Monday, January 22, 2007

Three forgotten femme fatales

My recent viewings have given me three of my favorite femme fatale characters and actresses that rarely get the notoriety they deserve. The first has long been a favorite of mine, while the other two have only recently perked my interest

Billie Jean (Helen Slater in The Legend of Billie Jean)

When the best teen movies of the 80s are spoken of, the works of Hughes, Spielberg, The Cories, as well as the usual suspects of The Goonies, Adventures in Babysitting and maybe a few good slashers are frequently the topic. My top five in this category will include some combination of the previous, but also a largely forgotten gem that is not even on DVD: The Legend of Billie Jean.

Released in 1985 as a vehicle for Helen Slater, a Pat Benetar single, some kid named Christian Slater and as much teen angst and injustice you can serve up in 96 minutes, Billie Jean is pure entertainment for anyone seeking to relive those seemingly carefree years. Filling the movie's one-sheet and most of its scenes is Slater, whose unique beauty was perhaps never put to better use as a striking young girl who walks the line between innocence and heartbreaker. Alongside Slater is the blond (!) and barely recognizable Christian Slater (no relation), as well as Dean Stockwell and an early role by Yeardley Smith (who was 21 at the time but looks no older than 11). Behind this respectable 80s talent is Benatar's "Invincible," which must have been viewed by the studio as the movie's trump card (chords from it are played throughout, and the song itself is played at length no less than twice).

One of the more endearing qualities of Billie Jean is that the central prop is a top of the line Honda scooter (God those were cool), belonging to the Billie's brother Binx (Slater). After a milkshake skirmish at a local Sonic with spoiled ruffians, said bullies steal and trash the scooter, leading Billie to seek reparations from Head Bully's bully dad. Predictably, Bully Dad wants more than Billie's gratitude in exchange for the repair money. Confusion and youthful stupidity in Bully Dad's store lead to our gang being framed for armed robbery -- and they go on the run. Worse yet, no scooter repair money!

Though on the run from the law, Billie becomes a sort of folk hero for teens across the country. Getting inspiration from a Joan of Arc movie, Billie sheds her golden locks and continues to stick it to the grown man -- eventually growing into a Pied Piper-like figure with the nation's youth. Did I mention that every character speaks with exaggerated south Texas accents? That Yeardley Smith is the comic relief? That there's a getaway scene involving marbles? That Peter Coyote has a significant role!?!

It's all here, and so much more. The action really picks up when Billie uses her newfound media celebrity to save a child from his abusive father and ultimately get sweet revenge on Bully Dad and adults everywhere in a scene that must have sold millions of "Invincible" singles. It's a little sad to realize that of all the actors in the movie, Christian Slater had the best career, while Helen Slater's presence and looks couldn't help her get another meaningful onscreen role again -- perhaps unfairly blamed for the dreadful failure of Supergirl, when she played the title role.

Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins in Gun Crazy)

Oh how I love the alternate title for this movie: Deadly is the Female. Goddamn that rocks, and really seems to fit better in regards to the story and the movie's message. As the sex bomb with the six shooters Annie Laurie Starr, Peggy Cummins has one of the most memorable and jaw-dropping sexy entrances in all of cinema. After being introduced by her carnie manager, Starr struts out firing a pair of revolvers, wearing skin tight pants with holsters resting on her hips. As she goes about her trick shooting act (which includes shooting targets through her legs), she treats the men in the audience (as well as the viewers) to a view of her behind that must have been considered scandalous in 1950. You have to understand: Cummins is absolutely poured into these pants and with the look on her face throughout the shooting exhibition is simply the definition of a vamp.

Gun Crazy has more to offer than just Cummins, giving us the story of reformed bad boy Bart Tare, fresh off a tour in the military and committed to a straight life after once being a delinquent youth obsessed with guns. Those good intentions go astray with the sight of Starr one night at a carnival. Tare is invited onstage to best Starr's crack eye and the result is a ferocious display of sexuality in the form of dueling pistols and wills. Starr's display consumes Tare, and two quickly are a pair. But a carnie salary does not satisfy Starr, and she soon convinces Tare to rob a bank with her. The bank heist is presented in a breathtaking one-shot scene filmed from the back seat of their getaway car, and the deadly pair are soon on their way across the country picking up loot wherever they can. Yes, deadly is the female who can put such an honest boy up to no good.

Gun Crazy was a fun surprise, packaged in Warner's Film Noir Classic Collection -- though I would hesitate to classify it as film noir. Yes, the subject of a woman turning a man to crime smells somewhat of noir, but outside of that it looks and plays a lot like the better crime movies of the era (think White Heat or The Public Enemy). Still, DVD Savant provides a commentary track (credited as a film noir expert), and I'll defer to his knowledge.

Marnie Edgar ('Tippi' Hedren in Marnie)

Though she's not commonly mentioned as one of film's timeless beauties, something about Tippi Hedren is intoxicating to me. She has such a flawless -- possibly girlish -- face, and that rare way of barely moving her lips (hardly ever smiling) that I've also noticed with Scarlett Johanson. I can see why she was a Hitchcock girl, her odd but beautiful qualities are similar to Kim Novak's -- who has a somewhat masculine face, and also uses stone emotions. When paired with Sean Connery in Marnie, it's all eye candy.

In The Birds, Hedren isn't given too much to do save for screaming -- but as the mysterious, venomous Marnie, she is clearly in her element. Panned upon its release, Marnie holds up well as an absolutely gorgeous movie with sexual themes similar to what Hitchcock presented in Notorious. It's a wordy movie and I'll try to describe the plot with few of them: Marnie has many aliases and has left many trusting men poor in her stealing wake, until she meets Mark (Connery) who catches on to her game. Mark forces Marnie to marry him, lest he reveal her crimes -- but he is not so much concerned with having a comely wife as he is aroused by her cunning nature and obsessed with figuring her out.

In Notorious, power-wielding Carey Grant grappled with being a pseudo cuckold while gives us Connery playing a man who has created a pleasant domination-submission scenario with a woman who is used to having the upper hand. In both movies, the men are in unchartered sexual territory and struggle with how far they want to take it. But with Marnie, it's tough to find much sympathy for either character, unlike Notorious. The characters are unlikable and seem to have little consequences for their actions. Still, it's a gorgeous movie with a great Herrman score (his last for Hitchcock).


Piper said...

Billie Jean is a classic.

Teen rebellion done literally.

Another great Femme Fatale movie is Leave Her To Heaven. If you haven't seen it, it's excellent.

Emory said...

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