How to Build a Girl is a quirky endearing coming of age movie. Set in mid-90s England, it concentrates on sixteen-year-old outcast Johanna Morrigan (Beanie Feldstein), who is continually bullied at school. While her family is supportive, they are pretty unstable. Plus, the only “people” she can talk to are the pictures of famous figures on her wall that come to life in her fantasies. She’s desperately yearning for something to happen in her life and take her out of this mess. That something arrives in the form of a job at an indie rock magazine.
At first the douchey all-male staff dismisses Johanna, but she manages to win them over with her genuine writing talent. She takes it a step further by reinventing herself as Dolly Wilde, a brash, biting music critic. Armed with a new persona and look (shocking red hair and even louder outfits), Johanna’s star quickly rises. But she soon realizes that she doesn’t necessarily like the girl she has become.
The movie is adapted from Caitlin Moran’s memoir and her life makes for an unusual yet enjoyable story. You root for Johanna to succeed and cringe when she falls on her face. Feldstein is extremely charming in the role. She brings both heart and the humor to her character. I also thought it was great that director Coky Giedroyc wasn’t afraid to show Johanna as a sexual person. She hops from man to man, like a sexual anthropologist. Usually with plus-sized women in movies, their sexuality is downplayed or ignored. Giedroyc puts it all out there in a frank manner.
I liked the overall message of the film: being comfortable in your skin and owning who you are despite what others think. Johanna sees that she has built herself up into someone she doesn’t recognize, so she breaks it all down and rebuilds. She ultimately becomes the person she is most proud of. It’s something anyone can identify with, in your teen years and beyond.
It wasn’t until a few days after seeing Girl that I realized how much it reminded me of the 1994 comedy Muriel’s Wedding. They each feature outrageous young women that don’t fit in with the popular crowd and decide to make themselves over into someone new. Both protagonists have oddball families. Plus, music (ABBA, indie rock) is featured heavily. Feldstein’s Johanna also has a similar affable energy as Toni Collette’s Muriel. The two films would make a great double feature. Maybe at a drive-in.
“Fame, I’m gonna live forever!” Or for at least 40 years. Back in the 80s, Fame gave a fresh take on the big screen musical and instantly left a mark on pop culture. The movie follows eight students (musicians, actors, dancers) at New York’s High School of Performing Arts. Working from a script written by Christopher Gore, director Alan Parker captures all the highs and lows over a four-year period. Let’s remember, remember, remember, remember (yeah, I did it) Fame.
During the audition process we meet the fresh hopefuls looking to secure a spot at the prestigious PA school. Coco (Irene Cara) is a confident triple threat. Bruno (Lee Curreri) is the innovative musician. Lisa (Laura Dean) lacks confidence and direction, but still manages to get into the dance department. Shy Doris (Maureen Teefy) gets pushed into auditioning by her overbearing stage mother. She’s joined in the drama dept. by closeted Montgomery (Paul McCrane) and class clown Ralph (Barry Miller). Rounding out the group is Leroy (Gene Anthony Ray), who quickly impresses with his dancing. Parker cuts between the main characters and a bunch of other wannabes, establishing the culture of the school. Everyone is striving for something.
The kids arrive for freshman year (with the thoughtful “Dogs in the Yard” playing over a montage) where they discover that PA is not an easy school. It’s especially difficult for Leroy since he’s illiterate. I could have done without the stereotypical “inner city youth who can’t read and the hard-nosed teacher (Ann Meara) who pushes him to learn” storyline. But it was 1980, so what do you expect? Doris and Montgomery become fast friends as the awkward outsiders. She worries she’s not colorful enough for this school. Whereas he is trying to blend into the background.
The big rousing number in this year is “Hot Lunch Jam”. The students dance on tables, bang on the piano, and sing about macaroni and baloney. It’s a fun song.
Hilary (Antonia Franceschi) arrives on the scene in the dance department and promptly pisses off Coco by going after her boyfriend, Leroy. Lisa is kicked out of the department by her harsh teacher. We think she’s going to jump in front of a subway train, but she just dumps her dance gear on the tracks instead. I’m glad Gore spared the audience from the usual teen suicide story. It would have been too afterschool special. Meanwhile, Montgomery comes out to his drama class. A safe space for a gay guy if there ever was one.
Bruno is reluctant to share his music with others, so his enthusiastic dad, a taxi driver, steals his tape and blasts it from his cab outside of the school. In the most over the top musical moment in the film, students rush out of their classes and start dancing in the street, or on top of cars, as “Fame” plays. Off-screen the song was huge, going to number #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and winning the Oscar for Best Original Song.
Doris comes out of her shell and rebels against her bossy mother. She also falls for Ralph, leaving Montgomery out in the cold. He expresses his loneliness with “Is it Okay if I Call You Mine”, a very pretty sad ballad.
