Pages 16, 28, 29, 30
Page 16 – FILM
Directed by David Cronenberg. James Woods, Deborah Harry, Sonja Smits.
THE NEXT thing in video is “just torture and murder – no plot, no characters”. What’s more, one of the leading participants in this S & M Hollywood will be Deborah Harry. The snag is that if you watch the film you become programmable, psychotic, and prone to unsubtle forms of body spasm. Probably worth it, I’d say.
Videodrome is not so much a challenging glimpse into what happens when your dealer’s copy of Rocky 14 wears thin, but rather a realistic vision of the result of giving director David Cronenberg a clean storyboard.
Some directors turn a theme of ‘just torture and murder – no plot, no characters’ into a programme called Dynasty. Toronto’s own Baron of Blood turns it into something slightly more interesting and no less ghastly.
James Woods plays Max Renn, the head of a cable TV company peddling soft porn and medium violence, a man ever in pursuit of anything sufficiently weird and fetishist to titillate his increasingly depraved paying customers. What he finds is a pirate broadcast of Videodrome, a shoestring S & M enterprise in which the ‘contestants’ get whipped so hard that they never come back next week to pick up their winnings. Yes, after Jaws in 18-D the only thing that’s remotely worth watching is a snuff movie.
Renn and recent aquaintance Nicki Brand (Debbie Harry in a fittingly sensual role) become addicts after watching just one showing – Renn through a professional quest to buy the films, and Brand through a candid desire to actually appear in them. Henceforth it’s extreme Dr Who territory as they become hypnotic satellites of the “evil” videomasters Bianca O’Blivion and Barry Convex, both bent on world domination through video (a bit like Virgin or Palace Pictures, really).
It’s all spiced up with Rick Baker’s grotesque anatomical effects – a retching extension of American Werewolf and Altered States that makes even an unanaesthetized appendectomy an altogether pleasant prospect. And all told, this chronic vision of ‘Orwell meets the armchair consumer’ is an amusing, revolting, preposterous tale that makes stunning cinema and will look even more powerful on tape.
Pages 28, 29, 30
After a long period of inactivity, former Blondie Debbie Harry looks set to make a new name for herself as an actress. SIMON GARFIELD spoke to her in New York. Photographs by JULIAN SIMMONDS.
ONLY FOUR years ago, a woman poked her peroxide head out of an upstairs window in London’s Kensington High Street, and 3,000 fans beneath her went WOOOAAAH!!!
Blondie were celebrating their fourth British number one, and the Eat To The Beat album was high in the charts. The European tour was a sell-out. For a short while they were the biggest pop band in Europe – Blondie all over the place. So 3,000 number one fans had gathered below Debbie Harry’s window in the country that had first brought her band success, not to hear her sing or talk, but just so they could perhaps get a record signed and go woooaaah! when she poked her head out.
That was quite something for a 34 year-old woman who all her life had fought for something like this. That was the peak.
Only four weeks ago, she walked unnoticed through the streets of midtown Manhattan. Hidden in hat and dark glasses, she took the elevator to her 12th floor lawyer’s office. “You know,” she says seated at the edge of a huge desk, “I went through this really horrible time when nothing, just nothing, went right. I couldn’t even cross the street without getting into trouble. Then it completely reversed itself. What’s going to happen next I don’t know.”
“Needless to say, I always wanted to be a ‘movie star’,” she once wrote. “It’s the old American dream.” In Britain at any rate, that’s probably what’s going to happen next.
Looking for a porno tape as Nicki Brand in Videodrome, the new David Cronenberg shocker (see film reviews in this issue), Debbie Harry opens her lips slowly and says in a little Cindy Doll voice – ‘It turns me on’. Hearts melting all over the shop.
It’s her third and happiest full-length film, and as a freeloading psychiatrist lured into the asylum by the violence of a destructive videoshow, she puts in a near-perfect performance. It’s all carried off with mannered intelligence and sensual charm, and the film is lifted from the arena of schlock horror by Rick Baker’s superior effects and some fine casting. It does much to advance Debbie Harry’s acting career.
Videodrome was preceded by Union City – the pained psychological thriller that by and large bombed after distribution screw-ups (although Harry herself came out of it pretty well), and Roadie, an average rock movie featuring the whole band and a pop cast of thousands.
On stage she was pummelled and bruised last spring in the Broadway production of Trafford Tanzi – both by her wrestling opponent in the play and by the critics. It ran for just two weeks.
Since the demise of the band, Harry’s solo music projects have been reassuringly adventurous, but unattractive to both record buyers and critics. The panning of her first solo album, Koo Koo, produced by Rodgers and Edwards of Chic, left her “puzzled, disappointed, but mostly shocked.” She’s just completed the theme to Scarface, the new Brian de Palma/Al Pacino movie, and shortly begins work on a new solo album with long standing collaborator and boyfriend Chris Stein.
In interview she lasts about the length of an album and then flakes out completely. And the same with the photo session – 40 minutes and then that’s it – collapse. Now almost 39, she still looks young for her age, and flagging energy is blamed in a heavy cold and several drawn-out legal wranglings.
