Archive for April 1993

The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom

April 10, 1993

The line on the HBO film The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom is that it’s a wicked black comedy based closely on the facts of the case of Wanda Webb Holloway, the Channelview, TX woman who was willing to pay to have her daughter’s cheerleading competition snuffed out. Be that as it may, during a lot of the movie — which is quite brilliant — I was more frightened than amused.

If you doubt that, you haven’t seen Holly Hunter’s Emmy-winning work as Wanda. Hunter has usually always had a chirpy intensity, and one can easily imagine that intensity turning to criminal intent, as in the Coens’ classic comedy Raising Arizona. But here, Hunter understands that there’s something deeply wrong with Wanda, covered up by a reflexive southern sunniness. So when she smiles, which is often, it’s a terrible sight. At times it’s like a Joker rictus. When Wanda’s daughter Shanna (Frankie Ingrassia) is preparing to try out for a cheerleader spot, Wanda and her husband C.D. (Eddie Jones) blow $250 on promotional rulers with Shanna’s name on them, only to discover that such promos will be forbidden this year. Wanda corners the woman who made this decision and talks to her sweetly, wondering aloud why the promos were allowed last year, when Shanna’s chief competitor was trying out. That smile activates and never goes away throughout the scene. You can have all your torture porn and remakes of Asian ghost movies: Holly Hunter showing her teeth, when what she really wants to do with them is rip someone’s throat out, is the true essence of horror.

Wanda is a textbook sociopath, and yet we can see that her small-town-Texas biosphere has helped make her that way. Directed by Michael Ritchie, who also helmed 1975’s Altmanesque beauty-pageant satire Smile, the film doesn’t make the mistake of condescending to rural people’s lives. There are intelligence and morality here, and they eventually rise up to put Wanda away. (She served six months in jail and was on probation for nine years.) If there’s a message here, it’s voiced by poor crazy Marla Harper (a superb Swoosie Kurtz), the delusional wife of recovering addict and oil-rig worker Terry Harper (Beau Bridges). Terry, who has somehow become Wanda’s sounding board for her desires to do away with the offending cheerleader and her mother, is fed up with Marla’s crazy talk and says so. Marla hammers each word home: “Crazy … women … are made by … crazy … men.” So who made Wanda crazy? Maybe her daddy, maybe the very society that dangles fortune and glory in front of young girls to encourage them to be titillating.

Pristinely cast — and including brief early appearances by Andy Richter, Giovanni Ribisi, and Richard Schiff — TPTAOTATCMM mines some then-fresh satirical territory when all the key players, including Wanda’s ex-husband (an amusingly smarmy Gregg Henry), fall over themselves and each other to sell the movie rights to their part of the whole sordid story. The movie flirts with meta: its writer, Jane Anderson, plays herself and is heard wish-listing Holly Hunter to play Wanda; various characters talk about a competing ABC movie (which was actually made, as Willing to Kill: The Texas Cheerleader Story, starring Lesley Ann Warren; it came out first). By the end, Shanna hopes to play herself in the movie version, and Wanda speaks brightly of Shanna’s future in acting or modeling. Ah, here we go again. The movie predated John Waters’ Serial Mom by about a year, but this sort of thing was in the air back then — along with George H.W. Bush’s saber-rattling prior to the Gulf War, from which a grateful nation was distracted by an alleged Texas cheerleader-murdering mom.

So, yes, there’s a lot to laugh at here (I won’t soon forget Swoosie Kurtz and her hysterics over “wig fur”). But there’s a lot more that’s disquieting. At the very end, Shanna’s competition is training tirelessly after dark in the football stadium, and the society and mechanism that put her where she is and Wanda where she was — well, it’s all still there.