My favorite song on the soundtrack, “Out Here on My Own”, is featured in this year. Coco’s vocals and the beautiful piano accompanying her are perfect. The track became the film’s second hit single and garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song. It was the first time two songs from the same movie were nominated.
Ralph’s stand-up comedy career takes off, but his need to party like a Belushi after his shows hurts his personal life. Luckily, he comes down to earth before something tragic happens. Meanwhile, Hilary gets pregnant and decides to have an abortion. She won’t let a baby get in the way of her ballet career. On a better note, Leroy is offered a spot in Alvin Ailey’s dance company.
In the worst moment in the movie, a sleazy producer manipulates Coco into taking off her top for a “screen test”. She’s sobbing as the camera rolls. But there’s no follow up since we don’t see her again until the end of the film. I would have liked to see more of her POV. Without that, the scene feels exploitative. Maybe that was the point, to show how terribly young women trying to break into the industry are treated. Still, it could have been handled better by Parker and Gore. That’s actually a recurring problem I have with the film. They’re constantly bouncing around from character to character. I wish there was more of a plot and time to flesh out these stories.
The finale comes with the graduation ceremony and a performance of “I Sing the Body Electric”. Lisa, Coco, and Montgomery have solos, Leroy dances; and Bruno plays the piano, finally sharing his music with the world. The lyrics talk about looking forward to the you yet to come and knowing you’ll shine brightly then. It’s appropriate for these kids with their dreams of success, yearning to shed their old skin and be reborn as stars. I also like the arrangement with the full orchestra, rock band, and choir. The song does get schmaltzy, but it’s still works for me. It’s a touching end to the movie and a great sendoff for these characters headed towards their next chapter.
On Friday, May 9, 1980, Paramount Pictures released Sean Cunningham’s Friday the 13th. The low budget horror film about a serial killer picking off camp counselors was a surprise hit that year. It proved that a simple premise with genuine scares can go a long way. A thousand sequels followed, but none of them matched the original. Here are the five scariest moments from the movie.
5. Don’t Have Sex
The film opens at Camp Crystal Lake in the 1950s. An amorous young couple sneaks off to a storage room to get busy. They don’t count on a killer joining them. Not the kind of threesome you want. They’re cornered and quickly murdered. This is a prime example of why you shouldn’t have sex of any kind in a horror movie. But, if you do, have an escape route.
4. In the bathroom
Here’s one reason I’m not into camping: the bathroom situation. I have zero interest in walking through the woods to get to a toilet or a shower. Especially when a psycho could we hanging out in there. Marcie (Jeannie Taylor) thinks her friends are playing a trick on her, waiting to pop out from one of the shower stalls. The tension builds as we watch her pull back every curtain. But then, surprise, the killer is actually behind her and Marcie gets an ax to the face.
While Jack (Kevin Bacon) and Marcie were having sex (don’t do it!), a dead body was above them, on the top bunk, and the killer was underneath their bed. That’s a sinister sandwich. After Marcie exits, the killer drives an arrow through Jack’s throat from below. It’s disgustingly bloody. On a side note, back in the day I worked for Laura Kightlinger’s agent and got to know the actress/writer a little. Great woman. Laura worked on Will & Grace. Kevin Bacon guest starred on W&G. So that makes me two degrees away from Kevin Bacon. Kinda.
2. Kill her, Mommy, kill her
If you’ve seen Friday the 13th or the first Scream, you know that Mrs. Voorhies (Betsy Palmer) is the killer, out to avenge her son’s death. She seems like a sweet middle-aged mom when she pops up towards the end of the movie. But she quickly shows her crazy ways and it’s quite frightening, especially when she speaks in Jason’s voice. Mommy has gone around the bend. She chases Alice (Adrienne King) through the camp in a series of near misses. Alice manages to get the upper hand and chops her head off. In slow-motion.
1. Beneath the surface
After Alice has wacked Mrs. V., she decides to climb into a canoe and take a nap. Sure. She wakes up the next morning in the middle of the lake. Tranquil piano music plays as she looks at her reflection in the peaceful water. Then a deformed zombie-like Jason suddenly surfaces, dragging her into the lake. It’s one of the best last scares in a horror movie. If that doesn’t scare the bejezus out of you, you’re already lacking in bejezus.
In 1990, prolific director Sidney Lumet released his latest feature film, Q&A. The plot focuses on Michael Brennan (Nick Nolte), a New York City cop who has murdered a criminal in cold blood and made it look like self-defense. A young rising district attorney, Al Reilly (Timothy Hutton), is assigned to what he’s told will be a simple case. As he digs deeper, he discovers Brennan’s complicated misdeeds. The veteran cop bullies and intimidates witnesses, covers his tracks with lies, and ultimately kills to keep his secrets. He’s empowered by higher ups in the system who look the other way or mobsters who provide the additional muscle he needs. But Al refuses to enable Brennan. He’s committed to upholding the law, even if it could get him killed.
