Resting uncomfortably between the areas of tawdry exploitation and howling campfest (and all the while disguised as an earnest examination of the victimization of women), Lipstick, the 1976 answer to ‘74’s Death Wish tickles as many people as it terrifies, mostly due to its ultra-slick handling and its very tacky script.
Margaux Hemingway (the real life granddaughter of legendary writer Ernest Hemingway) makes her film debut as successful model Chris McCormick, the primary face of a major ad campaign selling liver spot vanishing cream. (That’s a joke! Naturally, the woman is selling lipstick. To be honest, eyebrow pencil would also not have been far off the mark either, though!) A wide assortment of clothes and hairstyles are demonstrated on her during the opening credits. She is the guardian of younger sister Kathy (played by her own real life younger sister Mariel Hemingway, also making her debut.) In order to avoid confusion, I will henceforth refer to the Hemingway gals by their first names.
When Mariel invites her favorite teacher, the friendly, but slightly meek, Chris Sarandon, to one of Margaux’s photo shoots so that he might share some of his original music with her, it sets off a series of nasty events. He comes to the beach where she is swarmed by attendants, assistants and stylists and can barely make time for a quick hello. He is forced to take his portable cassette player and go with the promise of a second meeting at her apartment.
(Incidentally, I’d like to know if it was intentional or not that Mariel and Sarandon are swathed in clothing that is precisely the same color as the craggy background! If it wasn’t done on purpose – as some sort of warped notion that they are bland people who blend into the scenery in the presence of the more colorful supermodel – then it was really careless costuming.)
Sarandon creates his “music” by recording the sounds of anything from heartbeats to cooing pigeons to (probably) turds dropping into the toilet and then amplifying and mixing it all together into a cacophony of sheer aural hell, which he is nonetheless proud of. Visiting her high-rise apartment, which we are permitted to scan in a lengthy tracking shot, so that we can see how her abode is dotted with personally autographed photos from Warren Beatty and Paul Newman and a shot of her with Cary Grant, he brings along his tape player again and nervously prepares to play it for her. He is under the impression that she can use her connections to get it played before the right industry people.
Unfortunately, she has completely forgotten that he is even coming by and is not even dressed when he arrives. Damp from a shower and in a terry cloth robe, she invites him to have a beer while she changes into a tan muumuu. He catches a glimpse of her while she’s changing, adding to the uneasiness he’s feeling at being in her presence. As he plays the “music” for her, it is evident pretty quickly that she equates it (as I do!) with the sound of someone taking a bottle cap and scratching it back and forth on a chalkboard. The tape has barely started when she is rescued by the ringing telephone and she rudely takes the call, even asking him to hang up the extension while she drifts off into her room to chat with her boyfriend!
Sarandon’s mask of humility soon drops and he begins to assert himself to her, crushing a picture of her (priest) brother and making lots of nasty talk. Soon, he’s shoving her around, demanding to know where her lipstick is. It gets uglier and uglier as he tosses her to and fro, smashing closet doors and mirrors, forcing her to apply the reddest lipstick he can find. Finally, in a memorably harrowing scene, he ties her up and forces himself on her (as the story dictates, anally) while she screams in pain and humiliation.
Fourteen year-old Mariel comes home from school and mistakenly believes that her sister and her teacher have made love, though she is quickly convinced of otherwise once Sarandon makes his escape and Mariel gets a good look at Margaux. Margaux, who is used to being photographed over and over, gets to pose for a police photographer as he blithely snaps shots of her in all her degradation.
The girls drive off to visit their brother John Bennett Perry at his church where Margaux discusses her traumatic experience with him and Mariel confides to a nun that she feels responsible for her parents’ death in a car accident on the way to pick her up years before and now her sister’s assault as well, as she was the one who brought Sarandon into their lives.
Next is a visit to frank, tough, district attorney Carla Bondi (played by Anne Bancroft.) Bancroft lays it all on the line for Margaux, about how she will likely be violated all over again by an insensitive and probing court of law. Margaux’s boyfriend Perry King (in a dire, miniscule and unimportant role) promises to stand by her if she presses charges. Bancroft wants to make sure that the victim can withstand severe cross-examination and prods her until she unleashes one of the all-time bad bits of movie dialogue:
Chris: “He wanted to kill me with it!”
D.A. Bondi: “With what?”
Chris: “His COCK!”
