Vintage Cable Box: The Woman in Red, 1984

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“Come and get it, Cowboy.”

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The Woman in Red, 1984 (Gene Wilder), Orion Pictures

I had not planned to cover The Woman in Red until next year, but Gene Wilder’s passing prompted me to look at the movie again. As far as I know, the movie did not premiere on HBO until 1986 when we had already moved back to Philadelphia. We missed our HBO so much we bought a satellite dish (at a cost of $30 a month), and installed it on our rooftop (at a time when Philly did not have cable television below the Broad Street line). What I most remember about the movie was the heavy promotion it received during it’s initial release. The publicity and the advertisements thoroughly peddled Kelly Le Brock and the memorable (if tedious) music of Stevie Wonder.

San Francisco advertising executive Gene Wilder is negotiating a hi-rise ledge and wondering what he had done to find himself in this position.  He recalls that one day four weeks ago, he was sitting in his car in a parking lot when he spotted a woman in a red dress walking down the street.  She passes over a grate, which blows hot air up her dress, revealing her matching red panties.  She turns back, stands over the grate and starts dancing.  From then on, Gene is smitten.  He is immediately infatuated with her, and tries to set up a date with her, but mistakenly reaches co-worker Gilda Radner instead.  He seems happy yet unsatisfied in his marriage to Judith Ivey, recalling Tommy Noonan’s roving eye and boredom in The Seven Year Itch with Marilyn Monroe.

His friends are of no help to his burgeoning infidelity and thoughts of desertion.  They ogle women constantly and screw around behind their busy wives’ backs.  Joseph Bologna (fresh from Blame It on Rio) is a cad, and Charles Grodin plays a character he knows best: well-meaning and mild-mannered, but with a touch of hysteria.  All is not well as Bologna is informed his wife is divorcing him, so the central fear of loneliness is a preoccupation in Wilder’s character.  Evidently, men are all big talk until the shit hits the fan.  Interestingly, because Wilder refuses to discuss his feelings of ennui with his wife, he comes across as a gibbering idiot on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Ivey, livid over Bologna’s impending divorce, and all the terrible stories that accompany it, informs Wilder she is a violently jealous woman.  Her revelation horrifies Wilder.  Meanwhile, Gilda awaits her “date” with the clueless Wilder, who never arrives because he had no idea he was making a date with her.  In an unusual montage, we see Gilda sitting alone in an empty restaurant, Bologna sleeping and drinking alone next to pictures of his children, and Wilder unable to sleep next to his wife in the bed they share.  The next day, a furious Gilda keys his car and breaks his antenna.  When he discovers his mystery woman had a love of horseback riding, he arranges a meet-cute with the girl at the stables.

The two hit it off, and once Le Brock shows even the mildest of interest in Wilder, his life turns around.  He is happy and confident.  He buys new clothes, and tries to give himself a new hairstyle, to which his friend hilariously compares him to Robert Redford.  As with Dudley Moore and Bo Derek in 10, Wilder manages to get Le Brock into bed, but before he can consummate his lust, her husband arrives home early, and he must escape, by climbing out on the aforementioned ledge.  Where Moore was turned off by Derek’s casual attitude regarding sex, Wilder’s screenplay and direction emphasize the loneliness of his character.  He photographs Le Brock as though she were a goddess just out of his reach.

With a charmingly dated appeal, this is a movie made for the PG-13 rating.  While PG-rated movies in the late 70s/early 80s treaded lightly when it came to certain kinds of violence and off-color language, the introduction of the PG-13 rating promised movies with adult humor and themes that could be watched and enjoyed by kids.  This was the promise, but it was not kept.  PG-13 movies were produced (starting in the early 90s) to guarantee as many asses in the seats as PG movies did twenty years before.  The Woman in Red is a rare example of a movie that would be rated R (restricted audiences) if released today.

Gene Wilder never set out to become a comedic actor.  It was only when collaborators such as Mel Brooks and Woody Allen discovered his gift for controlled mania, and an unerring capacity to stretch the imagined boundaries of sanity with every character he played, were we truly witness to the birth of that comedic legend.  His first film was 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde.  Brooks cast him as the neurotic accountant Leopold Bloom in The Producers.  He would appear in Start the Revolution Without Me and Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, but it wasn’t until 1972’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask) that he began to make a name for himself as the reluctant comedian.  He would make Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles for Mel Brooks, as well as a series of successful comedies with Richard Pryor.  In addition to The Woman in Red, he would write and direct The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother, The World’s Greatest Lover, and Haunted Honeymoon.