During his investigation, Al encounters Bobby Texador (Armand Assante), a notorious drug boss who witnessed the murder. He’s a colorful character that just so happens to be dating Al’s ex-girlfriend, Nancy (Jenny Lumet). Al still loves her and regrets the breakup. This is actually one problem I found with the movie. Every time Al and Nancy are on screen together the movie grinds to a halt. Nobody cares. The audience for this film didn’t come to see a stale love story. The better interactions are between Hutton and Nolte or Hutton and Assante. They are all excellent in their roles and have great chemistry.
Lumet adapted the screenplay from Edwin Torres’ novel of the same name and it’s easy to see why he was drawn to the material. The book uses themes that the director had explored before in his movies (Serpico, Prince of the City, The Verdict): corruption, abuse of power, and the little guy fighting back against it all. Lumet expertly weaves a David & Goliath story into a crime thriller, adding complexity to the gritty action. The film also touches on issues of race, class, and sexuality. The last one, specifically how the LGBT characters are treated, could have been executed better though.
Q&A didn’t perform well at the box office or get a lot of acclaim from the critics, but I find it to be an interesting film. Even though Lumet has gone down this road before he manages to cover the material from a fresh perspective. It’s still worth taking a look all these years later.
I enjoy celebrating Easter Sunday by watching Godspell, which is as close as I wanna get to church. The film, based on the stage play of the same name, came out in 1973. That same year another musical about Jesus Christ, of the Superstar variety, was also released. I prefer Godspell, mainly because it’s so wacky. The gist of it is that Jesus (Victor Garber), John the Baptist/Judas (David Haskell), and a bunch of hippie disciples are traipsing around an empty New York City reenacting parables, singing, and dancing. It’s like a Sunday school lesson on acid. The cast, led by a baby-faced Garber, is very talented. You also have beautiful shots of early 70s NYC, including the recently built World Trade Center. The music is my favorite part, though. These are my top three songs.
Day by Day
When the hippie troupe first comes together, they sing this number while building their home base in an old junk yard. It’s a fun one to sing and clap along to, if the spirit moves you.
By My Side
A beautiful ballad with perfect overlapping harmonies. I like how stripped down it is.
Turn Back, O Man
This sultry number contains the line, “Come here Jesus, I got something to show you”. WTF?? But, I’m here for it. They filmed this at the historic Andrew Carnegie mansion. Great setting.
Fifty years ago this month, The Boys in the Band debuted in theaters. The movie was groundbreaking in depicting gay men and their lives at a time when it was taboo to do so. Other films alluded to homosexuality or danced around the subject. Boys put everything out in the open with three dimensional characters and plot lines. Warts and all. That’s what makes it so memorable.
Stage to screen
In 1968, Mart Crowley was struggling to establish his career as a writer. His friends encouraged him to develop a play, which ultimately became The Boys in the Band. The story focuses on nine gay men who have gathered together for a birthday celebration. At first the tone is fun and not-so-serious, but halfway through things take a turn. You wouldn’t want to be invited to this party. Boys debuted Off-Broadway and instantly became a hit, running for 1,001 performances. This led to a film adaptation written by Crowley and starring the original actors from the show. Robert Moore, the play’s director, was dropped because he had never directed for the screen. The production company instead hired a young pre-Exorcist William Friedkin and shooting began. The majority of filming took place on one stage in a NYC studio, maintaining the static feel of the play. That beautifully 1970s apartment set is one of my favorites from any movie.
Breaking down the boys
Even though it’s not his birthday, Michael (Kenneth Nelson) manages to take center stage. He’s deeply troubled about his life and that comes pouring out as the play goes on. The main reason for his drama is his sexuality. He drinks excessively and attacks others rather than deal with his issues. Nelson expertly plays Michael’s highs and lows, going from jovial to lethal in a second.
Harold (Leonard Frey), the birthday boy, is Michael’s best friend and sometimes his worst enemy. They love to trade barbs and tear each other down. They’re very similar except Harold does a better job of distracting from his insecurities and faults. His acidic wit hides a lot of pain.
Donald (Frederick Combs) is Michael’s ex-boyfriend, but they still care for each other. Like Michael, he’s not too happy with himself. Do you see a pattern? But he’s seeing a psychiatrist to deal with his problems. Ironically, he ends up being Michael’s shrink in a sense, but fails to save him from himself.
Alan (Peter White) crashes the party and changes the entire mood. Before arriving, he calls Michael, telling him that he desperately needs to talk in person. Michael believes his straight married friend is actually gay and on the verge of coming out. If Alan’s not willing to do so on his own, Michael will drag him out of the closet.
