Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Practice Doesn't Quite Make "Perfect"

This was all primed to be a posting called “Perfect”-ly Awful, but the strangest thing happened as I was watching today's featured movie. I decided that, while this certainly is a far from perfect movie, it wasn't quite as hideous as I had always recalled it being! Don't get me wrong, there is still much to laugh at, but it just wasn't quite the total debacle I was counting on. (Or perhaps the conservationist in me is reluctant to shoot at an already wounded bird?)
The year was 1985 (the year I graduated from high school!) and somebody dreamed up the idea that Rolling Stone magazine should enter the movie business (just as Playboy magazine had done several times and Penthouse had done when it gave the world Caligula.) The chosen property was Perfect and the chosen topic was fitness centers that serve as the new singles bars of the era.

John Travolta plays a newspaper writer who is stuck in the obituary section, but eventually claws his way into a gig with Rolling Stone. Now a fairly celebrated journalist with the magazine, he writes about everything from politics to topical issues to profiles with musicians (such as Carly Simon who, in a cameo appearance as herself, douses Travolta with a Bloody Mary for an unflattering piece he did on her!) On his way to California to try to land a hot interview with a man on trial for his business practices, he decides to pursue a back-up story in case the interview doesn't happen.

While chatting with the lawyer of the man he wants to profile, he sees a couple of leotard-clad women walk through a nearby corridor. It isn't until a similarly dressed man (good looking and in some snug shorts) trots through, though, that Travolta gets up and goes to see what it happening. He spies them all preparing for an aerobics class and is eventually inspired to make his backup story all about the sexual dalliances that are resulting from meeting at large fitness clubs. (The fictional club in the movie, The Sports Connection, is based on a real life establishment called The Sports Club.)
He tours the facility, which is positively loaded to the gills with exercise enthusiasts decked out in skimpy shorts, bandanas, leg warmers, barely there tank tops and so on. (The costumer for the film is the same one who did Flashdance and Thief of Hearts, so there is plenty of off-the-shoulder and general garish tackiness around every corner.) He eventually spies an aerobics instructor (Jamie Lee Curtis) whose classes are the hardest and the most heavily attended. (Don't believe me? Check out the poor sap in this photo who is going at it so hot and heavy he's about to lose his tank top! Richard Simmons had a video called “Dance Your Pants Off,” but this is the first time I ever saw someone dance his shirt off.)

Her assistant/roommate, Lee Driscoll, is - get this - in charge of changing the record player during the classes!! He shows up in some impossibly tight workout bottoms (I can hardly call these "pants" can I?!) that show off a startling, strangely unrealistic-looking bulge. Apart from his breast-like pecs, he also sports a crazed, it-could-only-happen-in-the-'80s hairstyle. These twins next to him, by the way, are his GIRLfriends! Yes, he is "dating" them both at the same time. Take that, Ken Wahl. Captivated by Curtis' rigorous routines and her sexily androgynous looks, Travolta decides he wants her to be the primary focus of his article and sets aside his initial approach to the material.
Trouble is, she wants no part of it, having been burned by a reporter on a previous occasion. He keeps after her, determinedly grinding her down as he tries to convince her that he will treat her respectfully. He takes her to lunch, tries everything he can think of to break her down and still no luck. Finally, when it's decided that she will never give in to an interview, they decide pursue a romance instead. Did I say “romance?” She the attached photo of her dainty approach to seduction, typed into his word processor as they are sitting in his hotel room.

Thankfully, we're spared the actual sight of the couple in the throes of sexual intercourse, always joining up with them either right before the act or soon after. In fact, Travolta, who was just this side of naked in his next to last film before this (Staying Alive), in which he was in stunning shape and careened around in a small gray loincloth, is never once shown fully shirtless in Perfect. The eye-popping physical condition he'd achieved in 1983 was already on the wane.

Then he trades in his ever-present plaid dress shirts and slacks for a mauve sweatshirt and tiny gray shorts (with calf-high, striped tube socks!) and partakes in one of her classes. This is where the movie earns its screaming, thigh-slapping reputation. In a truly interminable sequence, Curtis leads a jam-packed Jazzercise class that, for some reason, includes endless, repetitive moves involving the thrusting of the pelvis in and out, as if engaging in headboard-butting sex. That's all fine and dandy except that throughout the entire class, she is looking at Travolta continuously, snarling, emoting and flirting across the room as she bangs her twat towards the camera over and over and over. For his part, he stands in a squat position, continually grinding his prominent package towards her while displaying one of the goofiest, dorkiest expressions imaginable. Seemingly every move of her routine is geared towards suggestiveness and he repeats it all, grinning like the village idiot and sweating through his shirt under the garishly unflattering fluorescent lights of the studio. Frankly, I prefer the guy in blue shorts behind him and can't understand why Curtis isn't going in for that!

