If you dive into The Underworld with any regularity, you know that we treasure bad movies almost as much as (if not more than!) the great ones! Sometimes, a film is so legendarily bad that its tough to get ahold of. This must be why it took until July of 2011 for me to finally see the infamous howler Brenda Starr. Then again, you can almost count on your hands the number of people who saw the movie when it was released to U.S. theaters...
Starr was the pet project of a billionaire sheik named Abdul Aziz al Ibrahim, who was a heavy-duty fan of Miss Brooke Shields. At the time of filming, in 1986, she was but twenty-one years old and a sensation from some provocative Calvin Klein blue jeans ads and her early roles in Alice, Sweet Alice, Pretty Baby, The Blue Lagoon and Endless Love. While 1980's Lagoon was quite a hit, 1981's Endless Love was not. She also hit a career speed bump with Sahara in 1983. In fact, she was in a dry spell, mostly coasting on prior glories and her jaw-dropping looks, self-advertised virginity and famous escorts about Hollywood. Brenda Starr would do nothing to rescue her cinematic livelihood.
The roots of the project came from all the way back in 1940 when the Sunday supplement of The Chicago Tribune began running a color comic strip called Brenda Starr, Reporter. By 1945, the character and her adventures had become popular enough to warrant a daily installment. In time, the strip gained popularity, appearing in 250 newspapers, and Brenda Starr was a household name. The dazzling, stylish, red-headed reporter trotted the globe in pursuing stories and frequently found herself in and out of dangerous scrapes, all the while being surrounded by other colorful characters.
As the 1986 film version neared production, a wealth of talent was brought on board. While the director, Robert Ellis Miller, was hardly a prestigious choice (with many of his credits from television), he had proven himself at least capable with movies such as Sweet November, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and Reuben, Reuben. Composer Johnny Mandel was a veteran, with an Oscar for The Sandpiper's “The Shadow of Your Smile” and the theme song for M*A*S*H to his credit.
The highly-skilled Freddie Francis (then an Oscar-winner for Sons and Lovers, but later another winner for Glory) provided the cinematography while Bob Mackie designed a wealth of extravagant costumes for Miss Shields. This wasn't some cheaply and shoddily thrown together quickie. Real talent and money were involved in the making. Of course, these things, when they go wrong, can go wrong in phantasmagorical proportions!
Things start off okay with some fun pop art credits and the surprisingly captivating brush strokes of a comic strip artist at work. The deft dexterity and sleight of hand it takes to do this work is impressive. It is only moments, though, before we realize we're going to be in trouble. The cartoon character of Brenda Starr talks back to the artist, complaining, and decides to depart the strip and call her own shots! Here, we meet Brooke Shields as the title heroine, already in the throes of danger on the ledge of a building in which a gangster is holed up.
Shields, while an obviously striking clotheshorse, emits from her mouth a little girl voice at odds with her sophisticated character and featuring the untrained, desperately amateur inflections of an “actress” in way over her head. (And I do realize that when someone is in over her head playing a comic strip character, then there's real trouble! It's not like this was Lady MacBeth, Master Manipulator. It shouldn't have been that hard to nail!)
Here, in the first of a series of cameo roles, is Eddie Albert as a dedicated police chief. This being 1948 Chicago (though you have to really pay attention to know the year!), he has his hands full with gangster-oriented crime. He isn't on screen long enough to do his reputation any ill service, nor is he given any favors in this minor, thankless role.
We also meet Shields' chief rival when it comes to feminine reportage. Diana Scarwid shows up, in full-on '40s regalia, complete with Joan Crawford-esque shoulder pads, hats, smear of lipstick and so on, and (apparently jealous that she didn't get to play her in Mommie Dearest – in which she portrayed a grown-up Christina) proceeds to horrendously, but lamely, try to out-camp Faye Dunaway.
Trouble is, she hasn't got the slightest idea how to properly deliver a glamorous, sneeringly arrogant, fire-breathing bitch role like this, even after having been tongue-lashed, glared at and tossed around the living room until her panties were out for all the world to see by Dunaway a couple of years earlier in Mommie Dearest! Instead, she gives a glacially stagnant, flat, stiff, awkward performance in which she is served with Crawford-style pinpoint brow lighting that she occasionally, accidentally steps into, ever so briefly! Granted, she looks pretty awesome in her period clothes, hair and accessories, but it's a very sad presentation, including the under-modulated vocal qualities.