Flamboyant Emory (Cliff Gorman) is a textbook sissy, swishing and mincing through every scene. Some might argue that a character like this shouldn’t have been included in the play. But Crowley and Gorman give Emory depth beyond the superficial stereotype. I also think he’s the strongest one at the party. He’s unabashedly himself, refusing to change for anyone.
Bernard (Reuben Greene) acts as the one black friend in the group. It’s a little surprising that Crowley included a person of color when it could have easily been an all-white affair, reflecting the era. He’s not a token either. Bernard’s race does become a focal point, but he’s also a fully-formed character.
Hank (Laurence Luckinbill) and Larry (Keith Prentice) are a couple, but they’re not in sync. Hank was once married to a woman and he’s eager to have that same sort of relationship. Larry is allergic to commitment and would rather play the field. Their differing points of view make for an interesting conversation about monogamy in the gay world.
Cowboy (Robert La Tourneaux), a hustler that Emory finds on the street, is Harold’s birthday present. We never learn much about him, including his real name. He’s mainly there to say stupid things for comic effect. But to La Tourneaux’s credit, it takes a good actor to play dumb so well.
In between the stage play and the release of the movie came a major event: Stonewall. The riots at a gay bar in NYC where members of the LGBT community fought back against injustice, kicked off the gay liberation movement. Gays felt empowered to break out of the closet and feel proud. So just like that, Boys became obsolete. A story about a bunch of self-hating gay men felt out of touch with what was going on in the world. Yes, it was great to have a film that focused primarily on gays, but the way they were portrayed was repellent to most in the community. When you’re seeking representation onscreen, something so seemingly negative can be disheartening. Nobody wants to be a miserable gay.
Over the years, the film has gained more good will, though. I think this is because new, younger audiences are seeing it. These are people who didn’t live through that time period and are somewhat detached from it. They can only imagine what pre-Stonewall life was like, so the film doesn’t feel as personal or hurtful. It’s just a movie now, whereas for gay men in 1970 it was a reality from which they wanted to escape. But I think it’s actually good to look back at a film like Boys and appreciate how far we’ve come. Also, artistically, it’s captivating and well-conceived.
In 2018, the play finally made it to Broadway. Ryan Murphy produced the revival that proudly featured a cast made up entirely of openly gay actors. The show was extremely successful and won Best Revival at the Tony Awards. Crowley accepted the honor and gave a tearful speech honoring the original cast of Boys. It was an incredible full circle moment. Unfortunately, Crowley died earlier this year. I’m glad he got the chance to receive that acclaim after so much criticism was leveled against his work in the past. He didn’t need the justification, but he deserved it. Later in 2020, another film adaptation, starring the same cast from the revival, will be coming to Netflix. I’m anxious to see this new chapter of Boys and revisit a great story.
In 1978, Jamie Lee Curtis starred in John Carpenter’s Halloween. The low budget independent film grossed 70 million at the box office, launched several sequels, and changed the horror landscape. It also made Curtis an in-demand actress. Not surprisingly she was offered several roles in horror movies. She made three that were released in 1980: The Fog, Prom Night, and Terror Train. To celebrate their 40th anniversaries I’m rating them based on their scares, the level of Jamie Lee-ness, humor, and the hot guy quotient. Very scientific.
Curtis and Carpenter teamed up again for this ghost story. Set in fictional Antonio Bay, Fog follows the locals as they prepare to celebrate the town’s 100th anniversary. Strange occurrences begin as an eerie fog rolls in from the coast. At the same time, Father Malone (Hal Holbrook) discovers a long-buried secret in the church. In 1880, the founders of Antonio Bay ambushed a ship that was coming to the area to establish a leper colony. The crew died and their gold was stolen by the founders to build the town. Now the ghosts of those wronged men have come back, in the fog, to seek revenge. JLC plays Elizabeth, a hitchhiker who arrives on this deadly scene after being picked up by Antonio Bay resident Nick (Tom Atkins). Another reason why you shouldn’t hitchhike.
Is it scary…?
Very much so. Just like with Halloween, Carpenter creates an unsettling suspenseful film. Yes, the special effects with the fog are hokey by today’s standards, but they do add an eerie factor to the movie. The ghosts popping up and dragging people away are also frightening.
She’s more of a supporting player here. The real star of the film is Adrienne Barbeau, who plays silky-voiced radio DJ, Stevie. She just happened to be Carpenter’s wife at the time too. But there is a cool bit of casting with Janet Leigh, Jamie’s mother and fellow Scream Queen, taking on the role of the town member who is organizing the centennial celebration.
Nancy Loomis, another actor from Halloween, plays a deadpan Sandy. She throws out a lot of great one-liners to liven up the mood.
If you consider Atkins hot, more power to you. I’m not quite sure why he was chosen to play Curtis’ love interest when there’s a very noticeable 23-year age difference between them. Aside from him there’s not much to look at man-wise here.
