The Cult Movie Club: Nine ½ Weeks 35 Years On (with spoilers…)

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 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 the leads were encouraged by Lyne 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.

The sexual politics may disturb these days, though it’s interesting to note that the movie’s 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.

The release date was postponed a few times, pending 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).

When finally released in the USA during March 1986, the movie underperformed. But there were a few unexpected celebrants, including Roger Ebert, and, 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.

The Cult Movie Club: Diner (1982)

I knew it was good, but, revisiting it again last week, I’d forgotten quite how good ‘Diner’ was.

Barry Levinson’s directorial debut was the very definition of a sleeper movie when it first came out in March 1982.

MGM virtually buried it on its initial release (and their appalling trailer didn’t help – see below), disappointed that it scrimped on the ‘Porky’s’/’Animal House’-style hijinks.

It took a private screening set up by Levinson and executive producer Mark Johnson and subsequent rave review from one attendee – legendary film critic and movingtheriver.com favourite Pauline Kael – to secure it an audience.

Some have made bold claims that ‘Diner’ is the most influential film of the 1980s, pointing forward to ‘This Is Spinal Tap’, Tarantino, ‘Seinfeld’, ‘The Sopranos’, Judd Apatow and beyond.

Set in Baltimore during December 1959 (it definitely counts as a Christmas movie), it focuses on a group of friends in their early 20s, trying to negotiate relationships and get through their working lives, but always finishing off the night at the Fells Point Diner (based on the real Hilltop Diner in northwest Baltimore) for a chin-wag about Sinatra and a fill of French fries with gravy (or a roast beef sandwich, fought over in one of the film’s most famous scenes).

Daly, Rourke, Stern, Bacon, Guttenberg and Reiser in ‘Diner’

Though there are shades of ‘American Graffiti’, ‘Animal House’ and even ‘Porky’s’ (Kael rather evoked Fellini’s ‘I Vittelloni’), the protagonists in ‘Diner’ seem older than in those movies, though you wouldn’t always know it – they seem totally at ease with themselves but struggle with members of the opposite ‘camp’.

In fact, sadly, the sexual politics in ‘Diner’ ensure that it would probably struggle to get a green light these days.

The movie features almost of a who’s-who of ’80s talent: Mickey Rourke, Steve Guttenberg, Daniel Stern, Paul Reiser, Kevin Bacon, Timothy Daly, Ellen Barkin, all acting as if their lives depended on it. Arguably, none have done better work than ‘Diner’.

One wonders how much rehearsal and/or ‘team-building’ Levinson was able to secure for them (quite a lot according to this excellent documentary), because they’re absolutely at ease with each other.

And, though almost entirely scripted (Levinson’s screenplay was nominated for an Oscar), the movie has a loose, dreamy feel. These guys feel just like your – my – mates, from that golden era when everyone was rooted in the same spot and going through the same stuff.

Levinson packs the action with memorable secondary characters – the local screwball obsessed with ‘Sweet Smell Of Success’, Carol Heathrow (who unfortunately locates Rourke’s ‘pecker’ in her popcorn), the kindly pool-hall owner, Big Earl (who eats the whole left side of the menu), the picky TV-store customer, Bagel, Kevin Bacon’s smarmy brother, and many more.

He also creates a totally believable environment on a budget, replete with classic cars and almost-deserted suburban streets, and an impressive opening one-take shot introducing us to the main characters.

He also brings in interesting period details like the glimpse of Kind Of Blue in Shrevie’s sacred vinyl collection, and the soundtrack is also brilliant, from R’n’B to doo-wop (though the only bum note is the very ’80s-sounding ‘live’ track played in the go-go bar towards the end of the movie).

‘Diner’ also has an almost ‘Withnail’esque finale, looking uncertainly into the next decade with its famous freeze-frame ending. And, like all the best coming-of-age movies, it has you wondering what the hell happened to these characters.

Did Boogie make a go of it in the home improvement trade, and stay with Jane Chisholm? Did Modell ever get himself a car? How did Shrevie and Beth’s marriage turn out, not to mention Eddie’s? Barry – any chance of a sequel?

(Postscript: A musical version of ‘Diner’ made a brief appearance a few years ago. Sheryl Crow wrote the songs. The less said the better…)

The Crap Movie Club: Homeboy (1988)

One of the pleasures of reading Bob Dylan’s ‘Chronicles’ is following his trains of thought wherever they go, however obtuse.

Possibly the most random is a mention of Mickey Rourke’s performance in the actor’s self-penned, almost totally forgotten 1988 film ‘Homeboy’, seen by Bob during the difficult Oh Mercy sessions:

‘He could break your heart with a look. The movie traveled to the moon every time he came onto the screen. Nobody could hold a candle to him. He was just there, didn’t have to say hello or goodbye.’

I’m a huge Mickey apologist, but I think Bob was way off the beam here. ‘Homeboy’ is irredeemable. It also signalled the beginning of Rourke’s 20-year slump.

Clearly a ‘vanity project’ for our star (he started writing it during the ‘Heaven’s Gate’ shoot in 1980), it’s the film where Mickey started to believe his own hype and play the sort of parts which echoed how badly he obviously felt about the movie business.

‘Homeboy’ is a weirdly masochistic (at times reminiscent of Brando’s similar explorations in that area), relentlessly downbeat, funereally-paced, vaguely camp melodrama.