Anyway, the illustrator (Tony Peck) realizes he has to get Brenda Starr back into the comic strip, so he magically inserts himself inside her world by drawing himself into the panel. This way he can coerce her to come back. Starr having been filmed in 1986, the concept of a human being encapsulated into a comic strip was hot on the heels of the incredibly successful song and music video “Take on Me” by the Norwegian synthpop band A-Ha. In the immensely popular video, a young lady reading a black and white strip about motorcycle-riding thieves is suddenly beckoned into the action where the lead singer, Morten Harket, takes her on an adventure. Nothing anywhere near the visual effects of the MTV Award-winning video is attempted with Peck. Cartoon panels are shown first, followed by a cut to live-action of him on the same ledge Shields was on previously.
Shields, after a near-miss with death during the police/gangster stand-off, is hospitalized with a head injury. During her stay, she is gifted with a single, mysterious black orchid, which is revealed to come from a single, mysterious stranger with one eye played by Timothy Dalton. He makes periodic appearances in the story (just as his counterpart did in the source comic.) Shields is also visited in the hospital by a couple of her newsroom cronies, one played by Kathleen Wilhoite. Wilhoite, as Hank O'Hare, may look bizarre, with her freckled face, ever-present cigarette and wild coiffure, but that's just what the character looked like in the strip.
Shields' own hair, even though it might occasionally appear like it in some of these photos, almost never approaches the vivid red of Brenda Starr. It comes off as more of a burgundy or a deep auburn. The reason is that, in lieu of wigs, her own brunette hair was tinted for the role (and looks gorgeous throughout, just never accurate!) It wasn't lightened and dyed, but rather just stained to look “red.” Thus, the trademark fire-engine red hair of the character is never aptly represented.
Back at the newsroom, with a simple cross-shaped bandage to represent the injury she just sustained, we meet her publisher, played by Charles Durning. Just like his counterpart, there's a severe white stripe in his otherwise black hair. (In Durning's case, they just had to darken the sides and leave part of his own white hair alone!) As is the case during the better part of the movie, Shields is decked out in another traffic-stopping Bob Mackie get-up, this one with a B insignia on the shoulder. Durning informs her of the disappearance of a renowned scientist (Henry Gibson) who had discovered a serum that could transform ordinary water into gasoline. She decides to locate the man and obtain the formula for the serum.
First, there's a segue to Washington, D.C. where Shields has a one-on-one with the President (unnamed, though it is meant to be Harry Truman and Truman's name does appear on a piece of stationary), played by Peyton Place star Ed Nelson. Though Nelson does an okay job as the piano-playing Prez, it is just one more cameo role that, in the end, is rather pointless and thankless.
Peck, who keeps missing her by just so much, remains in hot pursuit as Shields readies herself for a journey to South America. Meanwhile, Scarwid has been eavesdropping on Durning and her and, in turn, a passel of Soviet spies (led by Jeffrey Tambor and a diminutive Rosa Klebb-ish June Gable) has been listening in on Scarwid! Tambor and Gable, along with a gang of their henchmen, decide to nab the formula for themselves. Tambor is more than a little dim-witted and Gable, with a cigar clenched in her teeth 95% of the time, is stereotypically butch and tough, patterned more than a little after the divine Miss Lotte Lenya, who played Klebb in From Russia with Love. (A few years later and this role would have gone to Linda Hunt just as a few years after that Mindy Sterling had a run as Frau Farbissina in the Austin Powers movies.) Gable is very “on” and over-the-top throughout, but is floundering for anything remotely funny or interesting to do. Her most dastardly bit of torment is when she threatens to burn Shields' hair if she won't give her the information she needs!
Shields hops a flight and lands first in Puerto Rico (where much of this movie was filmed, though you'd hardly know it from the overall lack of flavor in the locations) and runs into the spies. She evades them with a trick purse, which doubles as a grappling hook and rope! (The feeling and action of the film is deliberately tongue-in-cheek and far-fetched.) She winds up in a hotel room with Peck where they discuss the predicament of her refusing to come back to the comic strip. She complains to him that the handbags he draws for her are too small to hold her reporter's notepads and is amazed when he comes out of the bathroom sporting a belly button (she hasn't got one because the censors make him erase hers in the artwork for the comic.)
