Sun, Jan 22, 2006 - Page 18 News List

Five decades of gender-bending

Born Down Under 50 years ago, big in Britain and now in the US, Dame Edna and her alter-ego actor Barry Humphries are still at it


There is nothing you can name -- nothing in the world -- that is anything like Dame Edna, the brazen Australian hausfrau with the plummy voice, upholstered couture, sharp eye and acid tongue.

An institution almost since her stage debut in 1955, Dame Edna became a US phenomenon about 10 years ago. The Gladiatrix of Gladiolas is touring with her Tony Award-nominated extravaganza, Dame Edna: Back With a Vengeance!

This follows Dame Edna's 2001 production "The Royal Tour," a self-reference to the megastar whose image soon will be on Australian postage.

Barry Humphries is the Austra-lian actor whose relationship with Dame Edna can be described as Robin Leach once referred to Edna's gynecologist and interior decorator -- "one and the same."

Humphries maintains a palpable distance from the doughty and malicious "but in a caring way" character. He never speaks of Dame Edna as his creation. She is a personification less relevant to gender-bending than to Humphries' malicious Dada-ist take on social politics. (Humphries is thrice divorced and a father currently married to actress Lizzie Spender.)

Both Humphries and Dame Edna address theirs as a symbiotic, but mutually disadvantageous, relationship.

In the hilarious 1989 autobio-graphy, My Gorgeous Life, Dame Edna dismisses Humphries as "still my manager, but under solicitor's thumb," saying his contributions to her show diminish annually.

"I am her much-disparaged manager," Humphries acknowledged in a telephone interview from his home in Switzerland.

"Considering the opportunities I've given that woman, it's the worst case of biting the hand that feeds that I know of. I've put my own career on permanent hold. I'm not known. I don't get roles as a character actor -- not very often, anyway. And it's entirely due to this woman. I was hoping, 50 years ago, that she'd sink without a trace."

Edna Everage made her stage debut on Dec. 19, 1955, shortly after Australian newspaper advertisements urged readers to put up 15,000 beds for athletes competing in the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games.

In that sketch, Humphries presented Edna as a frumpy, pompous suburbanite more house-proud than hospitable, suggesting that her son "would be tickled to death if you could let us have a real Red Indian" when asked what nationality of athlete she prefers.

Audiences immediately recognized and embraced this embodiment of a particular breed of bourgeois housewife obsessed with euphemism, class and appearances. Dame Edna owes more than a small debt to Humphries' mother, who felt that her son's most notorious character was a national mbarrassment.

The most affecting illustration of the mother-son-Dame relationship occurred when Humphries, then living in London, traveled to Australia to introduce his newborn son to his mother. As she listened to a talk radio show enthusias-tically disparaging Humphries, she ignored the baby and upbraided her son. Furious, he stalked into the next room, called the talk show as Dame Edna and vehemently denounced Humphries.

"Barry's passport should be removed, and I happen to know that his mother agrees with me," Dame Edna declared.

Humphries' mother, who heard this pronouncement, never brought it up with her son.

Humphries' father was a homebuilder who piled the family into the car for painfully slow Sunday drives touring new suburban developments.

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