A group of preteens accidentally kill one of their classmates. Sidenote, you shouldn’t play in old abandoned schools with broken windows that you can easily fall through. The four friends vow to keep the accident a secret. Too bad someone else witnessed the deed. Six years later the four friends are attending their senior prom. There’s bitchy Wendy (Anne-Marie Martin), prudish Kelly (Mary Beth Rubens), dorky Jude (Joy Thompson), and sweet cute guy Nick (Casey Stevens). The story also focuses on their dead classmate’s sister Kim (Curtis). Her family never got over her loss, but they’re trying to put it behind them for the sake of prom. As you do. Unfortunately, a crazed killer is out for revenge and will be attending the dance too.
Is it scary…?
Well, sorta. Prom is very slow and takes a long time to get started. An hour goes by before someone from the main cast gets murdered. In fact, it’s more like a teen drama with its soapy relationship plotlines. But the movie does have an intense sequence where Wendy (who looks and acts like a low budget Nancy Allen) is chased through the school by the killer. There are a lot of near misses that keep you on the edge of your seat. Another helpful hint, if you’re hiding from a killer, try not to scream loudly and draw attention to yourself.
This is a good role for Jamie even though she doesn’t really get into the action until the end. Up until that point she just walks around looking creeped out, while the killer comes after her classmates. When she and the psycho finally have a run-in, he tries to kill Nick and she has to rescue him. It’s a nice change from the usual horror set up.
There’s some unintentional comedy. The “Disco Madness” theme for the prom really kicks in when Kim and Nick do an elaborately choreographed dance number. Who knew Jamie Lee could do the robot? It’s all…something. But I must admit that I really like the song (“Prom Night”) that they’re grooving to.
Stevens supplies most of the eye candy with his golden curly locks. Also, Kelly’s boyfriend, Drew (Jeff Wincott) may be a jerk, but he’s cute.
A fraternity prank gone wrong leads to murder. Has there ever been a fraternity prank that has actually gone right? Doc (Hart Bochner), Mo (Timothy Webber), Ed (Howard Busgang), and Jackson (Anthony Sherwood) lure their naïve pledge, Kenny (Derek MacKinnon), into a darkened room with the promise of a hookup with a girl, Alana (Curtis). But instead Kenny finds himself cozying up to a corpse. The trick traumatizes him and he’s sent to a psychiatric hospital. Three years later, the fraternity throws a huge party on a train for New Year’s Eve. What they don’t know is that a killer is also on board and taking them out one by one.
Is it scary…?
From the beginning, the movie sets an ominous tone. Being trapped on a train with nowhere to escape from a killer is frightening and claustrophobic. The lighting for the film is often very dark, making every corner a potential hiding place. Plus, the party on board is a masquerade, which equals creepy masks.
This is the only movie of the three where JLC receives top billing. She is featured in the majority of the scenes, fighting with her boyfriend or running like hell from a psychopath. In the last act, she has to evade the villain while being trapped in a small train car and then a cage. She plays the tension well.
Again, there’s some unintentional humor courtesy of David Copperfield. He’s the magician (a stretch) who has been booked for the party, doing tricks while cheesy disco music plays in the background. It’s like if Travolta did magic. I couldn’t help but giggle.
There’s some interesting chemistry between fraternity brothers Doc and Mo. Doc spends most of the trip trying to break up Mo and Alana. At one point he stares intensely at his bro and reminds him that if Alana leaves him, Mo still has him. I bet. The movie needed more scenes like this. You could also say Copperfield is hot. It worked for supermodel Claudia Schiffer.
The documentary Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street thoroughly delves into the history of A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge and the effect it had on its star, Mark Patton. It’s an interesting look at how a movie can change someone’s life for better or worse.
In the first Elm Street, a group of teenagers are stalked and killed by boogeyman Freddy Kruger (Robert Englund) in their nightmares. Nancy (Heather Langenkamp), the final girl, survives and defeats him. The movie did extremely well at the box office and led to a sequel being rushed into production. Part 2 strayed from the original’s formula though. For starters, the final girl was replaced with a guy, Jesse (Patton). That wasn’t something you normally saw back then. Also, Freddy wasn’t just haunting Jesse, he wanted to possess him and escape the dream world. The movie was moderately successful compared to the first. The biggest critique, mainly coming from straight men, was that it was too gay. They weren’t that off base.
In the film, Freddy wants to “get inside Jesse’s body” and his interactions with his prey are quite homoerotic. Then there’s Jesse’s possibly gay gym teacher, Coach Schneider (Marshall Bell). Jesse dreams about running into him in at a leather bar. Later, Schneider is stripped (rare male nudity) and whipped with towels. Seriously. There’s also the notion that Jesse (and Patton) wasn’t masculine enough. It was said that he was too sensitive and screamed like a girl. The criticism negatively impacted Patton’s life. At the time he was a closeted actor trying to make it in Hollywood, so he worried that being associated with anything gay would derail his career. This was also 1985, the height of the AIDS epidemic. Gay equalled diseased and ultimately blacklisted. Patton discovered he was HIV-positive and retreated from acting. He went off the grid and moved to Mexico.