Indecent Proposal

April 7, 1993

indecent-proposal-214489lSome movies are critic-proof, and sometimes that’s for the best. Indecent Proposal, the much-talked-about new film by Adrian Lyne (Fatal Attraction), has been dealt a generally lukewarm reception from reviewers. So I was a little surprised at how good it turned out to be. The movie is sure to provoke endless arguments among feminists, between husbands and wives, and on talk shows, but it taps into emotions that go beyond sensationalism. That’s partly because Lyne, not usually a subtle director, goes against his own grain and doesn’t push us too hard to accept the story. Mostly it’s because Indecent Proposal has no villains — just people who want what they can’t have. The movie is about what happens when they get it.

Most of the audience (especially twentysomethings) will identify immediately with the lead couple, David and Diana Murphy (Woody Harrelson and Demi Moore), a happily married and idealistic pair. David, an architect, plans to build his dream house; Diana, a real-estate agent, supports him financially until they apply for a loan to construct the house. Their dreams, however, shatter against the recession, which puts David out of work and renders the Murphys unable to make their payments. Desperate, they go to Las Vegas to try to win the $50,000 they need; they win $25,040 the first night and lose most of it the next day. In this town of losers and winners, these new losers meet the ultimate winner: John Gage (Robert Redford), a billionaire who bets with $10,000 gold chips as if they were nickels.

From there, Indecent Proposal becomes a parable about greed, power, and trust. Adapting a novel by Jack Englehard, scripter Amy Holden Jones (Mystic Pizza) draws on what’s already on our minds: How will David and Diana dig themselves out of their hole? Gage, an overgrown Richie Rich, drops into the scenario like Superman. Over a game of pool, Gage makes the couple an offer: One million dollars for a night with Diana. The way the scene is written and acted (particularly by Redford), the proposal seems not so much indecent as a godsend; you catch yourself urging David and Diana to go along with it. And it’s important that we not feel superior to the couple’s decision, because everything that follows builds on our acceptance that the Murphys feel this is the right move.

Of course, it turns out to be the worst move imaginable. I won’t give away much more of the plot, except to say that the proposal, once acted upon, sows the seeds for a lot of distrust, resentment, and broken objects in the Murphy household. Some critics charged that the movie deteriorates along with the marriage, but these new tensions provide juicy material for the actors. Harrelson, though sometimes too dependent on Raging Bull mannerisms (“Where have you been?”), makes David an insecure cuckold who turns cold, angry, and eventually more resilient. And Moore, in her first genuinely felt performance in a while, gets inside Diana; she always seems to be thinking aloud. When Diana says she only slept with Gage for David, we believe her. The performers help put across a lot of stuff that might be hard to swallow.

Perhaps sensing that modern, enlightened audiences may consider John Gage a scoundrel, screenwriter Jones apologizes for him in the dialogue: David refers to having made “a deal with the devil.” Jones sabotages her most intriguing character this way; she certainly hasn’t written him as the devil. Redford is consistently charming in the role, but that isn’t why we don’t hate Gage. We dislike him because he wrecks a marriage we care about, but his motivations are clear: He has everything but love; he envies Diana and David, who have nothing but love. It’s obvious Gage loves Diana — he even knows just what to say to her in their final scene together. Richer than God, Gage lives in a depressingly vast mansion, all alone. He doesn’t want to end up like Charles Foster Kane, which may be why Jones slyly has Gage deliver a close duplicate of a Citizen Kane speech (“Not a day goes by that I don’t think of her”). That he can only get closer to people by buying them makes him, I think, a tragic figure, not the devil.

As I said, Adrian Lyne handles the material with a light touch; this is the first of his films that I’ve enjoyed without feeling excessively handled. There’s still too much TV-commercial slickness in his style, but here he makes it work for him: The money, the elegance, the impersonal, gleaming decor — Lyne gives all of this a cold visual gloss, and we can see why Gage, for all his millions, is miserable. Who’d want to live inside an Adrian Lyne movie? Gradually, Lyne pumps up the glamour until we see how hollow it is compared with a normal, scruffy life like the Murphys’. Indecent Proposal may be typical Hollywood engineering on some level — it pulls us in on the nudge-nudge-wink-wink strength of its premise — but what it does with that premise is more than Hollywood usually manages.

