Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Queer Cinephile(s) #9: Kiss of the Spider Woman

I'm a cinephile. Studied film in college and got to review movies for a TV station (don't get excited; it was way back in the 20th century). My Netflix queue swelled to over 400 titles in 2013, filled with movies I never got around to seeing. So, for 2014, I gave myself an assignment: watch 50 films that I've never seen before and write something about them. I'll be watching a little bit of everything -- Oscar bait, indie darlings, black & white classics, cult flicks, blockbusters, big-budget flops and weird shit my friends have been recommending for years.

Kiss of the Spider Woman (released July 1985)

William Hurt as Luis Molina in Kiss of the Spider Woman

The theatrical trailer released after Hurt's Best Actor win at the 1985 Cannes Film Festival...

What the Queer Cinephile Says: Kiss of the Spider Woman begins with an entrancing scene set in a South American prison cell. Molina (William Hurt), a window dresser imprisoned for "corrupting a minor," lovingly describes the plot of a favorite movie to his cellmate, Valentin (Raul Julia), a journalist locked up and being tortured for aiding a leftist revolutionary group. The contrast between Luis, openly gay and unapologetically feminine, and the coarse revolutionary Valentin, is pronounced from the start. Valentin thinks Molina is a shallow fool and barely tolerates his dramatic storytelling.

But they're stuck together in that grim cell. As the days pass, Valentin's objections wane and Molina really gets into the narrative of his story, freely admitting, "I embroider a little so you can see it the way I do." Gradually, Valentin realizes that Molina is describing a Nazi propaganda film he saw as a child. Molina assures him that he knew that already; it was the film's romance he embraced, not its politics. As Molina recounts the exploits of a movie character named Leni Lamaison, the viewer is treated to florid, noir fantasy sequences that illustrate just exactly what's going on in his head. These feature Brazilian actress Sonia Braga, who does a particularly good job of creating the caricature of a bad actress in a Nazi propaganda film. But watch carefully -- she actually has three different roles in the movie.

At first you might think this movie is just going to be about the way two disparate individuals learn to live together under terrible circumstances. No. There's quite a bit more to it than that. As Molina and Valentin grow closer and more interdependent, we're also given some details about their lives before prison. It's an unusually structured film -- flashbacks and fantasy sequences mixed with the intimacy of prison cell scenes -- but it's never hard to follow or a tonal train wreck. The mashup of these two men's current reality and Molina's movie world is daring and transfixing. I also like the way Kiss of the Spider Woman builds slowly (but never dully), gathers momentum and delivers a gripping climax outside the prison.

The film is based on the 1976 novel of the same name by Manuel Puig. As scripted by Leonard Schrader and directed by Hector Babenco, the movie is free of any specific references to the year it takes place (though it's doubtful it could be any later that '76 if Molina saw a Nazi propaganda film as a child). The name of the city or country where they're imprisoned is never revealed, nor do we ever learn exactly which revolution Valentin supports. Ultimately, I think it was a good idea to leave all that out -- it really doesn't matter what country or whose politics are involved; it could be any revolution, anywhere. And the idea of Molina being arrested for sex with an underage boy gets interestingly tweaked later in the film, prodding the audience to examine (at least momentarily) their willingness to accept it as fact.

Kiss of the Spider Woman was developed as a play before it was made into a film, and has since been made into a musical for Broadway. No, I haven't read the book or seen either stage version, so I can't make any comparisons. I do believe the film succeeds as drama, melodrama, character study and thriller. Even the sparing use of humor works to great effect. I have a quibble with at least one choice made by director Hector Babenco late in the film -- a scene involving Molina and his mother -- but it's minor and may not bother anyone else like it did me. Bottom line: Hurt and Raul Julia make it all work.

Stray Gay Observations: Kiss of the Spider Woman was released in 1985, receiving all kinds of accolades and awards recognition. It even won William Hurt an Oscar for Best Actor. I loved William Hurt -- went to the theater to see him in Altered States (1980), Body Heat (1981) and The Big Chill (1983). Then why did it take me so long to see this film? I'm pretty sure I just rejected the idea of William Hurt playing gay for two hours. Gay parts began to appear more frequently in mainstream films during the 1980s, but every time a heterosexual actor signed up to play one, it was A BIG DEAL. There was incessant chatter about how brave they were, or how it was career suicide. And Hurt is certainly not playing a Log Cabin Republican-approved gay here. At various points in the film, he wears makeup, a turban, earrings, a floral kimono robe -- that's all evident from the trailer itself. Back then, I decided it was going to be an excruciating experience; there was no way I was going to enjoy, admire or appreciate this film. I'm embarrassed to admit that now.

Frankly, Hurt deserved the Oscar (he won over Harrison Ford, James Garner, Jack Nicholson and Jon Voight that year). Based on the trailer, it's too easy to dismiss Molina as stereotypically gay. Not true. He's an enormously complex character. Hurt, easily one of the finest actors of his generation, begins with a mannered performance that's never too showy, theatrical or flamboyant. He reveals Molina's layers subtlety and credibly scene by scene. By the film's final sequences, Hurt exposes the depths beneath Molina's artifice and gives us glimpses of his raw humanity.

Should You See It? Definitely. I confess: I didn't anticipate liking this movie at all. I wasn't bored for a minute. It's aged very well, too; feels like a movie that could have been made in this decade instead of the '80s -- and it would probably be considered just as provocative and controversial today.

Next Week: Bringing Up Baby (1938)

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