Comfortable and Furious

Spinning Plates: Part 3

Olivia Newton-John in Grease (1978)

“Got any porno?” Debbie Harry asks in Videodrome. “Gets me in the mood.” Good line, but I doubt Newton-John ever said anything like it during her movie career. She might’ve been known as Olivia Neutron-Bomb after the release of the image-altering, multi-million selling Physical, but in reality, has any late twentieth century woman projected such wholesomeness? Think of the girl next door and it’s hard not to picture this ultra-cute, amazingly successful singer. Straightaway during Grease’s blissful beach opening her dominant character trait sees her fight off Travolta’s ardent advances. “Don’t spoil it!” she cries, resisting his kisses no doubt before scampering off to church.

Gawd, talk about a professional virgin.

Throughout this 1950s-set monster hit she wanders around in a long skirt with a cardigan draped over her delicate shoulders, demurely clutching a ring binder against her chest. She doesn’t smoke and will hiccup after one swig of dessert wine. Sincerity, courtesy and femininity are her forte, resulting in the slightest trace of dirt being repelled at a distance of at least three meters. Oh, that porcelain skin, downcast eyes, wondrous smile and air of naiveté! In short, she’s a paragon of virtue. Is this why I prefer to watch the majority of Grease dressed as the Gimp, pacing and grunting in front of the screen as my knuckles drag against the carpet?

Still, if you think I’m on some anti-Olivia rant here, you’re wrong. In a flick packed with theatrical performances and surprisingly crude dialogue, she provides a grounded, effective counter. The chemistry with Travolta (doing his best heterosexual impersonation) is palpable. She might not be able to match his charisma, but at least she gets to belt out a few world-class pop songs, including Hopelessly Devoted to You while wearing a hair band and a flowing, pure white nightdress that’s so long you can’t even glimpse a toe. Heaven! However, when she vamps it up in the final ten minutes (“I need a man!”), I tend to rip off my Gimp outfit and collapse sulking on the sofa.

Diana Ross and Michael Jackson in The Wiz (1978)

Despite belonging to that poxy genre known as the musical, 1939’s The Wizard of Oz is a fave. Built on the most vivid imagination, it features tremendously quotable dialogue, a shining example of a Strong Female Role, impressive special effects, mostly great songs and, of course, one of moviedom’s best villains. No flick has stood the test of time better or permeated popular culture to such an extraordinary degree.

Then there’s The Wiz, a terribly written, all-black remake in which the white ‘talent’ had the good sense to stay out of sight behind the camera. Jesus fucking Christ, after ten minutes I wanted to reach in and slap everyone with the admonishment: “Stop being so goddamn silly!” Graham Chapman, good sir, your nonsense-hating presence is required.

The plain-looking Diana Ross, who was approaching her mid-30s when this ludicrous abomination was filmed, is about as miscast as anyone I’ve ever seen. She continually overacts, either staring wide-eyed at the rampant absurdity all around or looking like she’s about to piss her pants over the most trivial of incidents. “I’m acting like a baby,” she sings at one point.

The effervescent, vaguely manic Jackson fares a little better, but he still gets attacked by a pair of carnivorous trash cans. Decked out in a drab costume and a woolen afro with the tip of his nose browned, he looks like a down-market Scary Spice after her schnoz has been dipped in shit. In common with Ross, his songs are so boring you barely listen to the lyrics. When he speaks, his breathy, high-pitched voice makes it sound like he’s not long been kicked in the balls.

Chuck in unimaginative choreography, the sheer ugliness of the urban-flavored sets, and nonsensical elements like the awful Ross being whisked off to Oz by a snowbound New York tornado, and this one adds up to more than two hours of outright embarrassment for all concerned, especially heavyweight director Sidney Lumet. It’s so bad I even wanted Toto to get run over.

Sting in Quadrophenia (1979)

Sting has had a spotty movie career, his enthusiasm understandably dampened by failing to win rave notices for turning up in a codpiece in 1984’s incomprehensible mega-flop Dune. He staggered on for a bit with a meatier, arm-breaking role alongside Tommy Lee Jones in the Newcastle-set dud Stormy Monday before finally doing something right as a bar owner in the big hit Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.

Back in 1979 he made his debut in the bloody excellent Quadrophenia, an on-the-money exploration of a curious case of British racism in which sharply dressed, scooter-riding Mods can’t get along with leather-clad Rockers on motorbikes. Sting arrives on a customized scooter sporting bleached blonde hair and a long leather coat, immediately causing everyone to be half-blinded by his charisma. Well, he is called Ace Face. Not long afterward this flash bastard takes to the dance floor and mass gawping ensues. Committed poseur he might be, but he’s not averse to smashing a shop window, pulling a bobby off his horse or laying into a Rocker or two. Then again, he might not be as cool as he makes out. A lovelorn Toyah also pops up but disappointingly sticks to dancing and drugs.