It must be said that, even though Peck allegedly has romantic inclinations for Shields in the story and even though Peck was married to Cheryl Tiegs in real life and they had two children, he comes off as unabashedly and inappropriately GAY throughout the movie. His blonde hairstyle is just what was de rigueur for fruity porn stars of the time and his expressions and voice do nothing to dissuade the overriding effeminate qualities of the performance. It's the elephant in the room of the motion picture.
While in a Puerto Rican shoppe, she selects a new polka-dotted outfit in order to help her evade those on her tail (because nothing says “blend in with the background” like polka dots.) Interestingly, she waffles between hats and tries one on that I thought looked amazing only to go for the other one, which I happened to dislike. (Ummmm... Learn to please your viewing audience! LOL) As he is wont to do, Dalton comes to her rescue once again, this time on horseback and the two of them fly off to South America together, horses and all!
Shields and Peck take a boat while in Brazil (actually filmed in Jacksonville, Florida and/or Puerto Rico) and as Shields is having breakfast with the Captain of the vessel, she is distracted by the appearance of a blood-stained face peering at her from the floor above. Here, the movie goes slightly off the rails. Heretofore, the violence in the film has all been comic and not at all graphic, with scarcely a drop of blood. For some reason, this sequence features extremely realistic wounds on the captive (clad in a ratty union suit and played by Matthew Cowles.) Furthermore, he is dispatched in a scene of startling cruelty in comparison with the rest of the movie's tone. It's indicative of the lack of vision and focus accorded to the material. Cowles, by the way, was (and is) the husband of Miss Christine Baranski and is best known for playing the country-fried pimp Billy Clyde Tuggle on All My Children for several years. He created the role, wrote much of his own dialogue and won an Emmy for it!
One thing about Brenda Starr that makes for palatable viewing during some of the less engrossing scenes is the use of several nice looking men as extras and bit players. The sailors on the boat are pretty cute as are some of Shields' newsroom coworkers. Later, she and Peck wind up in a traveling circus and there is a troupe of shirtless acrobats on hand. These aspects help spackle the rapidly crumbling project as it sputters to its certain death.
Anyhoo, Shields and Peck escape the cretinous villains on the boat and spend the night, chastely, in a wooded glen in the jungle. Despite swimming through the river, falling into mud and sleeping in grass, her dress is, of course, pristine white, though she describes it as being trashed. This particular dress, which she wears for a fairly long while, has a really odd bust line. The costumers tried to give her some lift with a push-up bra, but the way it fits is not very flattering and when she's wet, we get a sort of disturbing glimpse of her distorted chest, tugged, yanked and pressed here and there while supports underneath begin to wane. Look at her “cleavage” in this shot! (And are those not the beginnings of her nipples showing along the edge of the neckline?) Despite her reputation in films as a sexy youth, Shields was actually pretty demure, using body doubles for many sequences, so it's surprising that this stayed in the final cut.
She spies a local water-bearer and arranges to switch outfits with her, so she doesn't have to stay in the same dress. Then she, Peck and the recently joined-in Dalton proceed on their mission to find the scientist. Laugh-In's Henry Gibson portrays the Albert Einstein-ish old coot, who is barely able to communicate once he's finally been located.
From there, it's another run-in with Tambor and Gable, with interfering Scarwid in for good measure, culminating in a river battle that has Shields attaching her purse strap to two alligators and riding them to safety! Then comes the detour at the circus, in which Shields is done up in a curvy, revealing tightrope walker's costume. Peck, on the other hand, can't seem to take in enough of the shirtless, Brazilian athletes, to the extent that Shields has to reprimand him for it as he continues to stare them down. No comment.
After further shenanigans, Shields, Peck and Dalton wind up as Dalton's estate where a final showdown occurs. Shields has to decide whether to stay where she is and let Peck continue to draw her adventures or come back to the present day with Peck (how exactly was that gonna work?) In spite of the fact that Dalton was promoted in all the advertisements as the leading man of the movie and that he seems to actually have a degree of romantic interest in her, we're instead supposed to be invested in the outcome of her relationship with the cartoonist.