I’m gonna miss him.

A very special thank you to Christopher Hasler for suggesting this title.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.

 

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Vintage Cable Box: Class, 1983

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“The dog died.”

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Class, 1983 (Rob Lowe), Orion Pictures

Poor kid Andrew McCarthy (not exactly wrong-side-of-the-tracks, mind you) from a steel town (on a Saturday night looking for the fight of his life!) hugs his parents and says goodbye as he advances to prep school.  This is a kid who has obviously had to study hard, and work his way through life to reach the upper stratus of the rich kid’s world.  Upon meeting his new roommate, Skip (Rob Lowe) sizes him up as a complete rube and a naïve mensch who will fall for his practical jokes and ridiculous stories.  On the surface, Lowe’s pranks could be seen as exceedingly cruel (even driving McCarthy to tears), but they are necessary in order to forge the bond between the two young men as they cope with the rigors of encroaching adulthood.

McCarthy manages to bestow revenge upon Lowe (in the form of a fake suicide – not terribly funny, I guess you had to be there) and they become fast friends.  After a couple of episodes, usually involving young women and embarrassing hi-jinks, Lowe (in Christ regalia carrying a crucifix, no less) gives McCarthy a hundred bucks and a ticket to Chicago so he can get laid, or else he won’t be allowed back into the dorm.  McCarthy decides to take him up on the offer.  He goes to a singles club, and ultimately hooks up with a beautiful older woman (delicious Jacqueline Bisset).  While initially chaste, it’s obvious she’s very lonely and prefers to populate her surroundings with young people.  She finds McCarthy’s naïveté charming, and seems to be immediately attracted to him.  They have sex, and it is implied this is McCarthy’s first time.

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Returning to school, he presents a pair of panties as proof of his dalliances, and regales classmates with stories of passion with an older woman, and earns the respect of his peers.  He has further interludes with Bisset.  They have a remarkably easy sexual chemistry (no difficult feat with Bisset), which demonstrates not only the success of the movie’s characterizations (the story takes it’s time in unfolding) but also places an important emphasis on sexuality in general as depicted in the eighties.  McCarthy shows wonderful maturity in his scenes with her (he’s a joy to watch, which is strange for me) even when he lets it slip that he loves her.  Her face goes blank for a moment, because she’s contemplating the ramifications of the statement (as an older women would).  This is a strangely thoughtful screenplay for an eighties sex comedy.

She takes him to New York and shops for him. While he changes his slacks, she spies his wallet, opens it up, revealing that he is, in fact, a high school student. She runs off. What I wonder is – how could she not know? She knows he is rather inexperienced as a lover. His youthful demeanor should’ve triggered something in her, so we approach somewhat controversial territory in that even if we bond with people on an intimate level, how hard would it be to accept that the years are wrong between us? McCarthy is depressed, and his grades are slipping. Lowe invites him up to his parents’ country estate for Christmas break. This is where the fun begins!

They get to the palatial spread, and Skip introduces his parents, Cliff Robertson, and one Jacqueline Bisset!  Turns out she’s a very bad girl.  What follows is stilted, awkward dinner conversation.  Bisset is in an unhappy marriage to a humorless, straight-shooting Robertson, which makes sense given her proclivity for casual sex with strangers.  Robertson chalks up her peculiar behavior to neuroses or a mid-life breakdown.  The movie then turns into a comedy of errors, where McCarthy has to shield Lowe from his relationship with Bisset, and then to provide a sounding board to Lowe’s disillusionment and dissatisfaction with his parents and adult life.

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Even though they tended to irritate me in later movies, McCarthy and Lowe are just about perfect in this film, playing off each other like a younger variant of The Odd Couple; McCarthy is a straight-laced realist, and Lowe is a bad boy.  The terrific cast is a mix of old (Robertson, Stuart Margolin), new (John Cusack, Alan Ruck, Virginia Madsen), and the still-hot (Bisset).  Class plays as a reverse Blame It On Rio, from the perspective of the young male as protagonist, and also a pre-Brat Pack opus, but given the cast and subject matter (more sexualized) produced by a slightly-older generation of filmmakers than John Hughes, it’s more hard-hitting and less contextualized.  When Lowe’s character discovers the truth, he is mortified.  McCarthy tries to reason with him, but instead, they wind up fighting it out in mud-covered fields, which spills over into their dorm.  After beating the holy hell out of each other, they collapse in a heap and laugh.  This is one of the greatest endings of any movie I’ve ever seen.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.