It is so sad to think of cinematographer Gordon Willis, who photographed All the President's Men, Annie Hall, Manhattan and all three of the beautifully burnished Godfather movies, having to set up his camera in a stark, artless dance studio and aim his camera at Curtis's taint for hours on end, which is precisely what happened. One can only imagine what discussions went into the lighting and set up of the positively torturesome scenes of pasty, sweaty Travolta thrusting his crotch at the camera. No matter what else is in the movie, this segment assured that it would forever be ridiculed and even in some cases reviled for all time.

Anyway, as Travolta closes in on his primary story, the one about the defendant on trial, he has tough decisions to make because his three-hour recorded interview with the man is cause for concern among Rolling Stone's lawyers. They are afraid it may be subpoenaed for evidence in the case and advise him to turn it over to them. Thing is, he promised never to reveal the tapes to anyone, so he stubbornly holds onto them.

He and Curtis take a skiing trip and are followed by an FBI agent who suspects that Travolta has the tapes in his possession and who eavesdrops on his conversations. On the way back from the trip, Curtis realizes that Travolta has been slyly pumping her for information that he can use in his story and when she finds out that he's been taping her, she furiously dumps him on the side of the road, effectively ending their romance.
Now Travolta looks for a new angle and settles on his original thought about how health clubs are the new pick-up joints. Fortunately, club member Laraine Newman (known throughout the club as “the most used piece of equipment in the gym!”) is all too willing to help him with his story. For some reason, his research includes “having” to attend a Chippendales strip club where Newman's pal Marilu Henner's boyfriend is a star attraction. Travolta watches through a partially obscured door as the young man tears off his football gear, shucking down to only a jockstrap, and parades around the dance floor accepting tips and occasionally embracing and/or fondling the rabid female clients. The stripper sticks his head up Henner's dress and later sticks his crotch in the face of a patron and humps her head while her body lies there rapt. Newman gives him the play by play through the door, though he can still see the action for himself. (The sacrifices that writers have to make in order to land their stories...)

There is no reason in the world for this much attention to be paid to a scene like this except that the producer and the director (a couple in real life) were gay and they must have taken a certain amount of pleasure in filming (and filming!) it. Though the movie Perfect doesn't include any outright gay characters, it is filled with fruity gay extras flailing around as if they missed their chance to be on screen in Can't Stop the Music and weren't about to be left out this time. Also present in a couple of scenes is controversial figure Paul Barresi, but more on him later.

Travolta wins Curtis back with a sincere apology, but swiftly loses her again when she discovers that he has reverted to the sex angle on his fitness club story. Now that he's lost her again, he stays up all night concocting a more serious, thoughtful piece on the phenomenon. Once his editor gets a glimpse of the new, more profound article, he blows a gasket and orders it rewritten by other people on his staff. (The editor, by the way, is played by the real-life editor of Rolling Stone, Jann Wenner, though he is not exactly playing himself, but rather someone named “Mike!”)

Travolta is secure in the belief that he will finally win Curtis back once she sees the considerate and cerebral piece he's written, but when the issue hits the stands, it's even worse than anyone could have imagined. Not only does it feature vulgar pictures of the gym's inhabitants, but there's a full page photo of Curtis along with a shot of her from years before when scandal had practically wrecked her life, the time she's been so bitter about all along!
Now the lovers are as far apart as possible, but there's a chance he may be forgiven when he's called before the court over those tapes he refused to turn over and may face jail time if he insists on holding onto his journalistic integrity. Curtis attends the trial and witnesses firsthand that he is not quite the slimeball she's been thinking he is. Though I'm sure you're hanging by a thread over the ending, I'll wrap it up here so that nothing further is spoiled for those who haven't seen it.