Her face, richly made-up, is as much her fortune as ever. Hence the photo session is arranged only after much delicate negotiation: frightened of an unflattering portrait, at one stage it was reluctantly agreed that she would process the films herself to avoid the possibility of negative duplication, that Chris Stein would take pictures too, and that she could keep any negatives she wasn’t happy with.
In the end it didn’t come to this, but the plans alone said a lot about the image. And the image says a lot about the past.
SG: It seems you may never be regarded as a film actress – I keep reading that Videodrome is the new film ‘with Debbie Harry of Blondie’. Do you think you will ever be taken seriously?
DH: I hope not! ‘She hopes never to be taken seriously!’ I don’t know, I thought the music business was crazy, but the film business… I’ve been given all kinds of different offers of course – a lot of exploitation films. Playing the part of a rock singer – I really try to avoid those like the plague. I want to be taken seriously to some extent and I want to develop the craft, the technique. But stage actors are much more serious about ‘their work’. When I did Tanzi they were much more serious about being ‘actors’.
SG: Although Union City and Videodrome aren’t exactly rock films in the classic sense, they seem to appeal to the same kind of audience – culty, either film noir, or psychodrama, or sci-fi horror. How much are you doing the same sort of thing you did six years ago, but in a different medium?
DH: I guess people always see you by what you’ve done, and there are very few people who have enough imagination to see you as something different. You either revolt everyone or turn everybody on by doing something new. I used to be very upset by going to casting calls or auditions and then not getting the part – that’s happened hundreds of times! – well not hundreds but a lot. It has to do with their idea of what a character should be. They have it totally figured out in their minds what they want – what they want to see, hear – everything. Unless you walk in and fit that mould, you don’t get the part.
SG: Which is why you’ve been asked to do so many rock films…
DH: No doubt. Exploitation films just want to capitalize on the audience that you have already. The scripts are usually not written very well, really unimaginative and incorrect as far as rock’n’roll goes. Most of them have been really horrible. I think I got two scripts out of about 150 that were worth doing.
SG: What sort of films have you gone for and not got?
DH: Oh everything! I went to read for Raging Bull (the part of the wife), I went to read for Arthur – Liza Minelli’s part. Well… you name it… Cannery Row, I went to talk to one of the producers.
SG: So Videodrome director Cronenberg didn’t have a set idea about who he wanted for the part?
DH: He wanted me for the part – someone like me. I don’t know if he had written it totally with me in mind. They weren’t sure that I could handle it, they weren’t sure if I was an actress or not. I ran up there (Canada) and did a screen test and it worked out. I need a lot of explicit direction. I need to be told more than an experienced actress would need to be told. Cronenberg said to me that he would tell me exactly what he wanted me to do, and that he wanted me to try and do that, more than someone else who had done a lot of film work and would be given more freedom. But that was all right with me. He’s very soft spoken. It was great working with Jimmy Woods also (the central Videodrome character). He’s a maniac and would come in with a million ideas about how to do a scene.
SG: Are you affected as much by film critics as by the music press?
DH: Film criticism is a whole new world. It’s very remote – I’ve never met these people. I was totally amazed at the reviews I got for Videodrome (in the States, where it opened last spring). They were great – I expected it to be much worse. I was prepared! I think the film suffered more than I did, because of the gore at the end – but Cronenberg always gets slammed for that. Film critics don’t seem to have the same kind of problem about selling a paper every week.
SG: Someone wrote that Videodrome will have as much social impact as A Clockwork Orange.
DH: God, they’re crazy! It’s not really that terrifying. Maybe the timing will be right for England, but it was perhaps too late for the States. If it had come out six months after it had been filmed, as opposed to a year, it would have been better. Video was getting such a big push then – state-of-the-art equipment was all changing.
SG: You consider Videodrome to be your first major film, despite Union City, Roadie, and those Amos Poe movies before that.
DH: It’s the first legitimate film, I guess. Union City was non-union, and it was a real low budget production – nobody had a dressing room or anything like that. Did you ever see any of those Amos Poe movies? Oh God, they’re funny – Blank Generation and Unmade Beds – they were in England for a long time. I think he’s just got a million dollar budget to do a film…
SG: Your films have so far been medium or small budget, with cult or limited appeal. How do you fancy doing a blockbuster – say the next Spielberg?
DH: This is probably a vicious rumour, but I heard that he doesn’t like to work with women, that he’s not a good director for females. That’s what I heard – a vicious rumour probably – he’s probably great!
SG: How did you feel about doing the nude scenes in Videodrome?
DH: It doesn’t bother me. It just depends on the context and how it looks. It has to be a little bit different I guess – a new approach. There are so many movies that have the typical, you know, goes from this, to the bedroom scene, to that. It’s just nothing.
SG: Your film parts so far have very much capitalized on your sensuality and sexuality – your Blondie image.