The nicely filmed Quadrophenia is a superb recreation of mid-60s UK life. It effortlessly captures authenticity with its array of pasty faces, distinctive accents, foul-mouthed dialogue, dead-end jobs, wet streets, brawls and pill popping, not to mention the way it handles the generation gap, some funny black humor, an overall sense of drabness and the exuberant ridiculousness of disaffected youth. It also benefits from The Who’s banging soundtrack while casting a bunch of appropriately-aged, memorably-faced youngsters, the vast majority of whom went onto other movies and/or long running TV careers. And while it’s always nice to see Razors from Long Good Friday, I could have done without those lengthy shots of Ray Winstone’s submerged cock.

Meat Loaf in Roadie (1980), Fight Club (1999) & The 51st State (2001)

I’ve always found it impossible to dislike Meat Loaf. His music is as bombastic, OTT and ridiculous as it gets yet is also distinctive, wholehearted and memorable. It shouldn’t work but it does. Unfortunately, his debut starring role in Roadie definitely doesn’t work. He plays a good ol’ Texan boy roped into the music business despite knowing nothing about it, as typified by a less than inspired guess that Alice Cooper is one of Charlie’s Angels.

Meat Loaf tries too hard with his wide eyes and exaggerated reactions, but even if his acting were better, he’d still be sunk by this quarter-baked movie’s clumsy, rambling, knockabout nature and the way it throws in everything from armadillos to UFOs. Most of its cameos and in-jokes have been lost in time. Roadie aims for quirkiness but gets mired in tedium in less than half an hour.

After Roadie crashed and burned at the box office, Meat Loaf kept trying to spin those plates by instead concentrating on supporting roles. Or perhaps no producer would trust him with a starring turn again. Fight Club was far and away the most successful product of this strategy and, along with Rocky Horror, remains his best-known flick. Here you have to give him credit for picking such an unglamorous role. He plays a former champion bodybuilder whose unchecked steroid use has resulted in a pair of ‘bitch tits’ so big that they make Christina Hendricks’ divine double look like an A cup. Oh yeah, he’s also developed testicular cancer and had his nuts chopped off.

A memorable set-up, yes?

Shame his blubbering, none too bright character doesn’t go anywhere, even after he gets sucked into a local chapter of Fight Club. Nonetheless, perhaps I should be grateful he’s one of the few sincere characters in this plodding, ultra-cynical movie.

Things don’t improve in 51st State (aka Formula 51). Now while Meat Loaf’s performance in Roadie was a little forced, everything about 51st State is forced. This action comedy has an interesting cast and desperately wants to be in the same class as the likes of Pulp Fiction, Lock, Stock and Trainspotting but is sunk by its tired, profanity-peppered script and derivative underpinnings. Meat Loaf makes little impression as a scaly-faced drug lord called The Lizard, even if he does wear slippers emblazoned with cute silhouettes of his reptilian moniker. He gets double-crossed and almost assassinated (or ‘truly ass-invaded’ as he puts it), a turn of events that transforms him into a vengeful, bellowing type. I dunno, maybe I’m too familiar with the guy’s real-life genial personality to buy into his mean character in this predictable clodhopper. To be honest, I’ve come to the conclusion he never improved as an actor, although I suspect he still would’ve made a more convincing Dorothy than Diana Ross.

Debbie Harry in Videodrome (1983)

I went to see the reformed Blondie in the late nineties, enabling me to notice something blindingly obvious about Ms. Harry. The poor lass ain’t much of a dancer. Great voice, fantastic songs, a brilliant all-round contribution, but a long way from mastering Madonna-like exertions. Oh well, guess you can’t have everything. I mean, where would you put it?

But is Harry’s acting better than her dancing?

I’d say about the same in that both lack commitment and animation. In Videodrome she plays Nicki, a kinky radio show host who considers having a needle stuck through an earlobe as foreplay. She’s also into self-harming and watching porn, a predilection that brings her into contact with sleazy small-time TV boss Max Renn (James Woods). “We live in over-stimulated times,” is her explanation for her less than conservative behavior. It’s music to his ears. Two minutes later she’s stubbing out a fag on herself.

Videodrome is probably the pick of Cronenberg’s body horror stuff from the controversial first phase of his career. Like Shivers, Rabid, Brood and Scanners, it’s built on fascinating subject matter, as well as providing some sort of explanation/defense for the Canadian director’s partiality for dark, twisted shit (“Better on TV than the streets.”) Unlike those earlier efforts, however, Videodrome doesn’t prompt me to lapse into boredom, puzzlement or sniggers. It’s not as good as his later Fly, but it’s got plenty to say about TV addiction, the consumption of 2D sex and violence, and those perennial moral panics. Harry (effectively obliterating her Blondie identity with dark hair) is hardly pivotal to its minor success, but I quite liked her cooing ‘Come to Nicki’ before a hallucinating Woods sticks his head through the TV screen into her giant mouth.

Dave Franklin’s movie guide Go Fuck an Iceberg! A Brit’s Take on Guns, Tits and Other Fun Movie Stuff is now on sale at Amazon.



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