January 23, 2012 § 2 Comments
“I’ve got to get on that dance TV show” was the plot–or subplot–of a number of films leading up to Girls Just Want to Have Fun‘s release in 1985. The movie version of Grease used it; Bye Bye Birdie had a variation on it. A few years after Girls Just Want to Have Fun, Hairspray would dedicate a full film to this trope. But while most of those examples were undeniably retro, Girls Just Want to Have Fun updated it for the ’80s. The dance TV show in question–inventively titled Dance TV–isn’t an American Bandstand rip-off; it appears to be something closer to a whiter Soul Train, or maybe a precursor to Club MTV/The Grind. Janey Glenn, played by Sarah Jessica Parker, is obsessed with the show, so when she learns that they’re holding tryouts for new dancers, she has to go. Even after Janey’s father puts the kibosh on that plan, her more adventurous friend, Lynne, drags her along–and of course Janey makes the first cut, winning a cute new dance partner as she goes. The rest of the film is a mish-mash of Flashdance-inspired dance rehearsal scenes, Sixteen Candles-inspired take-down-the-rich-bitch hijinks, and the required romantic spark between Janey and her dance partner. As Janey puts it, “Things are going too well. I mean, besides DTV, I have a best friend, and I mean, I’d never dreamed in a million years that I would have a boyfriend!”: all the elements for the perfect ’80s sleepover film in place.
Watching this movie is a weird experience from an adult perspective: both of its stars–Sarah Jessica Parker and Helen Hunt–went on to find greater stardom as adults than they did as teens, in television roles that they’ve each more or less become synonymous with. It’s weird to watch Sarah Jessica Parker mooning over her first boyfriend when you’re used to her being world-weary and jaded with men, weirder still to watch Helen Hunt play the boisterous, boy-crazy half of the pair when her Mad About You character was so neurotic and high-strung. But as jarring as their playing-against-type was, I still enjoyed it. Not that I’m saying it’s a good movie. But it was an enjoyable movie while still being a terrible one.
Eighties filmmakers did the best high school movies, didn’t they? They were usually still decent into the ’90s, but towards the end of that decade they began their slow, inexorable slide into the mediocrity of the ’00s. The genre has never recovered. As I watched Girls Just Want to Have Fun, I wondered why that was–how the movie could be so bad and yet so simultaneously watchable–and then I realized exactly what it was: rich kids. In the 80s, the rich kids were always the enemy. And filmmakers knew exactly what to do with them–as Rushmore summed up half a generation later, “Take dead aim on the rich boys. Get them in the crosshairs and take them down. Just remember, they can buy anything but they can’t buy backbone. Don’t let them forget it.” A decade of teen films is encapsulated in that quote. And it always worked! Even if you didn’t personally have any animosity towards rich kids in your own life, you couldn’t have any qualms about rooting against the entitled brats in the movies. It brought the audience together in a way that hasn’t been recreated since–and I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the most successful of the last decade’s teen movies, like Mean Girls and Rocket Science, are updated rehashes of the high school class war.
Girls Just Want to Have Fun doesn’t plumb the rich-kid conflict to quite the depths of The Outsiders or, say, John Hughes in every teen movie he ever made. But watching our designated villainess get her comeuppance–not once, but over and over again–is still satisfying. And the movie does us the favor of making her so over-the-top that her repeated humiliations feel less like bullying and a lot more like karma. Yeah, the ’80s knew how to do it. Shouldn’t there be a Pretty in Pink remake coming out one of these days?
June 6, 2011 § 1 Comment
Some books are just so indelibly etched in your mind, you’ll never forget when you first read them. I bought Valley of the Dolls in a British bookstore in Nerja, Spain, when I was 14, and devoured it on the train as the Mediterranean, the Alhambra, the aqueducts of Segovia passed by in the background. My connection to the book is so intense that, for years, I’ve had little interest in the movie. Its reputation as a horrendously campy cult classic didn’t help, but even had the movie been an Oscar-winner, I’d still be reluctant to have the Neely, Anne and Jennifer in my head replaced by the ones onscreen. I love the book so much that, despite its lack of literary merit, I get mad when people claim they don’t like the book. Prescription drug abuse, casting couches, Golden Age of Hollywood roman a clef–what’s not to like?
