Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Ms. Bacall, You’ve Got Fan Mail

It’s always wonderful to see an actress of a certain age as the leading lady in a major motion picture. Unlike their male counterparts, very few older female stars have been trusted by producers to “open a film,” and even today’s great ladies of the screen continue to struggle to keep themselves relevant, unless they happen to be Meryl Streep.

Lauren Bacall was 57 when she played movie star Sally Ross, a character very much like herself, in The Fan (1981). The fact that it’s a horror suspense thriller that capitalizes on Bacall’s legendary presence is a neat twist, albeit one that propels this film into the cult classic arena and away from the popular slasher genre that dominated the box office in the early 1980s (My Bloody Valentine, Halloween, Friday the 13th).

Lauren Bacall as the star

Having triumphed on the Broadway stage in not just just one but two big musicals, Applause and Woman of the Year, winning Tony Awards for both despite an utter lack of singing ability, Bacall capitalizes on her own image as a famed star of yesteryear making her debut on the Great White Way. 

 As movie legend Sally Ross begins rehearsals for her first Broadway show, a troubled youth writes her heartfelt letters of praise and worship, clacking away furiously on his typewriter. The love letters to the actress become increasingly delusional and sexually suggestive. When he receives no response from his idol, the missives become threatening, and those close to Sally are gruesomely gotten out of the way. 

Michael Biehn as the fan

Playing the title role of Sally Ross’s number-one fan is a young and intense Michael Biehn, three years before making the blockbuster hit The Terminator. As rabid Sally Ross fan Douglas Breen, Biehn crafts a complex character of equal parts obsession, sexual confusion and surprising vulnerability. His character arc from eager-beaver film buff to disturbed and menacing stalker makes Douglas one of Michael Biehn’s most memorable roles. Obviously influenced by De Niro’s seminal role in Taxi Driver, Biehn pulls out all the stops to give Douglas complexity and dimension.  

But Douglas is definitely not sirree

You’d think this cute-as-a-button blond who loves old black-and-white movies would be any gay boy’s dream, but the high-strung Douglas thinks he’s hetero and in love with a woman almost old enough to be his grandmother, which adds an appropriate air of the grotesque. Plastered on his walls are photos of Bacall/Ross as a young ingenue, including one of her perched on a piano as President Truman plays. When he places an obscene phone call to Sally, telling her he wants to make love to her, the camera lingers on Bacall’s gaunt and tired-looking face. The moment is even more chilling than most of the violent scenes that follow. Does Douglas even know his idol’s true age? 

Later on, in order to fake his own death as his identity is discovered, Douglas cruises a gay bar for a victim to serve as his body, whom he dispatches after some male-on-male heavy petting that he really seems to enjoy, despite the bloody aftermath. 

As a counterpoint to Biehn’s feverish intensity, Lauren Bacall is coolly charismatic as Sally Ross. Of course, the superstar dominates in every scene in which she appears, patrolling her palatial Manhattan apartment smoking cigarette after cigarette and downing one strong cocktail after another (sometimes in a filmy negligee), making acerbic observations about her advancing age and lack of male companionship, and sparring with her secretary (Maureen Stapleton). A reluctant cougar, she dates one of the 20-something chorus boys in her show (until Douglas slices him to ribbons in a gory and homoerotic swimming pool scene), though she really loves her ex-husband (James Garner), but takes time to flirt with the police detective assigned to protect her (Hector Elizondo). A fine actress, Bacall carries it all off with aplomb, though she does tend to emote with her nostrils, which flare up frequently to register her anger, disapproval or consternation.

Bacall and Garner

James Garner lends masculine support in the role of her director ex-husband Jake Berman. He’s mostly there to light her cigarettes (she smokes many). In fact, Garner made quite a career by acting as arm candy to a host of female superstars, from Doris Day (Move Over, Darling)  to Julie Andrews (Victor/Victoria).  And veteran character actor Hector Elizondo (Pretty Woman) makes the most of his role as police inspector Raphael Andrews, enjoying real chemistry with Bacall.

The great Maureen Stapleton

Stapleton shines as Belle Goldman, the star’s beleaguered secretary, in the few short scenes she has with Bacall before her face is brutally slashed in the subway by Douglas after she writes him a strongly worded letter advising him to stop sending “smut” to her employer.  Thankfully, she recovers from the attack in time for the opening night of Sally’s show “Never Say Never.”

Hector Elizondo

The rehearsal and performance sequences of Sally Ross in “Never Say Never” are what make this film a camp classic, boldly stealing imagery and mood from recent fare like Fosse’s All That Jazz and Broadway’s A Chorus Line.  (Funnily enough, the same worn-out cliché of the faux show title was utilized by James Bond producers a year or two later for Sean Connery’s return to the role of 007 in Never Say Never Again.) The brief glimpses of the musical numbers are pure pastiche, with Bacall swanning around the stage with scantily clad chorus boys who chant lyrics about her legendary fabulousness:  “A remarkable woman/You want to bathe in her light/The way that she moves/Indisputably proves/God got it right!”

"Inaccessible? Not a bit" 
"Hearts, Not Diamonds" 

And Bacall does get the chance to sing—or croak, if you prefer—an entire song written for her by Marvin Hamlisch and Tim Rice. Not only is La Bacall’s trademark voice deep and foggy, she actually smokes a cigarette while singing the song, inhaling deeply, exhaling a long plume of smoke as she begins to warble “Hearts, Not Diamonds”: “I wanted hearts, not diamonds/I’ve had enough champagne/I don’t care if I don’t fly/Around the world again.”  Despite the camp and irony, though, Bacall triumphs, succeeding in cementing her own image as a beloved, eternal icon of the silver screen.  

