funny and silly.
I attended a previous Academy screening at Metrograph where Bianca Del Rio hosted Auntie Mame. I think seeing Pillow Talk with an audience should be fun.
I’m hoping to do more of the kind of thing that I’m doing at Metrograph. Like I said, I have hosted screenings before, and I really enjoy it. I had a friend who died at St. Vincent’s, which of course is torn down now. But he died of AIDS in the early ‘90s at St. Vincent’s, and I went to visit him, and we found ourselves talking about Busby Berkeley movies. I kind of apologized, and he said, “Oh, no, I like talking about movies. It’s comforting.” And over the years, I’ve realized he’s right. You don’t even have to be sick to find it comforting; you can be very healthy. And I have an active Facebook page where we often talk about movies, and I hope young people will come to the screening of Pillow Talk. I hope young people who’ve never seen it will want to come.
You said that you’re a self-taught film historian. Do you watch any current movies from Hollywood, or do you mostly stick to the classics?
Because I’m a member of the Screen Actors Guild, I get some new movies at the end of the year in the mail. And I have those. So far, I’ve only watched one of them; I watched Bohemian Rhapsody.
Did you like it?
I enjoyed that. Although I felt the actor was struggling with the teeth. [Laughs]
If you were a guest programmer for TCM for one night, what three movies would you schedule?
You know, someone did start a Facebook page for “Make Lypsinka a host for Turner Classic Movies,” or something like that. [Laughs] And I have to admit, I have fantasized about that. Well, I think I would pick Imitation of Life, which I’ve mentioned a few times already, and the Alfred Hitchcock movie Marnie. I see those two as kind of sister movies, if you will. They’re both about a woman who’s pretending to be something she’s not, and I actually think you could, if you wanted to, interpret that as having a gay subtext, since every gay person has to decide at some point, will I let the world see who I am or not? And some people choose to not do that, like Rock Hudson. He chose to pass as straight. The third movie…. hmm. Well, a movie that I like a lot is a Jane Fonda movie called Klute.
She won her first Oscar for that, right?
That’s correct, although she was nominated a year earlier for They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
Well, it kinds of ties into that theme, although she’s not really passing for something else. Though she is kind of role-playing as a prostitute. But also just because she is so damn good [in that film], and a lot of people wouldn’t really know that if they don’t know her history. Because it’s almost as if she isn’t acting. She’s such a good actress in Klute; it feels like she’s just being that person and not acting [the role]. And I think the movie, although it’s about a seedy side of life, it has a sort of glamour to it that New York doesn’t have anymore. It has this seedy glamour that I miss about New York.
Is there something major that you miss from old Hollywood?
I’ll get on my soapbox a little here. [Laughs] What I miss from the arts and from the entertainment world in general—this goes across the arts, really, across the world of opera, ballet, and in Hollywood—is that personality is not encouraged like it used to be. For instance, in the ballet world, technique seems to be more important than personality. And there was a time when I moved to New York 40 years ago when both were important. But Fran Lebowitz has a theory about that. She says that AIDS killed not only artists, but also the discriminating audience that expected personality as well as technique. So, where are the stars? The stars of today don’t seem to be quite as unique as, say, someone like Barbra Streisand. You know, she came along at just the right time: this untraditional-looking woman who became a movie star. That couldn’t happen now, probably.
You mentioned what AIDS did to the arts, and that then ties back to Pillow Talk with Rock Hudson.
Yes, and I was in Paris when Rock Hudson died. It was big news then, I remember, in 1985. Because he had been there just the year earlier, and because they thought in Paris that they had found some sort of miracle cure. He went there to get treatment, so it was big news in Europe when he died. And of course, we’re told that before that, he appealed to his friends Ron and Nancy in the White House, who would not help him. If you really want to take things full circle, what’s the White House doing about it now?
They’re cutting funds for AIDS research.
Well, occasionally, I’ll see a headline that says, “Our current President wants to stop AIDS.” But has he done that? And his homophobic supporters—do they want AIDS to be stopped? You have to stop and wonder about that.
Head over to Metrograph’s website for more info and tickets to Pillow Talk.