DH: I don’t know – I don’t think Videodrome was overtly that. That character was a psychiatrist who was hedonistic. She wanted to experience a lot of different sensuality and feel all kinds of different things. But she was also supposed to be taken seriously.
SG: How much of that is true of your personality?
DH: Aaah… I certainly have my limits! Yeah, I like adventure.
SG: What happened to your proposed remake of Alphaville?
DH: We blew it. Chris and I started out with the idea to do a remake – we pursued it and got the rights from Godard, and we had characters lined up, and who was going to play what. But we didn’t have any backing. Chris had done a whole lot of stills of how it was going to look – I was going to play Natasha and Robert Fripp was Lemmy Caution. Fripp went to England and did an interview on it, and it just sort of blew it, in an odd way. I guess you shouldn’t ever let anything out unless you’re in production or something. We went to talk to Nic Roeg about it… we were going to do it low budget but in colour.
SG: How far would you go to transform your looks and make yourself really ugly to fit a part – à la de Niro?
DH: I was heavier for Tanzi – I thought that a lady wrestler couldn’t be so thin. It really worked – I put on 10 or 15 pounds. I had my hair brown and very long when I started, and they made me cut it. It was very sporty – all-American – which turned me off.
SG: So you’re telling me you’re not all-American!?
DH: There’s no way in the world I could ever fit in. I would probably make other people crazy or have a nervous breakdown myself. I’m too much of an individual I guess.
SG: How much have you changed since the early Blondie days?
DH: I don’t want to equate myself with Bowie, but he’s a stylist and he’s gone through a lot of periods as an artist – more like a painter. I’ve always wanted to do that – be a stylist. Like Mae West as a character – like she was very strong. I like people that are interesting themselves. Not to say I don’t like people that are usual. What can I say… shut up!
SG: Nicki Brand, the part you play in Videodrome, seems a fairly week, exploited character. It that right?
DH: Yes, she is exploited. Just try to think of her as possibly not existing, as just being a dream. See what happens. In a sense she does become that video, she becomes just like a phantom or something.
SG: It seems that both on film and in Blondie you’re portraying the ideal male sexual fantasy. Aren’t you reconfirming existing sexist roles?
DH: I don’t think I want to portray that and that alone. I always felt about the sexual revolution that men would be much happier if women were much happier. The pressure would be off if everyone didn’t have to be so effeminate or so masculine, and just be some of each. OKAY?!
SG: In the film, James Woods develops this repulsive vagina-like slit in his stomach – the point when everyone in the audience reaches for a bucket. He complained at the time that “I’m no longer an actor, I’m just the bearer of the slit”. To which you replied “Now you know how it feels!” So do you feel very exploited?
DH: I did for a while, and I do sometimes, obviously. It happens. But I don’t think the pop image encourages that at all. I think that’s been foisted upon me. It seems like all things that I was criticized for have been carried off by all these girl singers and girl groups that have followed after me – and they have been lauded for it. I was like really put down for it.
SG: There’s a photo of you taken at a London Hotel with Siouxsie, Pauline Black, Chrissie Hynde, Viv of The Slits and Poly Styrene, and it seems that out of all of them you were always working for a more glamorous image, while the others were deliberately working against that whole pin-up thing.
DH: I always considered the pin-up part of my art form, if you want to call it that, I always thought that it was campy. I never spent a lot of money on clothes or anything like that. Nobody ever saw the sarcasm of it. Everyone took it very seriously, and I think that’s a pity because in a lot of the things that I did the humour was missed.
SG: So what would have happened had you been a fourteen-stone, bald hunchback?
DH: I would have been a drummer!
SG: Would the band have been as big?
DH: Well I would have been bigger, I don’t know about the band.
SG: Do you have a lot of sincere friends?
DH: They sin a lot… I guess I have my fair share. We went through a period of hangers-on, when it was madness, but that’s all levelled out. A lot of my friends are younger. I think older women are usually harder to get to know – much more restricted in their lives.
SG: Do you experience a lot of jealousy from other women?
DH: Sometimes, sure. They want to beat me up! Slash my face! It’s silly.
SG: Do you get pestered a lot in the streets?
DH: No. I learnt something from a few friends who are very distinct and well known, that you can walk down the street and be known and seen, and that you can walk down the street and nobody will know that you’re even there. I’ve learnt how to do that. It depends on what you’re wearing, how you walk and so on.
SG: Do sexist comments bother you? Cab drivers whistling?
DH: I don’t know if that’s really sexist any more. I think that it’s flattering and I always have. I think sexist things really are limited to regarding females as having less brainpower. That’s the only thing that bothers me.
SG: If I was a woman I’d be offended by someone who goes ‘Cor, what a great bum!’
DH: I like that. I think most women like it. If they don’t they’re crazy as far as I’m concerned. It’s a compliment.
SG: But aren’t you upset when people admire your bum, or your nose, or your lips or your eyes, as opposed to who you are?
DH: No. I’m lucky that I was born with these things. And if people like them or admire them, it’s flattering. That’s it.