The documentary cuts to the present day with Patton coming to terms with Freddy’sRevenge. He’s still hurt by the jabs about his performance in the film and blames one person in particular, the screenwriter. For decades, David Chaskin denied that he purposely put gay elements into his script. Instead he inferred that Patton made the movie gay. But he never had a conversation with Patton about it either way. Luckily, the documentary captures their long-time-coming meetup. The film also shows Patton interacting with his former castmates, going to horror movie conventions, and doing Q&A’s after screenings of Freddy’sRevenge. You see that he’s accepted the legacy of the movie and Jesse. Yes, he still has issues from his past experiences, but he has been able to move on and create a good life for himself outside of Hollywood. Instead of becoming bitter he has a sense of humor about the situation. Plus, the once panned movie has now become a cult classic for many.
I like that Scream, Queen! co-directors Roman Chimienti and Tyler Jensen also focus on the overall appeal of horror movies to gay audiences. Many of the interviewees are fans of the genre who talk about escaping from their own harsh realities through these films. As outsiders, they find strength in seeing the protagonist fight back and beat the evil that is out to get them. It’s even more meaningful when a gay character or theme is added to the mix. The filmmakers show how powerful it is when a horror fan can identify with these movies with one fan mentioning how Jesse inspired him. Hopefully, in the future there will be more final “out of the ordinary” guys in horror movies and it won’t be so scary.
In theory, Cruising probably sounded like a great idea 40 years ago. An exciting thriller directed by Academy Award winner William Friedkin and starring celebrated actor Al Pacino. It should have been a winner, but instead it became one of the most panned films of 1980. Where did it all go wrong?
Th film is set in New York’s gay S&M and leather scene in the late 70s. A serial killer is picking up men, having sex with them, and killing them. Police Captain Edelson (Paul Sorvino) assigns officer Steve Burns (Pacino) to go undercover in the gay community to catch the murderer. As Steve delves further into the case, he begins to lose himself in the world he’s inhabiting and grows distant from his girlfriend Nancy (Karen Allen).
Friedkin wrote the screenplay by drawing from a few different sources. There was the novel of the same name written by Gerald Walker in 1970. I’ve read it and it’s horrible. Zero redeeming qualities. Much of it is told from the POV of the killer who is extremely racist, homophobic, and sexist. So, it’s not fun to be in his head page after page. Luckily, Friedkin only used the outline of the novel and threw out the rest. There were also the real-life murders in the 70s in NYC. Several gay men were brutally killed, dismembered, and placed in trash bags that were tossed into the Hudson River. Friedkin studied Arthur Bell’s articles in the Village Voice newspaper chronicling the case. At one point a suspect, Paul Bateson, was arrested, but it was never concretely proven that he was the killer. In a crazy coincidence, Bateson appeared in a small role in Friedkin’s film The Exorcist a few years before Cruising came out.
Friedkin took all of these elements and blended them together. Unfortunately, the concoction is messy. First, the script is uneven. It starts off with a great premise for a murder mystery, but quickly gets lost. There are a lot of scenes that go nowhere with Steve wandering through the bars or other cruising grounds. We see his wide-eyed reactions to the supposedly crazy things he’s seeing, which comes off as comical rather than suspenseful. As the film progresses, he becomes more uncomfortable with his assignment, but we don’t know why it’s messing with his head. Is he actually gay? Does he like this new scene he finds himself in, which scares him and causes him to retreat from his girlfriend?
In the third act Steve zeroes in on a suspect, Stuart (Richard Cox), a college student in the city. We’ve seen glimpses of him in earlier scenes, but now the audience learns that he’s a closet case with father issues. Not very original. He could be killing these men because he hates himself. Or he’s doing it to appease his disapproving father. His motivations aren’t revealed. It’s also confusing because in earlier scenes featuring the killer he appears to be played by a different actor. Were there multiple murderers? This leads to an open ending where Friedkin makes us suspect the Steve could possibly be the killer. I’m not asking for everything to be spelled out, but it can be dissatisfying when a film gives you more questions than answers. It has been reported that Friedkin had to remove a lot of footage from the final cut in order to avoid an X-rating. Maybe the answers were lost with those edits.
