A reader recommended this to me, given its overwrought drama and cast of gay icon women, but even this made clear that what I was to expect was a particulalry dreadful melodrama one might wish to laugh at. Well, it delivered on the dreadful aspect! And certainly on the overwrought drama. Still, it wasn't all that fun, and it lingered in my apartment for over a month before I finally bore down and made it through the whole horrendous thing.
This is directed by Edward Dmytryk, who has a respectable resume including The Caine Mutiny, and is adapted from a Harold Robbins novel, bestselling author of the time known for his pulpy dramas that inevitably concerned sex and scandal among the super-rich. These novels were fixtures in my home, and are the kind of things a young teen might flip through looking for dirty parts, scanning for key words such as "Heaving," "Throbbing," and "Pulsating."
We see it's San Francisco, and that this stars Bette Davis, Susan Hayward, Joey Heatherton [who every older gay man I've mentioned her to describes as particularly vile], Jane Greer and DeForest Kelly! We have a title song, sung by the dulcet tones of sub-Sinatra Jack Jones, saying "There must be a place... where love has gone... where dreams and desires... like yesterday's fires..." go out or something. I forgot. Then we're thrown right in to serious drama as were in a sculpture studio! A woman! A man! A young girl who picks up a chisel and stabs the man in the stomach!
So the woman is Hayward as Valerie, and the girl Joey Heatherton as Dani, who is supposed to be 15 [she was 20 at the time of filming], and Mike Connors, sort of a Dean Martin type, is Luke, Dani's father, who returns to town after the fracas. He learns that the victim, Rick, was involved with both mother and daughter [the scandal starts early!] and was their accountant, although he is said to "Know nothing about double-entry bookkeeping... and everything about double-entry housekeeping!" Heatherton as Dani has a whiny voice and a pinched face, consistently seeming as though she had just been pricked by a thorn. Luke has an awkward reunion with Hayward as Valerie, who consistently has a po-faced, arch expression on her face, as though she is witholding some secret that would render the entire scene ridiculous--an expression she maintains throughout the entire movie! Both mother and daughter maintain these expressions that pretty much make you want to smack them on sight, so in that regard they are truly believable as parent and child. But now--flashback!
We find out that Luke met Valerie years ago at an art opening where her sculpture was featured. Valerie, it would seem, is the toast of the modern art world, although every bit of sculpture you will see belies this assessment. It looks like the sort of "modern sculpture" they would put in the middle of a planter in the mall. There we also meet DeForest Kelley as Sam, Valerie's dealer, as well as Bette Davis as Geraldine, Valerie's mother. Geraldine sizes up returning war hero Luke as husband material for Val, so she invites him over to dinner and lays out the whole plan, telling him he could be installed as Vice President of her company. But he will not be bought and sold like that, and tells the old lady off, overheard by Val, who likes anyone who doesn't like her mother. Val appears in Luke's car outside, po-faced arch expression and cloying word games intact, and within seconds they're arranging marriage. Then Luke is sent off to war! Sam [the art dealer] insists rather rudely that Val doesn't love Luke! But Val believes that can change! Then--one year later!
Luke returns from war, all limbs intact, and he and Val go on their delayed honeymoon, where the bickering begins upon a giant bed that I remember as being particularly hideous, although I must have blocked out exactly how. I seem to recall it as being ORANGE WICKER. Anyway, soon as they get back they find that meddling mom Geraldine has bought them a house, with an enormous portrait of herself that features "eyes that follow you wherever you go." You have to love something when it's THAT over the top.