Perfect was a pretty big flop at the box office, bringing in about $12 million total. (This made three disappointments in a row for Travolta, following Staying Alive and Two of a Kind in 1983. It would be 1989 before he had a comeback hit, Look Who's Talking, which raked in over $140 million in the U.S. alone. Tellingly, that movie's poster did not feature his image on it at all and made no special attempt at highlighting his name in the cast. In fact, the movie's success was frequently attributed more to the voice talent of then-hot Bruce Willis than to Travolta and his costar Kirstie Alley, though they also appeared in the two resultant sequels.)

Curtis had enjoyed success as the scream queen in several horror movies including Halloween, The Fog, Prom Night, Terror Train and Halloween II before branching out with the Dan Ackroyd-Eddie Murphy comedy Trading Places in 1983. In 1984, she married Christopher Guest, who is still her husband now. Though this film didn't help her career, she tended to avoid the critical drubbing that others in it received apart from being referred to as dour and one-note sometimes. In 1988, she would score the hit A Fish Called Wanda, that put her on a somewhat higher, if brief, career trajectory.

For Perfect, she worked out obsessively in order to properly convey her role as a fitness instructor. (She was what we might refer to today as "fierce.") Publicity photos for the film sought to project a superior physique and a ferocity in attitude that probably didn't help reviewers notice that her performance is really more multifaceted than it is often believed to be. In a strange bit of casting, her mother is played by Ronnie Claire Edwards (best known as Corabeth Godsey on The Waltons) in a tiny part. One hopes that it was cut down in post-production because what remains is pointless. She has one strange scene, in near-constant motion, which is all about some divinity candy she's made and a tidbit later in which she's glimpsed with a female (we think) friend (there's no husband in sight.)

Anne De Salvo plays a Rolling Stone photographer based on famous shutterbug Annie Leibovitz. In watching the film, I couldn't help think that this was the only time I'd ever seen this actress and that she must not have done much, only to come to imdb.com and see that she's enjoyed a steady, forty-year career! I must have subconsciously avoided every single thing she has ever done except for Perfect! Ha!
Laraine Newman, was, of course, one of the original players on Saturday Night Live in 1975. She's had a long career since leaving the show in 1980, though primarily in television or in projects that utilize her effective voice. Marilu Henner had spent five years on Taxi, which ended in 1983, and had been trying for a film career with Cannonball Run II and Rustler's Rhapsody, but ultimately wound up back on TV on Evening Shade (with her Cannonball costar Burt Reynolds) and her own brief talk show in 1994. She's proud of her boobs in this one and neither she nor her on screen beau mince any words over it, though the French-cut workout togs she wears certainly don't do the rest of her body any favors!
Henner's stripper boyfriend in the movie, Matthew Reed (the blonde on the left in these pics), never again appeared in a TV show or movie. The aforementioned Paul Barresi (that's him on the right in these pictures, the Burt Reynolds-ish one) caused quite a splash five years after this movie when he told The National Enquirer that he had met and begun a sexual affair with Travolta in 1982 at a Los Angeles health club! The published story relayed that they had continued their relationship on through the filming of Perfect and afterwards until a falling out over his employment as a personal trainer. After some heavy leaning from Travolta's attorneys, Baressi issued a retraction. Travolta was married (for the first time) to Kelly Preston the following year and they eventually had three children (though photos surfaced not long ago of Travolta kissing a man on the lips at an airfield.) The apparently pansexual Baressi (a married father of three!) has since become a gay porn writer/director and had also filmed more than a few straight porn scenes before, during and after this whole debacle. Some of his gay porn efforts bear such titles as: Married Men with Men on the Side, Daddy Please!, When Johnny Cums Marching Home, Brig Bangin' and Dads 'n Lads. He has since been embroiled in a few different celebrity scandals and has fashioned himself into a sort of investigator! In any event, at this stage in his life anyway, he was indeed a good looking man.
As I noted earlier, the film doesn't outwardly feature any gays, but it has a gay tinge to it, throughout. One almost expects to see “Produced by Allan Carr” in the credits, but instead we see Jack Larson's name. Larson was the longtime companion of director James Bridges and had been an actor in the 1950s, most notably playing Jimmy Olsen on The Adventures of Superman with George Reeves. He had produced Bridges first directorial effort, The Baby Maker, and the films before and after Perfect (Mike's Murder and Bright Lights, Big City.) Bridges was responsible for directing The Paper Chase and The China Syndrome before he directed Travolta in Urban Cowboy with Debra Winger. He then put Winger in the flop Mike's Murder, so it was Travolta's turn this time. Here, his direction is marked by occasional close-ups of objects not necessarily integral to the plot, something of a nod to the burgeoning style of music videos. He and/or co-writer Aaron Latham (whose articles were the inspiration for this screenplay) also felt the need to work the term "sphincter muscle" into the dialogue on at least three occasions!