That settled, the cast nestles in for a lengthy courtroom battle with predictably smarmy defense attorney Robin Gammell trying to poke holes in Margaux’s story. Bancroft takes on a brittle, unyielding stance, but the script doesn’t give her much to stand on. Somehow Sarandon is able to insinuate that Margaux wanted the rape to happen to her out of a sadomasochistic perversion of hers and (apparently) also wanted her closet doors smashed, her bathroom mirrors shattered and her brother’s photo crushed and broken?
That she’s a model who plugs lipstick in sexy ads seems to be enough to convince the jury that she is always open to anything and brought the rape on herself, regardless of the documented physical harm she endured during it. The extended trial plods on and on with young Mariel being a key witness. Her initial sense of what happened that day is turned against Margaux, even though Mariel strenuously exclaims that she was wrong.
Sarandon torments Margaux by calling her in the middle of the night (while naked) and playing his lovely, tuneful concoctions over the phone line. This being 1976, such modern day crime solving tools such as DNA are nowhere to be found, nor, apparently, were police able to trace the records of phone calls clearly made from his home to hers? She is never shown so much as mentioning this to anyone.
When Sarandon goes free, it looks like Margaux’s career is about to dry up, though she has a couple of photo shoots left in her. Sarandon, on the other hand, is thriving. Yes, he lost his job at the school where Mariel was a student, but the nuns (including one played by Benson’s Inga Swenson!) want him back as soon as possible! Meanwhile, he’s keeping busy with his “music” that is part of a laser and dance exhibition, an enterprise that, naturally, involves young female dance students. The viewer is put through a rehearsal for his extravaganza that is an assault on the eyes and ears. Through a convenient turn of events, this rehearsal is taking place at the newly constructed Beverly Center Mall, where Margaux is posing for another advertising promotion! Not only that, but Mariel has wandered up through the mostly deserted building to the spot where Sarandon is emphatically exercising his musical muscles.
When Mariel foolishly comes into contact with Sarandon, a decision she quickly regrets, Margaux comes unglued and runs, in her spectacularly red, sequined gown with chiffon wrap, out to her car to grab a hunting rifle, which she then trains on the unsuspecting Sarandon who is attempting to drive out of the parking lot. Suffice it to say that there’s a pat, rather unbelievable conclusion that involves prosecutor Bancroft suddenly switching to defense attorney!
The film, which, in truth, looks like it was made later than it was, with almost an early ‘80s feel, was positively lambasted upon release. Considered revoltingly tasteless and sleazy, its few merits were almost completely overlooked with the exception of young Mariel Hemingway, whose sensitive, emotional, natural and surprisingly adept work won her more than a few fans among critics.
The screenplay appears to have either been put together with little thought or else butchered either during shooting or editing. The entire theme of the church goes nowhere. Perry’s role of the priest is superfluous and ultimately has no bearing on anything. There seems to be an attempt to somehow key in religion to all of this, but it never comes together. The Hemingway girls have a priest brother and turn to him and his nuns briefly, but Sarandon is a parochial teacher and has nuns on his side, too. What does it all mean?
The film seems more about depicting the act of rape than exploring what such a crime really does to a person. Margaux, except for one little bit of hesitancy, scarcely misses a beat in resuming her modeling career despite what it meant to her loss in the courtroom. Mariel’s motivation in resuming contact with Sarandon is not sufficiently explained. Unfortunately, it’s just a glossy thriller with precious little substance or even, at times, reality. This is, of course, not an unusual occurrence in Hollywood! (And with a title like that, one shouldn’t expect a sober, docudrama approach to the subject!)
Margaux was, in real life, a major league model who had made the cover of Time magazine the year before this film was released, so she seemed a natural choice to play one on film. Her contract with Faberge, to hawk Babe perfume, was the first million-dollar deal ever granted to a fashion model.
The problem was that her voice sounded like Mercedes McCambridge swallowed a dozen ¾” wood screws washed down with Mad Dog 20/20 and followed by a hit of helium. She had a prominent sort of mouth that made her a natural for demonstrating the title product, but there was something unusual about it that a) made it look quite garish at times and b) gave her some type of speech impediment. Thus, a lot of the occasions in the movie in which she is required to talk come out as unintentionally funny. It was, undeniably, a physically demanding part. Though a double was used for some of the really hard knocks, there are plenty of scenes in which she is manhandled and pawed (not to mention licked by Sarandon and made to endure his tongue probing all over her mouth!) And even if it isn’t appealing to listen to, her screams are coming from the heart. It’s not like she wasn’t giving her all in the movie. She just didn’t wind up a very compelling or charismatic actress.