So Luke wants to make his own way as an architect, refusing to be installed as a pawn in Geraldine's company, only to find frustration at every turn. But we soon learn that he is a GENIUS architect, but evil Geraldine is using her vast web of influence to ensure that no one will hire him! In the meantime, he and Val have Dani, the invisible baby. She is supposedly present, we just never, EVER see her. Then Luke starts hittin' the booze to deal with his work frustrations, causing Valerie to make even more sanctimonious faces. She gets so fed up with his boozy antics she follows the only course of action available to her--and becomes a nymphomaniac. She disappears at night to attend a "Sex-Saturated Floor Show," where she picks up any Tom, Dick or Harry who can make her momentarily forget her troubles. We also learn that her sculpture was boring when she was happy, but now that she's unhappy again, it is once more the leading beacon of modern art.
Well, as I think you can tell, emotions are running high. Val moves into another bedroom, enraging Luke until he forces himself on her, which she dismisses by saying "You're not the first today--I'm just getting warmed up!" which soon causes him to exclaim "You're not a woman--you're a disease!" after which she feels free to inform him that he's "A drunk! A drunk! A drunk!" Can this marriage be saved? Not really, and evil mom Geraldine shows up again to engineer the divorce. And now we return from our extended flashback. Yeah--that was ALL flashback!
Which means a return to Joey Heatherton as [supposedly] 15-year-old Dani. I'm trying to think of some way to describe the particular pained, irritated quality of her face, and the only way I can do it is to say she looks as though her features are swollen shut due to some allergic reaction. Anyway, she's shut up in some kind of home for delinquent girls, where she bewails "What's the matter with me? I love all the wrong people and hate all the right ones!" We learn that her hymen is but a distant memory, and that she was always interested in Mom's older male friends. Val, however, has lost her legal rights to Dani because she has been living with men "without benefit of marriage."
Now there's a bit of intrigue [not intriguing, don't get me wrong] in which scumbag thugs crawl out of the woodwork to threaten to expose love letters between Dani and Rick, Val's boyfriend [and the one killed], letters we are told could be published unembellished in Penthouse's Forum section. You just have to accept that it was shocking back then. This movie is actually making me reflect on how quickly values have changed in such a short time. Anyway, the whole letters drama goes on a while and doesn't really have much to do with anything. In addition, it is tedious.
Then: THE EXPLOSIVE FINALE! Evil granny Geraldine wants custody of Dani! Val wants to remarry Luke and be the parents to Dani they could never be! He tells her to stuff it. By the way--SO much more nauseating green used in decorating here--why? It's a sick fungus-green, too. Ugh, the Sixties. Then--courtroom drama! They all make big speeches, then Val gets up and yaks some more about how her mother never truly loved her and treated her like a possession, etc., which causes both Bette and us to roll our eyes. Then the shocking truth is revealed: Dani did stab Rick, but only because he stepped in the way--she was trying to kill HER MOTHER! Then Val has a huge emo-fit complete with squirted-on tears and drives first TOWARD the Golden Gate bridge, then TOWARD the Bay Bridge [they are in opposite directions] on her way home, where she slashes the portrait of her mother [took her THIS long?] then stabs herself multiple times with the scissors! Then Dani is sent back to juvie for the next three years, during which time she develops a "close" relationship with her estranged dad, and goes to live with him after she is released. Yes, all those Freudian implications are firmly in place. And Luke finally tells Geraldine to "get out of our lives!" And that's it.
Oh dear, so there it is. It's not really as fun as one would hope it would be, given as its such a wallow in trash and sleazy sex and fame and riches and such. Like Robbins' novels, it is somehow compelling while also making you feel dirty and sleazy for watching. You do get high drama and alcoholism and torrid family scandal and underage sex and drug use and nymphomania and all that--and all enacted by these hideous gay divas--yet it's all somehow equally horrifying.
Now I totally enjoy a good melodrama such as the delightful A Summer Place, but that has a kind of wholesomeness and good humanity that makes it totally enjoyable, where with this it's like you KNOW you're watching it out of your basest instincts and it makes you feel BAD about yourself for wanting to see it. If you are an aspiring drag queen you might want to go for it, but if not, you might want to think long and hard about whether you're ready to endure the long period of self-loathing this movie can leave you with. Bleech.
If you get off on sleazy melodrama.