The gay sensibility had still another source, but this was not readily visible in 1985. Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner, who, as I mentioned, was basically playing a version of himself and who had initiated the project to begin with, was another married father of three. In Perfect, he was merely shown cohabitating with Susie Coelho (the freshly-divorced third wife of Sonny Bono.) However, about a decade after Perfect, he left his wife in order to be with a younger, male model-turned-fashion designer named Matthew Nye. It was more than surprising to many subscribers of Rolling Stone to find out that the head honcho had been gay all along. He and Nye proceeded to adopt three children together, making Wenner a father of six! Wenner was downright pudgy during Perfect, but afterwards slimmed down to a more ideal weight.

Someone involved with Perfect had an affinity for The Thompson Twins' song “Lay Your Hands On Me” because it is used at least three times during the movie. This being 1985, there's a bouncy, heavily-synthesized raft of music used throughout. There's also an oddball moment (probably intended to depict L.A. as being off the wall) when Travolta's hotel is overrun by Boy George look-alikes who believe he is staying there.

Look at this foreign release poster, which, in contrast to the one at the top of this post, tries to capitalize on the physical attributes of the leading man (and, to a lesser extent, the leading lady.) I don't think the movie was much of a hit anywhere, no matter what was put on the poster!

One of the things that makes Perfect not so is the overlength. The film, whose premise is hardly earth-shattering, is a full 120 minutes long. There is no need for that. Some judicious pruning (especially of the lengthy gyrating workout and stripper scenes) could have made it a less tedious project to sit through (and curtailing those indulgent moments might have helped to dull some of the critics' knives.) Nonetheless, these hooty moments help make it fun to pick on now. The workout wear alone in this movie is captivatingly hideous, but the shots of the unnecessarily ga-ga ladies at Chippendales are also amusing.

Ultimately, the central love story just isn't tremendously convincing. At one point, Curtis speaks of a love affair she allegedly had during high school with her swim coach and we aren't sure for a while which gender the coach was! They try so hard to work up steam in that Jazzercise session that it comes off as almost a parody. Their affection for and attraction towards each other is more script-dictated than acceptably realistic or natural. However, despite the pic's horrid reputation, I couldn't help but appreciate some of the acting that was done by the two principals when they weren't trying to mate. There was a level of understatement and attention to detail that I hadn't remembered from the first viewing years ago. Those who enjoying reliving the gaudy, glossy, grin-inducing '80s will surely get a kick out of watching it, in any case.


Topaz said...

The things you go through for your faithful readers!

Omigod, what a cheesefest! The weird thing is, I have an almost encyclopedic recall of pretty much every movie I've ever seen, including the theater at which I saw them, and I can't for the life of me remember if I saw this when it came out or not. Maybe it was so bad I just put it out of my mind, even if I do sorta halfway remember an angry Carly Simon splashing Travolta with her drink. (Yeah, like Rolling Stone was going to print some nasty expose on Ms. Simon, of all people.)

Unlike with your other movie profiles, I'm not feeling the need to rush out and see "Perfect," mostly because your summation was so much more entertaining than the movie could ever be. Thanks for suffering for your art.

Rob said...

Oh Poseidon, you had me at "...The costumer for the film is the same one who did Flashdance and Thief of Hearts"! Even as a kid (yes,I saw it in the THEATER!) I was startled at what a doormat Laraine Newman's character was ("Guess I'll go out and scare up a gangbang") and thinking Jann Wenner wasn't even believable as himself!
John Revolta (as we used to call him)...um,barf. But my undying love for Jamie Lee Curtis will stand the test of time (if not another viewing of "Perfect").
This is what's known as "taking one for the team", dude. Well done!

Pantheon Zeus said...

I can't hear 80s group Berlin's tune MASQUERADE without thinking of Jamie Lee and John's circular gyrations.
Wow you brought back many memories
of that summer after '85 graduation. That "ethnic" chick made a splash a few year's earlier in My Favorite Year. I will never forget my gasp at the site of Laraine Newman's new nose -- and my inner queen stirring at the Chippendales scene. Ha