Flames on the Side of My Face: A Tribute to the Women of ‘Clue’

What is it about “Clue”? Thirty years after the kooky non-hit murder mystery left theaters (along with its three original endings), it's become as much of a cult phenomenon as “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” Tim Curry's other mansion romp with a delirious lineup of characters. Don't believe me? Until Paramount stepped in to protest, LA's NuArt Theatre conducted “shadow cast” screenings of “Clue” featuring costumed cast imitators who mimed the movie in front of the projection. That's a next-level tribute.

Based on the Parker Brothers board game, “Clue” is a whodunit in a very traditional sense. It is literally a dark and stormy night, there is literally a butler who might've done it, and there are Agatha Christie-type explanations for the homicides at the end of the movie. So why is it beloved? That answer, unlike the culprit of the movie's seven murders, reveals itself quickly: “Clue” gives us a highly talented cast that commits to silliness. Their nuttiness — from Tim Curry's impish grace to Michael McKean's whiny charm — is airtight.

More importantly, it's one of the few ensemble comedies where the women rule, get all the best lines, and routinely put the men in their place without ever having to sleep with them. You come away from “Clue” exalting Eileen Brennan (Mrs. Peacock), Lesley Ann Warren (Miss Scarlet), and Madeline Kahn (Mrs. White) and thanking their gentlemen costars for not disrupting their rancor. Peacock, Scarlet, and White are femme fatales who'd rather scowl and crack jokes than entice anybody. Why should they be interested in these specimens? The movie's lone lascivious male, Professor Plum, is harangued for his disgusting lechery.

I worshiped the VHS of “Clue” as a kid and lapped up the campy intrigue. The movie's nefarious, but totally PG antics made me feel like an honorary grownup who kind-of-sort-of understood blackmail, prostitution, and J. Edgar Hoover. That knowledge isn't essential to loving the movie, but it provides a sinister backdrop to the proceedings. It also helps you understand why the movie's female triumvirate is so beloved. Beneath the fabulous costumes and whizzbang one-liners, they're law-breaking bad-asses. Even Yvette, a minor role, defies our expectations by dropping her frou-frou accent in one strange scene. These dangerous dames deserve more recognition, and today we honor the bejeweled “Clue” murderesses whose comic chops hit us like a crashing chandelier. 

Mrs. Peacock: Frazzled and feathered forever

Mrs. Peacock is basically the unhinged aunt who found out about your Thanksgiving dinner on accident, ambushes without an invitation, and assumes she's the life of the festivities upon the first sip/barrel of cognac. She's correct. She also can't hear you. She has everything to say and she's tired and she's angry and she needs Netflix explained to her and she loves you and she forgot your name. Honey, what? Speak up. Did you know I was once a senator's wife? Louder, dear. What? Oh, shut up.

It's worth noting that all three female leads of “Clue” are Oscar nominees, including Eileen Brennan. Controversial stance: I think Eileen Brennan is better and more dynamic here than in “Private Benjamin,” where she played the unamused Capt. Doreen Lewis. In “Clue,” she's at once an addle-brained nuisance (whose screaming fits earn a hard slap from Mr. Green) and a quietly cunning, corrupt Washington player. This is a serious tenet of “Clue” worship: The women are funny and wacky, but they're also dead serious in their criminality. 

Miss Scarlet: The executive realness of the red light district

The sneering glamorpuss Miss Scarlet remains the most underrated character in “Clue.” And why? I can't figure it out. She embodies the frenetic, neurotic energy of “Clue” better than any of her costars, and she comes to life like a comic book sorceress when she wields the candlestick, gun, and lead pipe. Her lithe, cool presence and coltish comic energy are weird and rare. She's sultry but in your face. She's hilarious but gritty and strident. She's a saucy and sexual capitalist, but she's not a prostitute; she's the madam. And she's the only character with enough bark to shut up Wadsworth. 

Lesley Ann Warren is one of the ultimate “black coffee actresses.” She might not be your taste, but whatever you like is almost certainly just a weaker version of her. I include folks like Jane Fonda, Jane Curtin, and Lee Grant in this category. (All are personal favorites.) Their lowered glances are lethal, and their snickers can emasculate every gent in the room. I love when Warren deadpans to Mr. Green, “I thought men like you were usually called a fruit.” Grimly insensitive the way a madam has to be, particularly to a man who will never rank among her clientele. 

Mrs. White: Slyly, sweetly the craziest person in the room

Mrs. White arrives at Wadsworth's soiree with more mystery than anyone else in the room. Her funereal presence is strange, and she keeps to herself. Is she meek? Creepy? Contemptuous? The answer turns out to be “proudly murderous.” When the focus turns to the unexplained death of her husband(s), Mrs. White tosses out the funniest jokes in the movie. “Husbands should be like Kleenex,” she opines, “Soft, strong, and disposable.” She is a cool, classy Clytemnestra. 

If you don't wake up once a month and say out loud, “Damn. Madeline Kahn is dead,” we have nothing in common. Not only did Kahn improvise the famous “flames on the side of my face” dialogue above, but her peculiar comic appeal is just inimitable. Kahn could give you exasperated, vaudevillian loopiness (think “Blazing Saddles”), but she always paired it with a core of awkward vulnerability (think “Paper Moon”). Mrs. White could've just been a droll role. In Kahn's hands, she becomes the sly vamp who might break her silence with an operatic scream at any moment. Madeline Kahn's signature blend is silliness and soul, and here she revels in the former and astounds us by forgoing the latter. 

“Clue” is as mindless or as cool as you want it to be. It's a farce, but it makes at least one salient point: Over-the-top comic angst in the hands of an actor can be fun, but in the glamorous, gloved hands of a killer actress, it's a superpower.