The plot, for the uninitiated, follows three young women who become friends over the course of their show-biz careers: the demure secretary-turned-model Anne, the spunky Broadway hoofer-turned-Hollywood star Neely, and the stunning chorus girl-turned-European “art” film actress Jennifer. Although Susann primarily focuses on their multiple engagements, marriages and sex lives, the thing that bonds these ladies together through the decades is their mutual dependence on “the dolls” (prescription pills) of the title. Jacqueline Susann was a minor actress in her youth, and at the time of the book’s release, it was well-known for being a thinly veiled portrait of several major stars she’d both worked and played with. Jennifer North is part Carole Landis, part Marilyn Monroe. Her husband, Tony Polar is a Dean Martin/Frank Sinatra hybrid. Neely O’Hara was a little bit Frances Farmer and a lot Judy Garland. The aging Broadway star Helen Lawson was based on Susann’s one-time lover, Ethel Merman. Anne, who hails from a small-town and is new to New York City itself, let alone the glittering world of the stars, is the only one without a real-life counterpart, and that’s mostly because she exists as a stand-in for the reader.
All of that art-imitating-life stuff made for a bestselling book (and in my opinion, an extremely compelling one, especially for anyone interested in Old Hollywood or Broadway). But it also makes for a terrible movie, because even if the script had been any good in the first place (which it isn’t), anybody who’s read the book can’t help but imagine how much better Garland, Landis, or Merman would have been in the roles.
Oddly enough, Sharon Tate as Jennifer comes closest to being actually well-cast in her part, even though she’s given the least to do. It’s hard to combine the two essential aspects of Jennifer’s personality–the Marilyn Monroe and the Grace Kelly, the kittenish sexiness with the European poise–but she manages it in a way that it’s hard to imagine many actresses of the period doing. But Patty Duke is no Judy Garland and thus no Neely O’Hara, and her overacting overwhelms the film’s second half. And while Barbara Parkins is miscast as Anne, the problems go beyond the casting to the writing–Anne is written as far warmer and perkier than she should be. Anne’s appeal is in her coolness, her levelheadedness, the way she slowly weighs one option against the other. We, the audience, are intended to like her specifically because she manages to resist the lifestyles the others succumb to (and that we already know will be their undoing).
The next mistake the director made with the movie was to update the timeline: instead of spanning the mid-’40s to the late ’50s, it only takes place in the mid-60s. This forced the screenwriters to cut plotlines, and it made the plots that they saved seem rushed–events that are supposed to unfold over the course of years do it in the span of months, which sort of butchers characterization when even the most deliberate, cautious characters seem to jump into bed together immediately or make decisions on a whim. But the more important aspect of this is that we lose the 1940s glamour. While a difference of ten or fifteen years might not have seemed like much at the time of filming, to a modern viewer it’s extremely jarring. The 1960s aesthetic is extremely present and totally absurd here–À Bout de Souffle pixie cuts, Annette Funicello flips and big Ronnie Spector-style falls are everywhere, as are shag carpeting and bizarrely patterned wallpaper. Everything looks a little tawdry–the musical that, theoretically, stars one of the biggest actresses on Broadway appears cheaper than a church basement production of Jesus Christ Superstar. Sticking to the original timeline and making this a period piece, as it was meant to be, would have left us with a far more aesthetically pleasing film, even if the writing and casting had remained the same.
But more importantly, in the film, we lose the book’s big theme–the way show business chews women up and spits them out. What elevates this book above the level of similar potboilers designed solely to titillate is that Susann was trying to make a larger point about the nature of the fame game and how it destroys women. This use-’em’-up-throw-’em-away approach is true today, too, of course, but what people obsessed with The Golden Age of Hollywood often forget is that it was equally true back then. In fact, that was the major benefit of the studio system–you could force a star to bend to your every whim, and at the point where she’d passed the peak of your beauty or simply refused to comply with your demands, there was someone new, ready and waiting to take her place. In Valley of the Dolls, Jennifer receives everything she has–fame, love–on the basis of her incredible body and face, and yet when she grows older, she also begins to feel like she no longer deserves that fame or love because she’s in danger of losing the body that won them. Anne, too, despite having other good qualities (her intelligence, her loyalty) only ever gets anything–from her secretary job to her lovers–because she’s beautiful. Neely, on the other hand, truly does get where she is due to talent rather than looks, but when the Hollywood producers push her to lose weight, she embarks on a regimen of pills (uppers to lose weight and keep working hard, downers to relax and fall asleep) that will haunt her for the rest of her life. By the end of the book, each of the women ultimately relies on the pills to cope with the pressures of their chosen lifestyles, and the pills lead to their individual downfalls.
