Charles Busch writes, directs, and stars in a delightful, frantic, thoughtful picture about the hunt for a lost film.
(This review is part of our 2021 coverage of Reeling: The Chicago LGBTQ+ International Film Festival)
What to do with one’s final reel? Charles Busch, a legendary drag performer, and Carl Andress are the filmmakers of this picture. They bring humor and heart to issues such as restoration and romance. The Sixth Reel, a loving tribute, is a love letter to old movies and their material, as well as the necessity of preservation. It’s also a gentle rhapsody about growing older and facing the final act of one’s life.
The Sixth Reel is about Jimmy Nichols (Busch), who is a middling movie ephemera seller with a reputation of conveniently looking after elderly collectors right before their deaths. When his latest ward, Gerald, a renowned film historian, dies with both a sizable collection and whispers of a long-lost film in his possession, Jimmy thinks he’s hit the jackpot.
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Fans of Busch will instantly recognize his movie obsession. In The Sixth Reel he plays a sort-of version of himself, his life largely expressed through film quotes and trivia. He brings his usual wry and Wildean humor to the script, his performance, and his directorial choices.
A longtime collaborator with Busch, Julie Halston astounds as Helen. Her comedic sense of timing is matched by the depth she brings to a lonely woman suddenly swept up into a bizarre world she knows little about. She plays wonderfully off her old friend and even manages to out theatrical him at times, like when the pair end up in drag as part of a ruse. It’s campy and performative and everyone is having a ball.
The Sixth Reel’s ending is wonderfully restorative. Jimmy, Helen, and the motley crew of movie aficionados are happy with their decision. Film culture and legacy remain intact and important for future generations. And most importantly, through Jimmy, we get a restoration of hope, a hope for a happy ending, and a warm reminder that there’s nothing wrong with romance coming in during the final act.