Even though Pacino was a great actor doesn’t mean he was the right guy for this film. For one, he was too old. Not that 40 is ancient, but it’s a leap from the 30-year-old that he was supposed to be playing. Plus, he was looking particularly rough at this point. Maybe from working so much over the past decade. Then there’s the fact that his character is supposed to hide behind the persona he’s taking on while undercover. But when you have a well know actor with very identifiable characteristics, you can’t see anything but him. As a result, there’s no real transformation. Pacino also has a tendency to overact. He’s dialing it up to a 10 when a 5 or lower would have sufficed, like the scene where Steve does poppers and dances. Wow. Richard Gere was actually interested in the role and was in negotiations with Friedkin, but Pacino came along and inadvertently pushed him out. Gere would have been a much better choice. Physically he fit the character more. Plus, he wasn’t very well known at this point in his career and could have easily disappeared into the role. On the other hand, if Gere had been cast, he might have missed out on the opportunity to star in his breakthrough film, American Gigolo, that came out the same year.
If gay activists had their way, Cruising would have never been released. From the moment the film was announced, they condemned it. The thinking was that it would portray the gay community in a negative light: depraved, immoral, and psychotic. There was also the fear that the movie would inspire copycat killers who would target gay men. When production started the protesters arrived on set as well. Crowds of people yelled, banged on pans, or blasted air horns. As a result, the actors’ dialogue for scenes shot on location had to be dubbed in post-production because they couldn’t use the sound. Some gay bars refused to let Friedkin shoot on the premises, wanting to avoid any ties to the backlash. I understand where the protesters were coming from, but I think they should have waited to see the film before trying to take it down. Instead, after Cruising was released, they urged theaters not to show it and a handful complied. Reviews from critics were also extremely negative. The movie made 19.8 million at the box office. Not a total bomb, but far from a hit.
Not everything about Cruising is wrong, though. For one, it captures a time in New York that can never be replicated: the gritty 70s era. It’s one of the best periods. The city was dark and dirty, but it had great character. I like seeing the neighborhoods, parks, or old businesses that have since changed. A few of the leather bars allowed Friedkin to film inside and their patrons were featured in the background. It’s interesting look in on this moment in gay history, post-Stonewall and pre-AIDS.
The movie also has an incredible soundtrack. In the 70s, gay bars, even the leather ones, were playing disco. Friedkin decided that music didn’t fit the film he was making and replaced it with hard rock and punk. The soundtrack features bands like the Germs, Rough Trade, and the Cripples. It really works. For a story about a serial killer you need sinister music blaring at you. I bought the deluxe vinyl re-release last year. Mutiny’s “Lump” and Willy DeVille’s “Heat of the Moment” are two of my favorites.
In the end, Cruising isn’t terrible. There are worse things out there. Did I mention the book? In addition to the locations and the music, the film is shot very well. There’s a charismatic group of supporting players, like Don Scardino (Ted) and Gene Davis (DaVinci). And, it’s a memorable film. It stays with you. Probably because you’re still seeking answers to all those unanswered questions. Yes, it definitely could have been executed better, but I actually like it for what it is, including the flaws.
Richard Gere has coincidently starred in two iconic movies that centered around prostitutes in LA. American Gigolo came out in 1980 followed by Pretty Woman ten years later in 1990. Until recently when I re-watched both I didn’t stop to think about the parallels between the two. Or how they both feature Hector Elizondo. Let’s compare and contrast for their anniversaries.
American Gigolo tells the story of Julian Kaye, a high-class male escort. He’s refined, elegant, classy, wears designer suits, and speaks multiple languages. His clients, wealthy older women, continually seek out his services. Things are going well for Julian until he is set up with a bad trick. That woman ends up dead not long after their encounter and her murder is pinned on him. In the midst of all this he meets Michelle (Lauren Hutton), a rich politician’s wife. They fall for each other as he attempts to clear his name.
Pretty Woman finds Gere playing Edward Lewis a powerful corporate raider that happens upon Vivian (Julia Roberts), a prostitute, one night on Hollywood Blvd. They have an instant connection and he hires her as his escort for the week. Rough around the edges Vivian is out of place in his high society world. Despite their differences, though, they grow closer and take their relationship beyond a business arrangement.
Romance takes a back seat to the mystery in Gigolo. It makes sense. This is a thriller, not a love story. But, the relationship between Julian and Michelle could have been developed more. They meet, chat for a few minutes, and instantly she’s obsessed with him. At one point she stalks him through the streets of Westwood. It’s unclear why she is so drawn to him, aside from his looks and charm. We never know her motivations because her character is so paper thin. She exists primarily to prop up Julian. After he gets framed, Michelle risks everything to help prove his innocence. She is the only one who cares about him, but the film doesn’t give us any reason to care about her. For his part, I think what makes her most desirable to Julian is her extreme devotion to him.