A common misreading of the book is that it’s anti-feminist, focused only on men-obsessed bimbos, pushing the idea that if you’re not pretty, you’re nothing–and that ultimately, the author punishes the protagonists for ever wanting anything beyond a small-town life with a husband and babies. In reality, though, the book seeks to condemn the anti-feminist culture in which it’s set. The women aren’t reduced to their looks because they want to be; they’re reduced to their looks because the men around them insist upon it, and the men are the ones who call the shots. This is true even in non-sexual situations–for example, Anne’s future boss is reluctant to hire her, although she’s a competent secretary, because she’s so attractive that he’s worried some man will instantly propose to her and he’ll have wasted all that training. Do the girls behave like men are the most important things in their lives? Yes–but that’s hardly surprising given that they were raised in a world that told them that their men were the most important things in their lives. Despite this, they do display surprising flashes of independence. Anne breaks away from her small-town upbringing (and likely husband-to-be) because she wants more out of life (including a career); later, she wants to stay in New York City so badly that she sacrifices the man she loves for it, when she could have kept him by moving home to the small town she grew up in. A theme that comes up multiple times is that the women lose their husbands and lovers because they end up being the breadwinners, and their men can’t cope–a legitimate fear for women in the 1940s and ’50s. And at the end of the story, the women aren’t punished because they wanted to “have it all.” They’re punished because the sexist world they lived in wouldn’t allow them to have it all. Their downfalls–all linked to the pills that allowed them to escape the pressure of their day-to-day lives–occur because they’re trapped in a society that attempts to thwart the realization of their dreams, not because Susann herself thought that they deserved to have their dreams thwarted.
The movie, however, loses this nuance. (As little as Jackie Susann was capable of nuance, director Mark Robson was even less so.) Robson’s camera lingers on the girls’ successive downward spirals with the intensity of a lover but the empathy of a stalker, which gets uncomfortable after about two minutes. Given that these crack-ups take up the better part of the movie’s second half, it’s secondhand-embarrassment overkill. His lack of comprehension extends to the final minutes: the film’s Anne, instead of staying in New York at all costs because that’s what she wants to do, ultimately returns home to her boring small-town life after her boyfriend cheats on her . . . and this is presented as a happy ending! Dear Mr. Robson, the point is somewhere in the vicinity of Mars; that’s how much you’ve missed it by.
So does that mean I couldn’t enjoy the film, even on the level of camp? It was that tedious? . . . Well, life is short and one must appreciate the opportunities to watch movies featuring sequined, flowered leisure suits and glittery caftans when they arise. Beyond that, though, in a word: yes.
December 6, 2010 § Leave a comment
Few movies manage to visually capture a Midwest winter quite like the opening moments of Where the Boys Are. Our heroines converge outside of their college lecture hall, sneezing and sniffling, slipping on the ice. Snow piles up around them; snowflakes the size of quarters whip around their hooded heads. Merritt isn’t sure that she’ll be able to go on their spring break trip–she has too much schoolwork and is on the verge of failing out of school, despite an IQ of 138–but finally takes a look around her and declares, “If I see one more inch of snow, just one more flake, I’m going to absolutely barf!” And thus our group is on the road to Fort Lauderdale.
Storytelling wisdom holds that if you have a quartet of girls or women as your main characters, they must fall into the following stereotypes:
- the naive sweetheart (or, taking this to its extreme, the bimbo/goofball)
- the sexpot/the flirt
- the ball-buster/the tomboy
- the smart, normal one that we’re supposed to relate to
See: Little Women, Sex and the City, Golden Girls, the original Baby-Sitters Club, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Living Single, Now and Then. Where the Boys Are is no exception to this four-woman pack of stereotypes, and here we get:
- Paula Prentiss as the goofy Tuggle, who wants nothing more than to become “a walking, talking baby factory”
- Yvette Mimieux as beautiful Melanie, who’s desperate to hook up with an Ivy Leaguer
- Connie Francis as “captain of the girls’ hockey team” Angie, who has no luck with men
- Dorores Hart as Merritt, our practical narrator, who’s trying to find a balance between love and sex
The four of them descend upon Florida with one collective goal: to be where the boys are. Tuggle immediately meets a goofy Michigan State student who introduces himself as T.V., and the two of them spend most of the film tug-of-warring over their conflicting desires: sex (his) versus marriage (hers). Angie struggles to attract any boys whatsoever, eventually settling for a bespectacled jazz musician who’s the only one to express interest. Melanie finds the Ivy Leaguer of her heart, but quickly gets in over her head with him. And Merritt, least interested in sex of them all, stumbles upon her dream date without even trying.
To modern eyes, Where the Boys Are can’t seem to make up its mind: it comes in as a sex comedy, flounders in the middle, and goes out like a sexual morality tale. This film was actually a forerunner to the entire genre of teen sex comedies–the parallels to later films like Fast Times at Ridgemont High or American Pie are obvious in the way the girls joke about sex in jaded tones. But as Merritt points out later, it’s “all talk.” All of the girls are virgins going in, and the only one who no longer is at the film’s close ends up regretting it. For all its debate about sex in its opening scenes, where Merritt argues with her professor that telling girls to stay virgins until marriage is unrealistic, Where the Boys Are serves up a moral that’s ultimately sexually conservative. Melanie is severely punished for losing her virginity: a rumor goes around that she’s easy, and she is subsequently raped, the trauma from which leaves her mentally disturbed, wandering through traffic in a daze. After not sleeping with the men they’re dating, the other girls are rewarded with boyfriends (albeit some of questionable merit), and Merritt, in particular, wins out: her man, Ryder, turns out to be an unbelievably wealthy, intelligent Ivy Leaguer who wants to continue dating her after they leave Florida.