Vintage Cable Box: “Summer Lovers, 1982”

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“When there is not enough space, there is pressure.”

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Summer Lovers, 1982 (Daryl Hannah), Filmways 

Good-looking young couple Peter Gallagher and Daryl Hannah take a summer house on the Greek island Santorini.  Fresh from college graduation, I gather Gallagher is itching to settle down, but he becomes infatuated with a French archaeologist named Lina, on assignment at a nearby excavation site.  He follows her around like a puppy dog, and pretends not to spy on her, which is totally what he is doing, and she is aware of it.  These days, that would considered some form of harassment.  Meanwhile, Daryl, obviously bored, reads up on advanced (and ancient) sexual practices and techniques.  She speaks to Gallagher of her bondage fantasies.  Later that night, he agrees to be tied up, while she drops hot candle wax on him.

Peter accompanies Lina to a nude beach.  She strips down.  Uncomfortable, he also strips, but very quickly hides his shortcomings, as it were.  I wonder if these people ever worry about skin cancer.  Ultimately liberated by his nudity, he jumps into the water and swims.  He and Lina swim to a secluded cove and make love.  He confesses to Daryl, telling her he’s confused, doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life.  Daryl is pissed.  She takes off, and heads to a bar where she lets a kid hit on her.  Meanwhile, Gallagher hooks up with Lina again.  The kid takes Daryl back to his house, offers her drugs, which she declines.  She fends off his advances and leaves.  She can’t bring herself to make love to another man.  While Gallagher firmly believes he has an “open” relationship with Hannah, her feelings are hurt.

Daryl rushes off to confront Lina, but this other woman is sweet and accomodating, she can’t bring herself to hate her.  She tells Daryl she doesn’t want to destroy her relationship with Gallagher.  They start hanging out together, as an unusual threesome.  Gallagher becomes uncomfortable (yet again!) at the prospect of his girlfriend and his lover becoming friends.  This film could be easily re-edited as a comedy.  I can’t help but feel sorry for Lina, who appears to be caught in the middle of good old fashioned American Jealousy.  A sexually liberated, young French woman, Lina doesn’t immediately understand their problems, nor does she seem to care.  Daryl tells Peter she likes the girl.  Songs by Tina Turner play in montage pieces in a foreshadowing of the kind of cinema for which the eighties would become known.

One night, the three of them share wine, kisses, and finally sex.  With the initial tension out of the way, they’re finally having fun to the strains of “I’m So Excited”.  Regardless of the heavy adult content, this movie feels like innocent fun, a call-back to a different time where everything seemed to be permitted, and nothing was particularly sacred.  The use of popular songs (disco, new wave, and rock) of the time, and the patina of early MTV-style cinematography and editing contribute to a wonderful yet dated appeal.  Indeed, once Gallagher and Hannah, shed their inhibitions and get with Lina, it finally feels like they’re truly enjoying their vacation, which is weird.  The three spend an enormous amount of time nude in the film, and enjoying each other’s company.  This is another case (as with Blame It On Rio) of a mainstream movie that would never be made today, or if it were, it would be severely neutered for the sensibilities of today’s audiences.

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Director Randal Kleiser had previously shown his skill at telling stories involving young people with 1978’s mega-hit, Grease and 1980’s The Blue Lagoon.  In 1984, he would direct Grandview, U.S.A..  The film is beautifully shot, but the youthful cast seem lazy and uninterested, and spend more time taking their clothes off than putting them on.  In a movie filled floor-to-ceiling with unabashed nudity, there are no sex scenes.  While a very interesting character study of post-college frustration, boredom, and rebellion, I would not classify Summer Lovers as romance.  Perhaps a Graduate-like drama about a different generation; the children of the first boomers in an era of prosperity and promiscuity, doing things they will one day regret but always remember.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.

Vintage Cable Box: “Blame It On Rio, 1984”

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“One time a company I worked for transferred me to an island in the Pacific. Fantastic place. I invited my girl to visit me. I sent her a postcard everyday with a single word on each card. I wrote “Found a virgin paradise. It’s yours. Matthew.” Naturally, they were delivered in the wrong order. The message she got was “Found a virgin. It’s paradise. Yours, Matthew.” Never heard from her again.”