The relationship between Edward and Vivian is at the forefront of Woman. It’s actually a great story about two people falling in love. Over the course of the movie they share intimate details about themselves and get to know each other. Edward tells Vivian about his heartless father leaving his family and how that shaped him as a person. She responds by letting him in on her rocky upbringing. They feel comfortable being vulnerable with one another. There’s also the romantic dates and beautiful love scenes. At one point, Vivian breaks her rule about not kissing a client on the mouth because by that point Edward is no longer just another number.
Interestingly, in both movies Gere’s characters think they don’t need love or are incapable of maintaining a real relationship. Julian sees women as transactions. He’s not looking for any attachments until Michelle comes along and changes his thinking. But he pushes her away after he’s arrested for murder, telling her he’s not worth ruining her life. He doesn’t want to drag her down. She ignores him and stays by his side, proving to him that he is worthy. Similarly, because of his past family drama Edward doesn’t make room in his life for love. In the opening scene of the film his girlfriend dumps him because he won’t make her a priority in his life. He nearly ruins things with Vivian too. When she tells him that she loves him, he doesn’t share how he really feels. Instead he offers to make her a kept woman, as if money is what she wants. He finally gets a clue at the end of the movie and shows Vivian how much he loves her.
As mentioned earlier, Hector Elizondo is a prominent player in both films. In Gigolo he’s Detective Sunday, the cop overseeing the murder investigation. He doggedly pursues Julian, eager to find him guilty. Woman finds him playing Barney Thompson, the manager of the Beverly Hills hotel where Edward is staying. He takes pity on Vivian when she’s shunned by the snooty Rodeo Drive sales ladies, becoming her confidant. In both instances, Elizondo brings something interesting to what could have been two ordinary roles. A dash of humor and some flair. Also, in the case of Woman, a pretty obvious toupee.
These films have some truly horrible villains. There’s Leon (Bill Duke) the vengeful pimp. Julian left him years before the movie starts and he’s been pissed ever since. Spoiler alert…Leon is the one who is framing Julian. Woman has Stuckey, played with an incredible amount of sliminess by Jason Alexander. He’s Edward’s lawyer who can’t stand it when his client wants to focus less on making money and more on love. At one point, Stuckey tries to rape Vivian. Luckily, Edward arrives and kicks his ass. He actually ends up better off than Leon who gets pushed off a balcony. He had it coming.
Also, old Hollywood star Ralph Bellamy makes his last film appearance in Woman as the owner of a company that Edward is trying to take over. It’s a small part, but not a bad way to end your career. Plus, Bellamy was probably glad he hung around long enough so that Disorderlies wasn’t his last film.
Gigolo begins with Julian driving down the California coast in his Mercedes as Blondie’s “Call Me” blares from the radio. Of course, the title and lyrics are prefect for a movie about a call boy, but the track also captures the feel of the early 80s. A little bit of leftover disco with some rock sprinkled in. Pieces of “Call Me” show up in the movie’s score. Sometimes upbeat, sometimes eerie. It’s a versatile piece of music. Famed disco producer, Giorgio Moroder, composed the song and the rest of Gigolo’s soundtrack. The album went to #7 on the Billboard 200 and “Call Me” spent six weeks at #1 on the Billboard 100. I’m also a fan of the Cheryl Barnes song “Love and Passion” that plays in a disco scene. It’s a fun track.
You can’t think of Pretty Woman without hearing Roy Orbion’s classic “Oh Pretty Woman” that inspired the film’s title. Originally released in 1964, the song was launched back into the zeitgeist when the movie came out. It pops up during one of the best shopping montages in cinematic history. Not an exaggeration, I love seeing Vivian shop. The soundtrack would go on to be certified triple platinum and produce hits like Roxette’s “It Must Have Been Love”, Natalie Cole’s “Wild Women”, and Go West’s “King of Wishful Thinking”. Classic early 90s tunes.
At the time of its release Gigolo was a novel concept. You didn’t find too many narratives about male prostitutes back them. Moreover, you didn’t often see men sexualized in the way that the film does. Director Paul Schrader celebrates Gere’s beauty in almost every scene, training the camera on his amazing face and body. This was the first mainstream movie where the male lead does full frontal nudity. And it’s not just a quick flash. So much of Gigolo is about visuals really, from the fashion to the lighting to the ornate sets. I wish there was an equal amount of substance. Yes, the film is beautiful to look at, but it often feels empty. The writing is clunky at times and the mystery, in particular, is weak. Despite these faults, Gigolo is an interesting time capsule from the early 80s.
Woman’s premise doesn’t seem like something that you could make an endearing romantic comedy out of. A fairytale love story between a prostitute and her john? That goes beyond your typical hooker with a heart of gold story. But it works. The star power from the leads, their chemistry, and a winning screenplay all come together nicely. Director Gary Marshall crafted a timeless film that holds up years later. You could come across Woman on TV (probably Bravo on a Sunday afternoon) and be just as engaged as audiences were back in 1990. The sign of a true classic.