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TALES FROM THE BRITE SIDE
By Kerry Doole
When Debbie (now Deborah) Harry appeared in the hit TV show Wiseguy last year as a washed-up pop singer, her performance somehow seemed too painfully real. After all, it came nearly a full decade after Blondie’s brand of post-punk pop sold in the millions, in the process launching Harry as the most photogenic of all the new wavers.
The bulk of the ’80s saw Harry’s former cultural starring role reduced to a series of cameos – a couple of comparatively unsuccessful solo albums, roles in some fringe movies (Videodrome, Union City, Hairspray), a play (Teaneck Tanzi), and songs on a few film soundtracks (American Gigolo, Scarface). Right now, however, Deborah Harry’s on a roll, living out the words of her Wiseguy character’s catchy theme song, “My 20-20’s true, I’m looking on the brite site.”
Ironically, part of Harry’s bright side is Darkside. The just-released Tales From The Darkside: The Movie is a contemporary horro thriller based on stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (who, of course, wrote the Sherlock Holmes mystery novels), Michael McDowell (Beetlejuice), and frightmeister Stephen King, and it marks another step up the acting ladder for Harry.
In an interview prior to the movie’s release, Deborah apologetically explains, “I really can’t tell you very much about it – I don’t want to ruin it straight away! The three stories in the film are linked together by a connecting thread that I provide. I have seen the rushes, and it looks beautiful!”
Ironically, for the third time in a movie, the far from domestic-looking Deborah portrays a housewife. “In Union City, I play a very traditional kind of housewife who likes to keep the place looking nice,” she says. “In Hairspray [John Waters’ wacky comedy] I was a hausfrau, but really more like the proverbial stage mom.
“And in this one, my character lives in Connecticut and drives one of those big Wagoneer station-wagons!” she says enigmatically.
According to the producer of Tales From The Darkside, Richard Rubinstein, “This is a film in the ‘things that go bump in the night’ tradition of scare-moviemaking. Our first objective is to combine great story-telling and acting, and the special visual and make-up effects are meant to embellish the story. I feel that the most popular horror films are ones that present characters the moviegoers can recognize and identify with.”
Rubinstein’s credits show that he is quite familiar with the desires of horror flick devotees. He produced such scary classics as Martin, Dawn Of The Dead, Creepshow and Pet Semetary, the latter the highest-grossing film adaptation of a Stephen King novel. And the screenplay was co-written (with McDowell) by the infamous George Romero, whose series of Dead films (starting with the classic Night Of The Living Dead and continuing through Dawn and Day Of The Dead) changed the face, as it were, of the horror genre.
And Darkside sports a mighty impressive cast. In the first tale, “Lover’s Vow” (written by McDowell), James Remar (Drugstore Cowboy, The Dream Team) and Rae Dawn Chong star as a Soho artist who makes a deal with a monster and the woman who helps save him.
The second segment features Christian Slater, lately of Heathers, in an adaptation of “Lot 248,” a short story by Arthur Conan Doyle about a college student who falls victim to a mummy’s curse.
And in the third story, “Cat From Hell,” adapted by Romero from a Stephen King short story, William Hickey (Prizzi’s Honor) and David Johansen (Married To The Mob) co-star as a desperate millionaire and the professional hitman he hires to eliminate a nasty feline. As mentioned, the central thread that connects the three tales is Harry’s sinister suburban housewife character.
Deborah Harry is still a comparative novice in thespian terms, but time is clearly destined to change that. “Acting is an off and on thing for me, and I’d like it to be a little more on than it is,” she says. “Maybe now that I’m back in full swing working again, it will pick up. So far I’ve had very creative casting, and I’ve gone on a lot of auditions and met lots of directors. If you were really going to specialize in this business, you’d move to L.A., where you can really meet and hang out with the people in this business.”
Somehow the image of Deborah hanging out with the in-crowd at the Polo Lounge doesn’t quite ring true. She is a Manhattan girl through and through, exuding that sense of Big Apple sang-froid from every pore of that translucent skin, and it’s not actually that surprising that her earlier film work has generally been done with directors that are definitely outside of the Hollywood mainstream (like David Cronenberg and John Waters).
For the past six months, however, Harry’s acting ambitions have been placed on hold while she has devoted all her energies to the resuscitation of her singing career. Her long-awaited third solo album, Def, Dumb & Blonde, registered mighty low on the Richter scale in North America, but became a genuine hit internationally. The single “I Want That Man” (written especially for her by Thompson Twins Alannah Currie and Tom Bailey) ironically fought it out for the Number One spot on the Australian charts with The B-52’s “Love Shack.”