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Blame It On Rio, 1984 (Michael Caine), 20th Century Fox

This is a tough one. It’s a film I enjoy, but only in private. This is a movie I find I cannot share with today’s younger audiences, either because they can’t grasp the concept of a truly R-rated sex comedy that skirts topics considered forbidden, or because of it’s simultaneously dated yet timeless feel. Let’s get the hotness of Michelle Johnson out of the way first. She’s supposed to be a teen-aged girl, but upon inspection, she appears mature. She looks like a woman, not a girl. Once you’ve taken that fact and put it in a box, it’s easy to enjoy Blame It On Rio, the definitive romantic jailbait comedy.

Michael Caine stares down the barrel of middle-age, trapped in a loveless marriage (to Valerie Harper, can you blame him?) and worries after his reckless daughter (Demi Moore, whom apparently inherited her scratchy-voice from Harper) when his friend (a constipated Joseph Bologna) suggests a family vacation to titular Rio de Janeiro. Nothing to worry about. Just a couple of dads and their hot daughters going stag for a couple of weeks. After witnessing Bologna’s daughter topless on the beach (with his equally-bare daughter, which is … just yuck), she seduces him, and despite all his efforts at restraint, he succumbs.

Caine spends most of the movie after this point trying to avoid the girl. She casts love spells on him. He tries to make himself less appealing (which is impossible because, come on, he’s Michael-freaking-Caine!) and he lectures her on their illicit behavior. She doesn’t care. She’s hopelessly in love with him. Bologna snoops through his daughter’s diary, discovers she’s in love with an older man, and enlists Caine to help him find the scumbag. Caine is a joy to watch in these scenes. A gifted comedian in the Peter Sellers and (our old friend) Dudley Moore mold, he can go from terrified to turned-on in five seconds.

Michelle Johnson is a difficult actress to assess. While extremely attractive, and obviously up to the game of seducing Caine, most of her dialogue is looped and thus, inconsistent with many of the scenes in which she is featured. Her voice is silky, but out-of-place.  She has great chemistry with Caine (not an arduous feat for an actor of his stature), but her line readings are dull and flat. Bologna suffers the same problem. His dialogue also appears to be looped. Valerie Harper disappears at the beginning of the movie, and then reappears shortly before the end to discover (with Bologna, ironically the character she’s having an affair with) Caine and Johnson’s tryst. Demi Moore’s character is almost a ghost in the movie, always exiting in every scene. The movie would’ve been a lot stronger if more of a relationship between Moore’s character and Caine were present.

It is toward the end of the movie that the narrative goes clunky and dramatic. When Bologna and Caine come to blows (a hilarious bit with pot-bellied Caine taking on a much leaner Bologna – pun!), a distraught Johnson overdoses on birth control pills and has her stomach pumped at the hospital. Director Stanley Donen (fresh from the horrendous Saturn 3) and writers Larry Gelbart and Charlie Peters must’ve thought injecting a little pathos into the story would legitimize what is essentially a smutty little sex comedy. It might’ve worked under different circumstances in the 1977 French film, on which this movie is based (or Jean-Francois Richet’s somewhat more explicit recent remake), but here, amid all the goofiness, this is quite jarring.

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It’s disturbing to me that a movie like this could not be made today in this country. As I mentioned, it was remade last year in France, but as a drama with humorous moments rather than a screwball comedy. It harkens back to the days of Kubrick’s melodramatic and comedic take on Nabokov’s Lolita, in which much of the sting of the story’s content was sterilized by the casting of a mature-looking Sue Lyons. Today, men are perceived as aggressors and rapists and women are seen as victims, regardless of their age. Audiences would see Michael Caine’s character as a modern-day Clare Quilty; a master manipulator of young women who seduces Michelle Johnson, regardless of how the story actually unfolds. Caine would be castigated, arrested, and labeled a sex-offender for the rest of his life. Advocacy groups would picket and protest this movie.

In the 1980s, most of the money in movies was being made from sex comedies and horror films. Conversely, there were very few family movies. Cable television and the video industry were going through a renaissance period, and budgets were comparatively low compared to the money being spent today. The risqué sexy comedy is all-but-extinct, and movies being made these days are sad, stale (not to mention expensive), disposable entertainments to be consumed and then discarded, and Blame It On Rio is emblematic of the charms of a smutty yet harmless bye-gone era.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird).  We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images.  We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates.  About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.