Although it reflects the values of the early ’60s–its depiction of the Fort Lauderdale spring break culture of that era is practically an anthropological study–the film has aged remarkably well. Its debates about “hook-up culture,” when to sleep together, and whether abstinence-only education is realistic seem surprisingly modern, and help to raise it above the average ’60s beach party flick. Still, a more nuanced ending might have helped. Instead, we get this takeaway: put out and you will get raped and go insane, stay pure and you’ll be rewarded with all your wildest dreams come true.
Like Searching for Meaning in a Pauly Shore Movie: Why Clueless Is One of the Best Comedies Ever Made
August 18, 2010 § Leave a comment
Clueless turned 15 this summer, which means it’s high time I catalogued its virtues for you. In a blog dedicated to women in film beyond Twilight and its ilk, why start with a romantic comedy? Because I’m a firm believer in the fact that chick flicks don’t have to insult our collective intelligence. Clueless is a rom-com done right–truly funny, charming, and smarter than it’s given credit for. Here are six reasons why Clueless is one of the greatest comedies ever made:
1) You may or may not know that Clueless is an updated adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma. Updates are tough. Adhere too slavishly to the source material, and the new version seems stilted. Deviate too far from it, and you might as well not even call it an update. Clueless is one of those rare films that works perfectly either as an adaptation or not; you can watch it either way without losing a thing. Watch it as an adaptation and you find that every plot note and character is pitch-perfect compared to the novel. Watch it as an original work and it stands on its own. This doesn’t sound that hard, but just try to name an equally seamless update. (If you want to make it hard on yourself, eliminate anything based on the works of Shakespeare.)
2) Amy Heckerling did more world-building in this movie than your average fantasy novelist. In order to not make the movie’s slang and fashion seem dated by the release date, she created all of it from scratch. It worked; the movie now seems suspended in some faux-1990s wonderland that never really existed. The movie had a big impact on fashion–babydoll dresses and thigh-highs were huge–but some of the invented slang (“I’m Audi,” for example) soon entered the real world, too.
3) There are so many allusions that fly over your head when you watch this movie as a kid–the parodies of Gigi, the clues sprinkled throughout to Christian’s sexuality–but perhaps my favorite is the fact that Cher and her friends attend Bronson Alcott High School. Bronson Alcott (father of Louisa May Alcott, the author of Little Women) was a teacher best known for his idea that students should discipline their teachers rather than the reverse. Fitting!
4) Alicia Silverstone nails Cher. Jane Austen once described the character of Emma (on whom Cher is based), as “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” While society’s tolerance for spoiled brats has increased somewhat since the Regency era, let’s face it–it’s still a hard sell to turn a heroine who is rich, gorgeous, shallow, selfish and irresponsible into someone likable. But the self-deprecating charm of Alicia Silverstone manages it from the opening line.
5) It’s infinitely quoteable. “That’s Ren and Stimpy; they’re way existential.” “You’re a virgin who can’t drive.” “Searching for a boy in high school is as useless as searching for meaning in a Pauly Shore movie.” Almost every joke in the movie is funny, but the humor transcends verbal wit into the visual and physical realms as well.
6) Clueless is Paul Rudd’s major movie debut. I have a major thing for Paul Rudd–in his Clueless incarnation, in his Knocked Up incarnation, probably even in his Anchorman incarnation. Paul Rudd can do no wrong. I once described his portrayal of Josh in this movie as “the perfect man, except for the fact that he wears tapered jeans.” (A friend whom I was watching the movie with at the time said that this quote inspired him to stop wearing tapered jeans, and he’s been a ladies magnet ever since. See, Clueless changes lives!) The Opposites Attract theme is one of my favorites if it’s done well, and the final ten minutes of this movie still tug on my heartstrings every time I watch it.
Of course, that brings us to the movie’s only significant flaw: the fact that, as former stepsiblings, Cher and Josh hooking up is . . . just a little bit icky. I know, some of you can get past that. You’re probably also the kind of people who didn’t mind Margot and Richie’s being secretly in love in The Royal Tenenbaums. You probably rooted for Marcia and Greg to get together on The Brady Bunch. You’re weird. In Emma, the Josh equivalent was a family friend; there’s no reason why he couldn’t have been the same in Clueless. Still, dealing with this singular flaw is minor enough when contrasted with watching the movie’s infinite virtues. Put the Mighty Mighty Bosstones on your CD player, bust out your best plaid, and prepare to get nostalgic.