The sexy psychopath: Michael Biehn as Douglas Breen

Bacall and Biehn had only one scene together, but it's a humdinger

Directed by Edward Bianchi, The Fan is a well-plotted thriller, with the proper quota of shock, suspense and gore, but it didn’t light any fires at the box office that year. (It did give future TV star Dana Delany one of her first bit roles, though: Look for her as Douglas’s annoyingly perky coworker in the record store scenes.)
The film’s failure may have been the result of unfortunate timing.  Some criticised Ms. Bacall for appearing in this film so soon after her neighbor John Lennon had been slain by an obsessed fanatic right outside their Central Park West apartment building The Dakota (which had ironically doubled as the satanic “Black Bramford” in Rosemary’s Baby.) In The Fan, though, the fictional Sally Ross’s apartment is on Fifth, just steps away from Jacqueline Onassis’s 1040 address.

But the Bacall film was already underway when the Lennon tragedy occurred, so it really was an unfortunate coincidence. Nevertheless, as Mommie Dearest is a film Faye Dunaway is not eager to talk about, The Fan is not a film Bacall would like fans to remember her by, perhaps for this very reason. Rarely shown on television these days (when I see The Fan in TV listings, it’s always the Robert DeNiro baseball-themed movie from 1996 with a similar plotline), this film is a treat for aficionados of horror films, early 80s homoeroticism, classic movie stars, and high camp. “Dear Miss Ross - I am your number-one fan…”


Ken Anderson said...

For the very reasons you mentioned at the start of your review (the paucity of roles for older actresses,Bacall's legendary stature,the teen dominance of the slasher genre) I really thought "The Fan" was going to be a classy, A-list thriller more along the lines of "Dressed to Kill" than "Friday the 13th".
I was very disappointed that it was dumped into theaters and treated like an exploitation film.
I went to see it and I honestly don't know if any of the youngsters in the audience even knew who Lauren Bacall was!
Still, it is a HUGE favorite of mine and I was so thrilled to see you write about it so informatively (and amusingly) here. Especially love the smoking GIF that ends the article!
Thanks again for highlighting another sadly ignored favorite (I've noted that cable TV thing too..every time The Fan appears, it's that lousy DeNiro one. If this one had more visibility I'm sure this new generation of theater geeks would swoon over the camp dance numbers). Always a pleasure, Chris!

angelman66 said...

Thanks for stopping by, Ken! I am a big horror fan and I do adore this movie, and I also put it on par with Dressed to Kill (another one in my collection) as you mention. I actually once met Ms. Bacall and she was a formidable character; very intimidating. She did a lecture in Ft. Lauderdale back in 2000 or so, which I was covering for a local newspaper. Because I had seen her on Broadway years before, I said, "Miss Bacall, you knocked my socks off in Woman of the Year." She turned and glared at me, her nostrils flaring, and responded, "Well, did you ever get them back on??" Stunned, I could not think of a witty reply; I just nodded dumbly and felt like I was going to faint. She really had BIG ENERGY and the palpable aura of a superstar. (Of course, I never mentioned that this was my favorite of her films. I know I would have gotten a "look to kill".)

I appreciate your support and love talkin' movies with you, Ken!

Ken Anderson said...

Wow! I love that you actually met Bacall, but boy, what a meeting! But the way that you describe it all is so vivid and hilarious, I think we can therefore say she inadvertently "gifted" you with a marvelous anecdote to relay to fans like me. my gosh, what if you HAD mentioned "The Fan"...

Poseidon3 said...

I agree that this movie never gets its due on TV! It was part of a string of stalker type of movies before that actual term was ever in use. (Another hooty fave in this category, which also is rarely if ever shown, is "The Seduction" with Morgan Fairchild.) One thing that struck me in your post was about the camera lingering on Bacall's aged face... but she was 57 at the time! Today that is far from ancient, but people seem to do a lot more in order to try to preserve their looks than they used to (maybe that trend started after viewers watched "The Fan" and noted what the ravages of smoke and gin can do?! Ha ha!)

angelman66 said...

Hi Poseidon! Thanks for stopping by...Ha! I agree, the closer I get to 57, the less "ravaged" Miss Bacall looks to me...but it's really that luridly lit shot that makes the moment so gothic...and the shock on her face when Douglas says all those smutty things to her...
Yes! I love Morgan Fairchild in The Seduction, too...with the heavenly handsome Andrew Stevens!! Would not mind being stalked by him, either!

William said...

I remember seeing "The Fan" in theaters years ago and remember it was odd seeing Bacall in a type of "slasher" film. Michael Biehn had a good run back then -- sexy guy and good actor, if I recall correctly -- I think he was also in Aliens and was pretty hot, LOL!

angelman66 said...

Hi William - thanks for stopping by! Yes, Michael Biehn really became the "It" guy of the 1980s through his association with James Cameron - Aliens, Terminator, The Abyss...then his career went south and we saw very little of him in the 90s and 00s. Cameron started using Bill Paxton in the roles Biehn used to play for him...I think Biehn makes an occasional low-budget film, but is now a forgotten star.