The Crush

April 2, 1993

In twenty years — if anyone cares by then — some film scholar with nothing better to do will dissect the movie-thriller trend of the early ’90s: the psycho-bitch genre. The scholar might build his or her thesis around the idea that such movies are made, and are popular, because of men’s bizarre fear of women. But what, exactly, do men have to fear from teenage girls? In The Crush, an unusually stupid and synthetic thriller, a blossoming 14-year-old girl joins the ranks of psycho-bitches. The movie spends most of its time answering my question: Men apparently have a lot to fear from teenage girls.

The hero, Nick Eliot (Cary Elwes, whose American accent comes and goes), is a hot-shot journalist in his late twenties. Looking for a place to stay, Nick rents a nice little guest house owned by a rich couple with a pretty young daughter — Darian¹ (Alicia Silverstone), who zeroes in on Nick immediately. At first, Nick doesn’t think much of Darian’s coy advances; she seems like a smart but lonely kid going through a normal crush. Darian, however, turns out to be a wacko. Bright-eyed, she sits in her room creating shrines to Nick. As soon as she spots Nick with his attractive new friend Amy (Jennifer Rubin), the camera moves in on Darian’s eyeballs, and you wonder how Amy will get it — a runaway truck? A chainsaw? A flamethrower?

Writer-director Alan Shapiro, a TV veteran making his feature-film debut, keeps the audience in Nick’s corner by making Darian so diabolical that the hapless Nick can’t prove she’s doing anything. With supreme impunity, Darian scratches his car, sabotages his computer disks, disables a mild-tempered, frightened girl who tries to warn Nick. No one will believe Nick: That sweet little girl couldn’t do that. Eventually, after Nick has told her she’s pathetic and he wants nothing more to do with her, she frames him for sexual assault. How? By picking one of his used condoms out of the trash and placing his semen inside her. Now, you could take offense at this ridiculous development, but the movie leaves you too dumbstruck to respond in any logical way, such as walking out.

The Crush might have worked if we felt anything for Darian — if we were allowed to see Nick through her eyes. But the movie isn’t interested in much else besides paranoia. Shapiro, who says he based the script on his own experiences, has no sympathy for Darian; this sad girl with mental problems is treated like a monster, just like Glenn Close before her. (And the unskilled Alicia Silverstone leans entirely too much on cold sneers and portentous stares, as if she were Damien Thorn’s little sister.) At several points, the director also eroticizes Darian’s ripe 14-year-old body (Silverstone is actually 15), letting the camera loiter on her navel or her ass; suddenly, we’re watching softcore child pornography. The forbidden fruit between her legs leads grown men to their doom. Camille Paglia must already be devoting a chapter of her next book to Darian.

A film as inept as The Crush should at least have some camp value, but I couldn’t work up much enthusiasm for the scene in which Darian unleashes a swarm of wasps on Nick’s girlfriend. Nor was I moved by the merry-go-round finale, in which the audience applauded when Nick hauls off and punches Darian with such force that she flies across the room (she’s half his age and a foot shorter!). We’re cued to cheer as this disturbed kid gets her lumps; The Crush is the movie that child abusers have been waiting for.

¹If you’ve made the mistake of seeing this movie on television or home video, you may be thinking, “Darian? Her name is Adrian, dummy.” Well, yeah, it is now. But in the version originally shown in theaters, her name was indeed Darian. Apparently there is or was a real Darian, upon whom the Alicia Silverstone character was based, and her family got the studio to change the character’s name on the TV and home-video versions. So if you actually paid to see this in a theater in 1993, you are among the lucky few to have heard the character’s original name before it got dubbed over with “Adrian.” Y’know, in case you cared or anything.