Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?
Part two of our little parlor game takes us to a movie that traumatized me when I was but a mere slip of a lad: 1983’s abomination, The Lonely Lady.
The Lonely Lady tells a simple story. Jeriliee, an ostensibly talented writer, allows herself to be used and abused by oily Hollywood men until she makes it to someplace near the top, at which point she rails at Hollywood’s morals during her acceptance speech at “the Awards”. (The Lonely Lady, as Roger Ebert points out, refuses to employ proper nouns.) The rogues gallery of men in the story includes an aging, impotent screenwriter, the aging screenwriter’s son (who’s into sexually assaulting women with whatever gardening implement is close at hand), a jerk actor with a billiards fetish, and a Eurotrash film producer who probably inspired a young and hungry Silvio Berlusconi.
Is the premise corrupt? Can a good movie about a character’s prostituting himself or herself for a show business career be made?
Yes. It’s called Sunset Boulevard.
If it can be done, what went wrong with The Lonely Lady?
The primary fault lies in Jerliee’s character. She doesn’t respond realistically to the most crucial, and excruciating, event in the story. After the Ray Liotta character tries to rape Jerilee with the garden hose, she not only appears to bounce back without a hint of psychological trauma, she marries the rapist’s father, moves into the house where the assault took place, and apparently doesn’t even bother to insist that the offending garden hose be replaced. (This comes up, in a weird way, later on.)
One would think that any movie that requires the protagonist to be raped by gardening implements would have to spend the rest of the movie dealing with the consequences of that. There is a range of ways that a person would react to such an assault, some valid and dull, others valid and dramatically interesting, but the rest of the movie is going to be about the protagonist’s reaction and its effects.
Other, better plot lines I can think of off the top of my head:
1: Jerilee presses charges. Her rapist is jailed. She writes her story as a screenplay and has to fight with producers and directors (almost all men) who want to turn it into a story that either exploits her or places the blame on her.
2. Jerilee presses charges, but in the end, her rapist gets away with no jail time. Depressed and hating life, Jerilee, who’s never handled substances well, decides to drink herself to death. She moves into a crappy apartment building in L.A., cuts off contact with her family, and communicates only with a journal. One night, she’s found passed out in a hallway, and one of her neighbors, a Charles Bukowksi-like figure, helps her back into her home. He reads her journal while watching her to make sure she doesn’t die on him, and concludes that there’s talent here. The rest of the story is his struggle to bring her back from the edge and convince her that life isn’t just to die.
3. In the year after the assault, Jerliee’s life deteriorates. She loses her boyfriend because of the stress of recovery. The rape trial ends with the rich kid going free. She feels like she’s at the end of her tether and doesn’t give a damn about much, but a friend of hers is a photographer and has heard about the atrocities taking place in Guatemala, and he invites Jerliee to write the stories while he takes the pictures. The rest of the story takes place in Guatemala, where they uncover, at great personal risk, the orgies of murder and rape committed by the soldiers of Efrain Rios Montt. By exposing this horror to the world, Jerilee reasserts control over her own life.
All this gets far away from the Harold Robbins novel, I know. But I don’t care. If his novel was anything like the movie, he should be ashamed of it and himself. I won’t argue that any of the story lines above are hugely original–you expect me to expose my best plots in a blog post–but they’re a vast improvement over spread eagling Pia Zadora naked on a pool table so that some guy can shoot billiard balls at her crotch.
So, that’s how I’d have improved The Lonely Lady.
Well, that and I wouldn’t have cast Pia Zadora. She was just bad.