BLONDIE SHEDS HER IMAGE – AND HER CLOTHES
DEBBIE HARRY talks to JAMES CAMERON-WILSON about the film that’s made her the centre of controversy.
I used to worship Debbie Harry. There, in among the multitude of screaming groupies I would stand, mouth agape and eyes pinned on that svelte, gyrating body jerking across the stage like a marionette on a hot tin roof, wearing nothing more than slinky T-shirt and tight, white hot pants. And I had all the records, from the eponymous “Blondie”, and “Plastic Letters”, through to the more iconoclastic “Autoamerican” and the ethnic “The Hunter” – and, of course, Debbie’s solo album “KooKoo”. I saw Union City, in which the singer made her “official” screen debut as a demure housewife, and I raced off to Foxes with the express intention of seeing the support, Roadie, co-starring Blondie.
If you don’t know it by now, and you really ought, Deborah Harry was the peroxide who put the blonde into Blondie. And if I’m still not making sense, I’ll put it plainer: Blondie was the phenomenally successful New Wave American band (1976-82), and Deborah Harry was their symbol and lead singer. And I worshipped her.
Last year the band broke up, and Debbie and Chris Stein, lead guitarist of Blondie and Debbie’s common-law husband of eight years, branched out on their own. They are now planning an album together.
But Debs had always been independent of Blondie, as Union City and “KooKoo” proved. She also appeared in three hour-long features directed by Amos Poe in the late ‘seventies: Unmade Beds, Night Lunch and Blank Generation. And now there is Videodrome.
A sadistic chiller from David Cronenberg, Canada’s Cardinal of Cold Sweat, Videodrome takes an uncompromising look at the world of video nasties. James Woods (from The Onion Field) stars as Max Renn, an underground television programmer who stumbles, by satellite, onto a gold mine of a tv show called “Videodrome” and who tries to secure the rights. What he doesn’t realise, of course, is that the torture and death featured on the programme is for real. Deborah Harry co-stars as his masochistic girlfriend, Nicki Brand, who auditions for the show. But before she does, she displays her qualifications for “Videodrome” via a series of sexual encounters with Max, involving ear-piercing, cigarette burns and other gentle forms of disfigurement. Nicki is also one stunning beauty, an ideal, photogenic victim for the “Videodrome” circus. And in her first nude scenes ever, Deborah Harry comes off as sexy as ever. Immensely worshippable, in fact.
However, Videodrome was made in 1981, and since then Debbie has been off the road for some time. She has also indulged in some extensive training for “Teyneck Tanzi”, a Broadway show about a female wrestler. The combined circumstances have produced a very different-looking Deborah Harry, and at first, I have to admit, I didn’t recognise her (when we met for lunch at a London hotel).
“I know,” she said, her voice strangely deep, “I have put on some weight. But then I haven’t been working much recently. And I go on great binges and don’t eat healthily. I’ve also developed some muscles from training for ‘Teyneck Tanzi’. But I kind of like those.”
Once I had got over the shock of the new, stockier Harry (I had only seen Videodrome the day before), I summoned myself to shake hands. Another surprise.
“You must excuse my hands,” the new, stockier Harry explained, as my fingers slipped from her grasp, “I’ve just been putting Nivea on my face. It’s part of a new facial treatment I’m having.”
I wiped the offending Nivea off my hands and on to my own face and tried to concentrate on the interview.
I started by asking why Videodrome had taken so long to be released in Britain?
“I think the subject matter was too hot for the distributors to handle,” came the answer (Videodrome was originally scheduled to be distributed here by Universal). “Then eventually Palace Pictures picked it up and decided they could do something with it,” she said.
They did. And dropped a cat among some very Conservative pigeons. When Videodrome opened in London, bang in the middle of the Parliamentary hearings on the video nasties, there was an uproar. The BBC, who were due to run an interview with Miss Harry on “Breakfast Time” tv, decided to scrap it when their researcher caught a preview of the film. “I was absolutely repulsed,” she commented. There were other cancellations. Both Radio Four’s “Start the Week” and Radio Two’s “Interview with Gloria Hunniford” dropped the star like a hot potato. Miss Harry was persona non grata with a vengence. And the ensuing publicity could not have come at a better time.
“There was no backlash in America,” Debbie recalled. “I think the controversy surrounding Videodrome in Britain has been stirred up by the Conservatives. It has nothing to do with the film, it just has to do with their desire to control and to censor. But the guys from Palace are thrilled because of the attention it has attracted.”
Videodrome, nevertheless, is a pretty sick picture, but with such a potent warning that it validates itself.
“The most important thing to realise about it is that it has a very crucial message,” Debbie continued. “I really believe that. In fact, it’s got a lot of messages. I mean, what place is video and television taking in our lives? There is a terrible danger that we are becoming what we watch. And I think Videodrome has driven that message home. A lot of people are really up in arms about it – they can’t stand to watch – it does something to them. And they don’t know why. It’s not the gore, it’s not the scenes of the opened stomach, it’s something more that affects them. The gore, in itself, is inoffensive.”