The completed film ran into difficulty right away. The principle backer, Abdul Aziz al Ibrahim, reportedly was persnickety about the distribution rights and the film was held up for years, in effect making it a $22 million home movie for him! In 1989, it finally saw a release in France, but Brenda Starr was not unleashed to an American audience until 1992. In a year that saw the release of Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, Batman Returns, Lethal Weapon 3, A Few Good Men, Sister Act, The Bodyguard, Wayne's World, Basic Instinct, A League of Their Own, Patriot Games, Bram Stoker's Dracula, Unforgiven, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, The Crying Game and Last of the Mohicans (each making between $62 and $173 million) among others, Brenda Starr sank like a stone, earning an unbelievable $30,035 in its opening weekend. It barely doubled that figure before being ferociously torn from theaters. The final domestic tally was $67,878!!
Even the newfound stardom accorded Dalton (who went straight from the filming of this movie to his turn as James Bond in The Living Daylights and by the time of release already had Licence to Kill under his belt as well) couldn't put any butts in seats. Though he had an eyepatch throughout Starr, some foreign posters removed it and some even used shots of him from his James Bond flicks instead of ones from the actual movie! They used seductive artwork to play up the on screen romance of Shields and Dalton. Nothing, no trick in the book, could forge a success out of the hapless, completely anachronistic motion picture. Had it been released in 1986, it probably wouldn't have been a hit, but at least at that point glamor was still in style. The number one show on TV was Dynasty. By 1992, the grunge movement had come about and there was a backlash against anything looking too overtly glitzy.
The debacle severely harmed Shields career. She'd already been reduced to a bit role in the chintzy John Candy comedy Speed Zone! and was, before long, an industry joke. (This was not only due to the failure of her recent movies, she also had a habit of turning down roles that might turn the ship around, such as Catwoman in Batman Returns, Geena Davis' part in A League of Her Own, Kelly McGillis' role in The Accused and the lead in Working Girl, among several others!) Slowly, she began to crawl back, starting with a stint on Broadway in 1994 as Rizzo in Grease (which led to roles in Cabaret, Wonderful Town, Chicago and, most recently, The Addams Family.) Then, she headed the successful sitcom Suddenly Susan from 1996 – 2000. Along the way, she learned how to act and how to adapt herself to a wide variety of performance methods, resulting in a successful, multi-faceted career. She also earned points in some circles for daring to take on the opinionated mega-star Tom Cruise after he publically insulted her for using anti-depressant medication after the birth of her children.
Dalton's tenure as a leading man was short indeed, though he's had a lengthy career as a (mostly) supporting player. He'd begun auspiciously in 1968's The Lion in Winter, but was also no stranger to camp, some fun (like Flash Gordon) and some positively deadly (Sextette, as Mae West's groom!) Clearly having an affinity for the fanciful, old-fashioned sort of stories, he was the villain in The Rocketeer in 1991, the year before Starr limped into release. His stint as James Bond is considered among the toughest and most down to earth, but it ended when a lawsuit between the studio (MGM) and the producers over ownership of the character dragged on for nearly six years and he felt he couldn't just pick up from where he'd left off. Pierce Brosnan then inherited the role.
As one might expect, the acting career of Peck (the son of famed actor Gregory Peck) went nowhere fast. Several straight-to-video cheesefests and the occasional small role in a studio release (like the ill-fated Sliver in 1993) came along before he went into semi-retirement, briefly dabbling in politics along the way (there was an unsuccessful run for the U.S. House of Representatives.) In this case, the apple didn't just fall far from the tree. It rolled down a hill into a ravine and washed all the way out of sight
Scarwid's career has been a series of major ups and downs. After getting started in television in the mid-'70s, she moved into features not long after (her first being 1978's Pretty Baby with Brooke Shields, who no doubt shanghaied her into this turkey a few years later!) The 1980 John Savage drama Inside Moves led Scarwid to an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress (she lost to Mary Steenburgen in Melvin and Howard), but the very next film of hers, Mommie Dearest, was a rip-snorting disaster that assured her a place in camp history forever. She's appeared in a wide variety of projects, from Silkwood to Psycho III to Extremities, even gleaning an Emmy nomination for 1996's Truman (as Bess Truman), and works still today.