She was roasted by the majority of reviewers and the fact that Mariel landed most of the accolades drove something of a wedge between the siblings. Mariel went on to do several significant movies (not the least of which was Woody Allen’s Manhattan, which gleaned her an Oscar nomination!) while Margaux’s second film was three years later, a tacky Italian production about piranhas called Killer Fish. (This opus somehow managed to bring together a cast that included: Lee Majors, Karen Black, Marisa Berenson, James Franciscus and former NFL quarterback Dan Pastorini! Thus, it is on my must-see list.)
In just those few years, Margaux’s looks were already showing the result of strenuous partying at Studio 54, alcohol and drug use and a couple of eating disorders. The wheels were starting to come off and her own story could be the basis of a movie (albeit, perhaps, a Lifetime movie.) A couple of failed marriages, bouts with clinical depression, a skiing accident and resultant weight gain followed by a comeback in Playboy magazine were topped off with allegations of childhood sexual molestation by her godfather! All this precipitated her death at forty-two, which was ruled a suicide. (Her grandfather, Ernest, was also a suicide, as were three others in the family over the course of four generations.) This sad ending makes Lipstick seem even more exploitive in retrospect. (Incidentally, she was born Margot, but changed the spelling when she found out that she was named for a wine by that name that her parents had been drinking on the night of her conception.)
Mariel, of course, continued her career with varying degrees of success, as did third-billed Perry King (who is profiled elsewhere on this site.) Bancroft was already an Oscar winner by this time for her title role in The Miracle Worker (1962) and was given prestige billing. She adds a certain amount of dramatic weight to the project that is clearly beneath her. Hilariously, while viewing this film recently, my good friend Joe finally announced, “What? Was she preparing for her role in The Rita Moreno Story?” due to her similarly styled frizzy hair and dark looks. You be the judge…
Bancroft enjoyed a fifty-year career in films before succumbing to uterine cancer in 2005 at age seventy-three. The year after Lipstick, she would land a role in The Turning Point with Shirley MacLaine and score another Oscar nomination. This led to some other meaty projects for her such as Agnes of God, which got her one more nod from the Academy.
Sarandon (in a role initially slated for Jeff Bridges!) was still married to his actress wife Susan at this time, though they would be divorced by 1979. After much stage work and a stint on The Guiding Light, his auspicious film debut came with Dog Day Afternoon, in which he was the distraught lover of Al Pacino, who is staging a bank robbery in order to pay for Sarandon’s sex change operation! He was nominated for an Oscar in his debut. Lipstick was, thus, quite a comedown, though his performance is varied and considerable. He is appropriately warped and threatening (and is obviously trying to add levels to a sorely underwritten role.) Had the scriptwriter bothered to give the character some sort of background or motivation, his performance might have been even more successful.
He followed this up with The Sentinel, another unintentionally hooty thriller with an all-star cast. Though he continued working (and does to this day), the momentum he appeared to have begun with Dog Day Afternoon stalled. He did figure prominently, though, in two mid ‘80s films with enduring cult followings. One was The Princess Bride, as Prince Humperdinck, and the other was Fright Night, in which he played a charismatic vampire.
Famed fashion photographer Francesco Scavullo appears as himself in a couple of scenes (Scavullo was notable for having done the infamous Burt Reynolds seminude Cosmopolitan shoot and for taking pics of a young Brooke Shields that were considered heavily sexual for her age. He also helped launch and sustain the career of Gia and took the iconic shot of Kris Kristofferson and Barbra Streisand for A Star is Born.)
Perry, whose role is so extraneous and undeveloped, had been a model himself, notably portraying a sailor in a series of Old Spice advertisements. He continues to act in many TV and film projects, but his son went on to even greater fame. Matthew Perry was, of course, one of the chief actors on the wildly popular sitcom Friends.
Lipstick proved to be popular enough in India for TWO remakes to come about within two years of one another, one in 1980 and one in 1982! In the U.S., references to the film are more likely to be found in “Bad Movies We Love” sort of lists and compendiums. It tries to be good, but isn't good enough and it winds up bad, but not quite bad enough. Fans of Sarandon, Bancroft or either of the Hemingways ought to enjoy watching it one way or the other, though.