So many people are now addicted to television, so many people’s conversation relies on what they saw the night before, and so many people believe what they see on television, that the medium is deadening their lives and creativity. And robbing them of their individuality. It is as if a whole nation is becoming “one” through the tube. Consequently, the people who control what goes out on that screen have a potential power of frightening dimensions. Videodrome takes that premise, plays with it and expands it to accommodate the extraordinary imagination of David Cronenberg (remember Scanners, The Brood, Shivers, Rabid?). Yes, Videodrome is an uncomfortable film to watch, and not just because of the brilliantly created scenes of hallucination. Its message is not easily missed.
Getting back to Debbie’s participation, I asked my interviewee how she stumbled across the part in the first place.
“There was something in my music that David used as a reference for writing the part of Nicki Brand,” the star elaborated. “He told the producer this, who then asked him why he didn’t cast me? And David said, ‘No, I’m sure she can’t act. I want to get somebody I know can handle the role.’ Finally the producer convinced him to try me out. So I got a screen test and got the part.”
I showed my surprise at Miss Harry having to audition for a role, her fame being so wide-spread and her box-office appeal a foregone conclusion.
“I can’t pick and choose, you know. I’m right at the beginning of this game. I’m at the bottom of the heap in the acting world.”
So what of her highly-acclaimed performance in Union City?
“Yeh, but it was a small movie, very much of an underground, arty type of film. And not that many people saw it. You know, the film business is a different world. The producers and directors don’t want to take any chances. A film is a big project – there is a lot more money involved than on a record album. And a film takes three to five years to put together – to finance, to write, to produce, to publicise – so you can’t just hire a ‘name’ on a whim. You’ve got to be absolutely sure the actor can handle it.
“However, I’ve always wanted to act. And I always have – little things here and there. But when you start a career you can only do one thing at a time, and it was more natural for me to go into music first. It was kinda automatic, I suppose. And of course on stage you’re always acting. I always felt it was my job to ‘sell’ a song. I have to, partly because I never felt I had a wonderful, great ‘Voice’. I’m a good singer, sure, but not a ‘Voice’ like Streisand is a ‘Voice’.”
One film Deborah Harry was tipped to do was Flash Gordon, to be directed by Nicolas Roeg, a sensational director of rock stars in acting parts, as evidenced by Jagger in Performance, Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth and Garfunkel in Bad Timing, seemed a wonderful choice for navigating the camp, out-of-this-world adventures of the New York Jets quarterback. Especially with Deborah Harry as the mysterious, seductive Princess Aura. But it was not to be.
“I was really excited at the idea of Nic directing me,” the Nivead visage enthused, “but Nic and the producer, Dino De Laurentiis, had a falling out and Nic back out of the project altogether. The next director [Mike Hodges] didn’t want me. It was as simple as that. I would have done it with or without Nic.
“There are so many film projects that don’t get off the ground. There was a screenplay being written for me called American Rhapsody. Alan Rudolph, who made Roadie, was going to direct and Mikhail Baryshnikov was to co-star. But because of a writers’ strike two years ago, production was delayed. And by the time the strike was over I was on another tour or recording another album or something.
“But I intend to persevere with acting. I’ll take any part that comes along, whether it’s a support or a lead, in a film or on stage. I’m not just looking for the ‘star’ role. I really want to build up my technique and to work at it.”
Steering us back to Videodrome, I asked her how she coped with the nude scenes, the first time she had ever disrobed for the camera.
“One of the scenes I found extremely difficult. In a shower – it felt awkward and didn’t seem right. But that was cut. The other two scenes were a lot easier. Partly because Jimmy [Woods] was so great to work with, and partly because everybody was so careful to create the right atmosphere for me. Of course, there were the minimum amount of people on set. Actually, I think Jimmy was more self-conscious than I was, or afraid that I was self-conscious and consequently self-conscious on my behalf. It was very funny actually. I was standing there with a towel wrapped around me wondering how on earth I could go through with the scene. ‘I can’t do this’, I thought. ‘What am I doing?’ Then I thought: ‘You stupid fool, what are you doing here if you can’t do this? Just do it.’ So I did it then the fear was over. Once that happened it was fun. Once I get past a certain point I’m not shy anymore; and there I was, walking around…”
Another memorable scene from the film reveals Debbie in scanty underwear training a lit cigarette on her breast. And it looked painfully realistic.
“That wasn’t a real burn,” the actress explained nonchalantly, “it was spirit gum. It was a stop-action shot [a cinematographic technique by which inanimate objects appear to move on screen] where the cigarette almost touched the skin. And for the close-up we used a fake cigarette. And didn’t it look realistic? That’s the magic of the movies.”
And Videodrome is more magical than most. See it at your peril – and you might never watch television again.