This was certainly no highlight on Tambor's resume. Fortunately, he had worked on a wealth of things prior to this and many more afterwards including Hill St. Blues, The Larry Sanders Show and Arrested Development, where his skills, both dramatic and comedic, were put to far better use.
Gable had made a splash on Broadway in Candide in 1974 and replaced Rita Moreno in The Ritz in 1975, but was hardly a household name. She was the lead in one of The Great White Way's most notorious flops, an unmitigated disaster called Moose Murders, which opened and closed the very same night. Oddly enough, that crashing mess also featured a young lady named Mara Hobel, who played young Christina Crawford in Mommie Dearest. Gable had a small part in another big flop, Roseanne Barr's She-Devil in 1989, but eventually won a recurring role on Friends as Matt LeBlanc's agent. (Having never seen a single episode of that series, I cannot tell you what her acting was like in it!)
Wilhoite, a very distinctive actress who never shied from taking unusual parts, has enjoyed a long, busy career as a character actress. For all that remains of her work in Brenda Starr, she may as well never have done the picture, though hopefully she wrangled a little money out of the experience. By the time it opened, she was working in films as varied as Patrick Swayze's Road House, Rob Lowe's Bad Influence and Nick Nolte and Susan Sarandon's Lorenzo's Oil.
Believe it or not, this was far from the first attempt at bringing Brenda Starr to the screen. A 1944 black and white serial called Brenda Starr, Reporter had Joan Woodbury as the heroine. Then, in 1976, a TV-movie was done with Miss Jill St. John as the intrepid reporter, this time updated to present day and with St. John shown bathing in the tub and strutting around in a little bikini. That isn't Edith Head sharing a scene with her in this snap, but rather someone named Tabi Hooper in an updated rendition of the Kathleen Wilhoite role Hank O'Hare. In this incarnation, Sorrell Booke (Boss Hogg of The Dukes of Hazzard) played the Charles Durning role of the newspaper editor. Three years later, a series pilot was filmed starring Sherry Jackson in yet another stab at the character. It wasn't picked up. A brief attempt at still another series was initiated in 2006, but came to nothing.
Leonard Maltin, in his capsule assessment for the 1986 movie, stated that the makers had “contempt for their source material, always deadly in films like these.” I'm not 100% sure that this is true. I think it was just a muddled, compromised mess without anyone following a vision and sticking to it. And THAT is fatal for any film! One area that I do think demonstrated a lack of respect, anyway, for the source material, was the fact that they had a male artist depicted as Starr's illustrator.
Brenda Starr was created by a woman, Dale Messick (who used a unisex moniker in order to gain inroads into a male-dominated field) and she wrote and drew the strip for 40 years. When she stopped drawing it (continuing to write it briefly), it was another female who took over. In fact, up until the day it was canceled on January 2nd of 2011, the strip was always written and illustrated by a female. How rude, then, to ignore that legacy and create this fictional nitwit who's salivating over her (in the script if not in the performance!)
A more appropriate tribute to the character and the artist/writer who gave her life came when the U.S. Postal Service place Brenda Starr on a stamp in 1995. Messick, who lived to the age of ninety-eight, passing away in 2005) was alive to see this event take place. Of course, she also lived to see her creation bastardized a time or two in translation to live action! The character also inspired a fashion doll line by Effanbee, which lasted for a couple of years and offered various show-stopping clothes for her.
Messick created Starr with looks akin to silver screen goddess Rita Hayworth, but her name was inspired by Brenda Frazier, a 1930s debutante who was, in her day, a sort of Paris Hilton-esque celebutante (the very word, in fact, was coined specifically for her) and whose life was every bit as dazzling and deadening as Ms. Hilton's. Her story would have made for a far better movie than the one I'm profiling today! At age seventeen, her trust funds were valued at over $4 million, a knee-knocking amount of money in 1938. Dead at sixty from bone cancer, her name was included in the lyrics of Stephen Sondheim's show-stopping Broadway tune “I'm Still Here.”
Coming from someone who likes Pee Wee's Big Adventure and even can laugh at some of Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, I really must say I didn't hate Brenda Starr and found a certain amount of it to be quite watchable. It has a deliberately light quality (expect when it doesn't!), it's colorful, has forward momentum and occasional attempts at cleverness. It just falls short of what it could have been and ought to have been. I don't think a one time viewing would seriously damage anyone, though that's hardly sterling praise for a movie!