Its similarity to (groan) ‘Fifty Shades Of Grey’ and ‘Last Tango In Paris’ – plus rumours of lead actress Kim Basinger’s shabby on-set treatment by director Adrian Lyne and co-star Mickey Rourke – mean that ‘Nine ½ Weeks’ is generally denied a fair shake these days.
So why do I return to it every few years, always finding something new to enjoy (no sniggering at the back there)?
The NYC-set tale of a torrid, co-dependent affair between successful, attractive couple Elizabeth (Basinger) and John (Rourke) was based on Ingeborg Day’s (writing as Elizabeth McNeill) controversial 1978 memoir of the same name.
Despite its risqué subject matter, it’s hardly surprising the film – released 35 years ago today – was given a green light. Lyne was fresh from ‘Flashdance’, an enormous hit, while Basinger (beating off competition for the role from Kathleen Turner, Isabella Rossellini and Teri Garr) and Rourke were red-hot and highly in-demand.
But finally, it’s quite a downbeat, subtle, adult film, revealing layers of meaning with repeated viewings, possibly why I recall it as pretty boring (I was wrong…) when first seeing it with mates during my thrill-seeking late teens.
Essentially it’s about two attractive but somewhat alienated people – we frequently see them both ‘lonely in a crowd’. But repeated viewings of the film show them to be well-rounded, fully-formed characters, not just show-ponies in a second-rate soft-porn movie.
Basinger is the star of the movie, and she’s excellent. The demands of the role and lengths to which she was pushed by both Rourke and Lyne reportedly led her to some psychological trauma and even marital problems for up to a year after the film wrapped, as reported by New York Times writer Nina Darnton. Rourke’s first marriage also reportedly hit the skids during the shoot’s slipstream.
The film was shot in sequence, and Lyne encouraged the leads to stay in character off the set, so that their ‘real’ relationship echoed the screen relationship. Whatever was going on behind the scenes, the results speak for themselves – there’s palpable chemistry between Basinger and Rourke.
Sparks fly when they first meet in that Chinese deli (with a great cameo from Kim Chan, so memorable in Scorsese’s ‘King Of Comedy’) and there are elements of fun and light-heartedness in their relationship which can still raise a smile today.
Though the sexual politics of the movie may disturb these days, it’s interesting to note that the screenplay is credited to two women – Patricia Louisianna Klopp and Sarah Kernochan – alongside the dreaded Zalman King…
Elizabeth is completely ‘in control’ at her workplace, but totally out of control in her personal life. This contrasts with John, a total control freak – at least on the surface – in both facets of his life. So she seems a highly intelligent, though somewhat lonely figure (indeed, loneliness is a big theme of the movie), sometimes even prudish, at least compared to her workmate Molly (played by the excellent Margaret Whitton).
Lyne’s direction and Peter Biziou’s camerawork are impressive with scrupulous attention to detail – every shot is designed to create the utmost visual impact, with recurring motifs and interesting subtexts.
A few years before ‘American Psycho’, the film also offers a truly fetishized view of ‘80s tech – John’s wardrobe, his state-of-the-art hi-fi, the emphasis on surfaces and image. This article sums up the film’s style concerns beautifully.
New York looks wonderful, with resplendent locations like the Chelsea and Algonquin hotels, Spring Street Gallery and Cafe Des Artistes. Lyne shrewdly places non-actors into the mix to give some local color, as he would for his next films ‘Fatal Attraction’ and ‘Jacob’s Ladder’.
There’s a remarkable section where Elizabeth clicks through a succession of modern-art slides, and you can bet that every single one has been placed for a very specific purpose (and brings to mind the use of Francis Bacon’s artwork in ‘Last Tango’).
There are so many quintessential, memorable 1980s moments, most with very shrewd use of music (which lead many rather dunderheaded reviewers to describe the film as a full-length MTV pop video): the food orgy; the striptease to Joe Cocker’s ‘You Can Leave Your Hat On’; the moment when Rourke and Basinger enter underpinned by Corey Hart’s ‘Eurasian Eyes’ (though Rourke reported that the ‘blue stuff’ sprayed into the room to add the perfect visual aura Lyne was after did a terrible number on his throat and eyes for weeks afterwards); the use of Jean-Michel Jarre’s ‘Arpeggiator’, Roger Eno’s ‘Voices’ and Eurythmics’ ‘This City Never Sleeps’.
Rourke has never looked better and his performance is fascinating, very much living up to the ‘Brando for the 1980s’ tag. This film catapulted him into the Hollywood A-list, albeit very briefly (to his great credit, he resisted appearing in a lot of crud – at least for a few years – delaying a follow-up until ‘Angel Heart’).
Elizabeth and John’s final parting – featuring a rather stunning bit of Rourke business when a tearful John finally tries to reveal his ‘true’ self in order to keep hold of Elizabeth – again can’t help but bring ‘Last Tango’ to mind.
Devastated, Elizabeth leaves for the last time. But she’s full of ‘what ifs’ – should she have waited a little longer, given him a chance to atone? Could they have had a chance at a happy, ‘healthy’ relationship?
Out on the street, heartbroken, she looks over her shoulder in yet another beautiful shot, perhaps hoping John will be running after her. Sadly, he is rooted at his apartment, begging her to come back, albeit under his breath, soundtracked by Jack Nitzsche’s beguiling piano/synth theme.
The film’s shoot was long and troubled, and it reportedly went through various versions with some of the more risqué scenes (including one where the couple seem – at John’s behest – to enter into a suicide pact, only for it to be revealed as another one of his ‘tests’) removed after preview screenings. There were a few other key excisions, apparently including one scene where they lay down the rules of their relationship ‘game’ – which might have helped explain why Elizabeth sticks around for so long in the face of such abusive treatment.
The release date was postponed a few times but when the movie was finally unleashed in the USA during March 1986, it underperformed. But there were a few unexpected celebrants, including Roger Ebert. In extended/uncut form, it found a big audience in Europe, particularly France, going on to gross around $100 million against a $17 million budget. It also became a huge success when released on home video (and was certainly the first-choice rental for a lot of us teens in the late 1980s).
So, forget ‘Fifty Shades’: happy 35th birthday to a fascinating – if potentially ‘troublesome’ – cult classic.