“That was perfect; really exciting,” says Deborah of her friendly rivalry with her former new wave peers. “I’ve been a fan of The B-52’s for years. In fact, Kate [Pierson] is my neighbor, and Fred [Schneider] lives a few blocks away. A neighborhood feud, I guess!”
Harry pinpoints the resistance of radio as something that’s still a stumbling block for her in America. “It is a little harder to conquer radio in the States,” she explains, “and our music has always been a little bit off-center.”
And recent attempts to reach a new audience via a rather ill-matched support slot with Tears For Fears have highlighted the generation gap now facing Harry.
“There’s a lot of real little kids in the arenas. I don’t quite know what they think of us,” remarks Chris Stein, Harry’s long-time collaborator in Blondie and now a key player in her solo career.
Via a potentially tragic situation, Chris Stein was responsible for Harry’s retreat from the spotlight for a large chunk of the ’80s. In 1983, he was diagnosed as suffering from pemphigus, a rare and sometimes fatal genetic disease. Long-time lover Harry selflessly devoted herself to Stein’s welfare, confirming suspicions that under the cool, chic facade of the pop pin-up beat a warm, compassionate heart.
She may have been pre-Madonna, but Deborah is certainly no prima donna. On interview day, she is plagued by a nasty, hacking cough, but she graciously fulfills her duties under circumstances that would have seen lesser lights simply cancel everything. Even through the heavy cold, Deborah manages to look movie-star gorgeous. Only a few neck lines give any hint of her 44 years, while her body is in such good shape that she confidently shed her inhibitions and most of her clothes onstage at one recent gig.
For the talk ritual, she has a willing accomplice in Chris Stein, and the outsider can soon detect just how the pair have maintained such a productive personal and professional relationship (even if, as reported, they are no longer lovers). Certainly, they acknowledge that their artistic approaches are healthily complementary.
“Without Chris, I don’t know if I’d ever have got involved with those things,” says Deborah, speaking about her left-field work with the likes of avant garde New York poet John Giorno. “Those people are not normally attracted to me, because I look very straight!”
“Debbie keeps the music entertaining for me,” continues Chris. “She always maintains that people should at least be having a good time with the music.”
Both Stein and Harry express discontent, however, with many facets of modern pop. “It’s amazing, some of the stuff people consider rock ‘n roll now,” sneers Chris. “It is more like Wayne Newton and Dean Martin; so bland and MOR.”
“To me, rock ‘n roll, at the formative stage, had a sense of danger,” adds Debbie. “But some of the stuff you see now – all these women who come across as cheerleaders. It’s just mind-boggling to me!”
Chris Stein is similarly disenchanted with other facets of contemporary American culture. “The art scene in New York is totally f***d up!” he says. “The whole thing is cutting its own throat; the film industry, the fine arts, the gallery scene. No one will take any chances, because there is so much money involved. Yet the things that can break through are the things that take risks.”
Warming to the topic, Chris volleys on. “The drug problem has caused a huge vacuum in America,” he says. “No one is looking for anything anymore; the social situation has got so bland and empty. America is now the land of conservatism, and that is reflected in art.”
Renewed repression of artists and state-sanctioned censorship, specifically in the form of attempts by politicians to cut funding to art galleries that show homoerotic or otherwise controversial work, also concern Deborah. “I feel like I’m probably on a blacklist because I’ve been photographed by [the late, and certainly controversial, artist] Robert Mapplethorpe,” she says. “It is possible!”
Don’t peg the duo as cynical bohemians yearning for the good old days of New York punk, though. “With that CBGB’s thing, the whole personality cult backfired in a way,” contends Chris. “It started out as a backlash against faceless bands like Chicago, but in a way it went too far. Now it’s all personality, with hardly any music involved.”
Intriguingly, some of the most colorful personalities of that punk era – Iggy Pop (who is in John Waters’ latest film), David Johansen et al. – are, like Harry herself, beginning to light up the celluloid. Johansen (aka Buster Poindexter), is, in fact, also starring in Tales From The Darkside, a coincidence that pleases long-time friend Debbie immensely.
As she explains, “Back in 1972, when we were stumbling out of the Mercer Arts Centre [a famous N.Y. punk hang-out] in our platform shoes after drinking too much Southern Comfort together, who could have known we’d end up in a horror movie together?”