The ‘plot’, such as it is, is almost identical to that of ‘The Wrestler’, the 2008 comeback that won Mickey his first Oscar.

He plays Johnny Walker, a punch-drunk, third-division-south pugilist reduced to hawking his wares around Asbury Park for a few bucks with his portly coach in tow.

Possibly Mickey’s character is supposed to have endured some kind of stroke, because he spends the whole film squeaking out of the side of his mouth, rendering his sparse dialogue almost inaudible.

Christopher Walken appears intermittently as the dodgy agent who wants Johnny’s assistance with a jewellery heist. Modelling a succession of deafening suits, he chews up the scenery a couple of times, dances a bit, sings a bit, clearly knowing this film is a heap of sh*t.

At times amusing but not enough to rescue the movie, it’s a dry run for his superior turns in ‘King Of New York’ and ‘Wild Side’.

Poor Debra Feuer – Mickey’s wife at the time – underwhelms in the almost non-existent role of Johnny’s love interest. Eric Clapton phones in an always-too-loud soundtrack, obviously tossed off during yet another Albert Hall run, adding a few tired licks but mainly employing bassist Nathan East to improvise some fairly half-baked solo cues.

Director Michael Seresin, previously the cinematographer on ‘Angel Heart’ (and recently one of the Harry Potter films), can’t seem to rustle up any convincing or memorable scenes. The final effect is sub-Golan-Globus.

Rourke has one great moment towards the end of the film though, possibly the one Dylan picked up on, where he peers up at his coach and tearfully asks (with shades of Brando again), ‘You think I coulda been good?’ But it’s too little too late. ‘Homeboy’ should probably have stayed in Development Hell.

Magic Mickey: ‘Angel Heart’ 30 Years On

angel_heartIn 1987, Mickey Rourke was fast becoming one of the most controversial movie stars of the era, the go-to guy (alongside Michael Douglas) for potentially commercial but decidedly ‘off-colour’ material.

Even David Bowie rated Rourke as one of the coolest people on the planet in ’87 – to my knowledge, only Mickey, Iggy Pop, Tina Turner and Al B Sure! ever shared ‘lead vocals’ on a Bowie solo album (though their collaboration was less than essential…).

‘Angel Heart’ turns 30 this week. I’ve been a Mickey fan since randomly renting the video circa 1988. If, as Marlon Brando attested, acting (or at least good acting) is essentially ‘behaviour’, Rourke delivers one of the great modern screen performances.

He mumbles lines, adds strange emphases (‘Yeah, I could be free‘) and quirky ad-libs, smirks inappropriately and generally shambles around in his filthy linen suit; Pauline Kael memorably wrote that ‘he has enough dirt on him to sprout mushrooms’.

But, importantly, he carries off the action sequences with aplomb, looking like he could take care of himself in a bar fight.

Most importantly, Rourke tempers the increasingly hokey supernatural elements of the film with a believable, sympathetic, relatively down-at-heel protagonist: Harry Angel seems to be a regular knockaround guy in Brooklyn.

He likes the simple life, going for a beer, getting laid whenever he can. He minds his own business. He just gets by. He works, reads the comics, he takes a walk,’ Rourke told his biographer Christopher Heard.

William Hjortsberg’s screenplay for ‘Angel Heart’, based on his New York-set novel ‘Falling Angel’ (described by Stephen King ‘as if Raymond Chandler had written “The Exorcist”’), had been hanging around Hollywood for a while. First it looked like Robert Redford would produce and star.

Then ‘Midnight Express’/’Fame’ director Alan Parker came onboard, rewrote the script (with the questionable decision to relocate most of the action to New Orleans) and offered the lead role to naysayers Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, the latter taking the role of Louis Cyphre (geddit?) instead.

Enter Mickey. Parker made it clear to Rourke that he was nowhere near his first choice, but was interested in what he could bring to the role.

Rourke was disillusioned with acting in general and Hollywood in particular but desperately needed the part: ‘I was about to lose my big-assed house in California and needed a big paycheck fast…’

Parker warned Rourke that he wouldn’t put up with any funny business, also apparently giving him many a dressing-down on set.

But how does ‘Angel Heart’ stack up these days? It’s still very watchable, salvaged by the Rourke/De Niro scenes and Mickey’s eccentric ‘behaviour’. Bonet is a refreshingly natural presence and De Niro hams it up semi-convincingly.

Trevor Jones’ original soundtrack (recorded at the aptly-named Angel Studios in Islington, North London) still holds the attention alongside some great crooner and blues tunes.

But Parker searches in vain for his inner Nicolas Roeg (or Ken Russell?), showing his background in advertising with a succession of beautiful, if clichéd, images of ‘evil’ (a glistening, freshly-extracted human heart, ceiling fans, lift shafts, writhing bodies, blood-stained walls), memorable crane shots and disorientating flashbacks, but it all feels way too slick.

Kael again: ‘There’s no way to separate the occult from the incomprehensible. Parker simply doesn’t have the gift of making evil seductive, and he edits like a flasher.’

There’s also a lack of memorable secondary characters – Charlotte Rampling and Brownie McGhee seem miscast and barely register.

‘Angel Heart’ just about broke even at the box office but has enjoyed a healthy cult following since. My brother tells me that it most definitely worked on the big screen, delivering a real sense of impending doom. I don’t doubt it, ably aided by some classic Mickey.