Frock Opera

It’s a really nice effect (I wonder where they stole it from?) — a dark stage, with figures wearing illuminated stripes, forming antic human hieroglyphs, striking poses — then the lights come up — and the clothes are horrible.*

The next stage beyond the “vanity project” is the “delusional narcissism project” — one thinks, with an inward wince, of Guy Ritchie and Madonna’s SWEPT AWAY, the subject of a hilarious Bad Film Night involving Fiona and regular Shadowplayer David Wingrove some time back. I should write about those evenings — in fact, I’m going to.

While Baz Luhrmann’s AUSTRALIA was SO egregiously bad it could not actually be endured (a bad movie that intends to be FUN generally isn’t, whereas a bad movie that thinks it’s deep is likely to be a riot), necessitating the watching of THE MATCH KING to restore mental hygiene and belief in a few of cinema’s possibilities, MAHOGANY proved the Perfect Bad Film — maybe even better than THE OSCAR.


This Thing is Diana Ross and partner/Svengali Berry Gordy’s folie a deux Delusional Narcissism Project, following one woman’s dream of being a fashion designer and how she eventually found herself as appendage to a male politician. It’s empowering! And anyway, the fashion industry is full of untrustworthy homosexuals, as the movie is shocked — SHOCKED! — to uncover.

It’s helpful for a truly bad film to have touches of quality, to illuminate its dankest depths more clearly — this one has David Watkin on photography, so it looks handsome. Watkin no doubt came along with regular collaborator Tony Richardson, who departed the film at some point in the process, at which point Berry Gordy suddenly discovered a fabulous talent for cinematic image-making, rather like how Diana Ross had already discovered a fabulous talent for designing clothes that stink.

Other good things — the song, which tormented the airwaves of my childhood for what seemed like several years, but which is actually quite nice — and this musical montage, apparently directed by the great Jack Cole (who did the musical numbers in GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES), is quite something. This would seem to be Cole’s last gift to the world. And it features some proper clothes by actual designers (uncredited — but Issey Miyake seems like a possibility).

Diana herself is moderately effective in places, in an untutored kind of way… then she has some bizarre, horrible moments of would-be high drama, as when compelled to pose for snaps by psycho gay boyfriend Anthony Perkins while driving at 90mph along a deserted Italian overpass —

Yes, Perkins. In unwise tight jeans, he plays a former combat photographer who launches Diana upon the unsuspecting fashion world and gives her her trademark name: “What else is dark and shiny?” I’m naive enough to have thought his character’s impotence might be some combat-shock residue, but no mere post-traumatic stress could cause any red-blooded male to fail to get it up with Diana in the sack, not in her movie, so a more sinisterly aberrant explanation prevails. It’s all horribly homophobic… yet hysterical. If it were at all effective, it might have offended, but we were too busy crying with laughter. One wonders what Richardson and Watkin made of this side of the film, given their own natural proclivities. One could also wonder what Perkins was thinking, but some things are literally imponderable.

The real climax of the film is this fight, which David Wingrove called “the closetiest thing I’ve ever seen” — peculiar not so much for what it says about Perkins’ character, but what it seems to suggest about the all-man Billy Dee Williams…

Crumbs. Mind you, this is followed by Diana stripping at a crowded party and dripping candle wax over herself — very coyly filmed, but still an eye-opener conceptually. Just what was going on in the Ross-Berry relationship? I don’t want to wonder about that, but the film seems to require it of me.

*And it’s a given that all Hollywood films about fashion will have terrible clothes, even those made in periods when movie clothes were routinely chic and smashing — perhaps, as Hollywood versions of modern art are always faux Dali, and modern music is always faux Gershwin, modern fashions are always unwearable crap. An unwritten rule. So one shouldn’t blame Ross for merely following a time-honoured tradition.

35 Responses to “Frock Opera”

  1. Paul Duane Says:

    This must be seen. Also: “illuminate tits dankest depths” is a typo that must be retained. It’s Burroughsian.

  2. Damn, I just corrected it. But you’ve preserved it for posterity.

  3. Diana has a terrible case of ‘birds up the skirt’ in this film. A most dreadful affliction. I’ve suffered from it myself, and no, it wasn’t thrush. Sparrows if you must know. Much, much worse.

  4. Better birds up the skirt than lobsters up the arse (an affliction Peter Cook claims he treated Jayne Mansfield for).

  5. Paul Duane Says:

    This made me think of another early ’70s piece of overwrought homophobia by the remarkable Bobbie Gentry but it isn’t on YouTube. The lyrics are online, though:

  6. They stole it from Erte, of course.

    Mahoganny is the camp classic that is the fulfillment of every African-American Diana Ross fan’s (especially every gay African-American Diana Ross fan’s) dream. I’ll never forget first seeing it at a theater on New York’s upper west side, filled with black teenage girls savoring every moment and laughing so loud I thought the building would collapse. Why this never got eh Rocky Horror Picture Show audience-participation treatment I’ll never know.

    The only thing it lacks is Miss Ross singing “The Alabama Song” — thus turning herself into Lotte Lenya.

  7. Somehow I don’t think anyone on this one was too aware of Weill & Brecht, although they certainly seem to have achieved a whole new level of verfremdungseffekt.

  8. David Boxwell Says:

    “I yam a winnah, baby!” (Best scream-drawled out after half a bottle of wine).

  9. For me an ideal “Bad Film Night” would double-feature Mahogany with Under the Cherry Moon

  10. Paul Duane Says:

    IMDB says Tony Richardson was an uncredited co-director. Makes some sort of sense, I suppose.

  11. Off-topic, but. . .

    Last Night’s LAFCA (Los Angeles Film Critics Association) awards dinner was quite the deal. Doris Day was being honored for lifetime Achievemnt. She wasn’t there in person, but in contact via Skype. Unfortunately that didn’t work out as well as we;d hoped. She could see us but we couldn’t see her. Norman Jewison spoke The first movies he made as a director starred Doris — and he told of how much she helped him. Doris cried.

    Also present — and awarded: Alexander Payne, Dante Feretti, Michae Fassbender (who’s quite short — compute that in relation to the goods) Jessica Chastain (glows in the dark!)and the great Christopher Plummer.

    I asked him about Nick Ray. He said he was there for the beter part of Wind Across the Everglades and was almost always drunk. That wasn’t the real problem. The REAL problem was his grilfriend du jour. “She was a drug dealer — and I mean Hardcore!
    One day she tried to kill him. I’m not kidding — she drive her car right into hsi trailer.” I told him about Gavin Lambert’s boo “Mostly About Lindsay AndersoN,” which he hadn’t heard of. The Non-“Mostly” part is entirely about Nick Ray and their professional and personal relationship. Plummer knew Gavin, of course, as he was around during the shooting of his great Inside Daisy Clover — in whcih Plmmer plays a film producer who’s a tree-way cross between Irving Thalberg, David O. Selznick and Satan.

    Now in his 80’s and looking splendid beyond belief, we can expect many great Plummer performances to come.

  12. Plummer is having SUCH a renaissance, it’s wonderful. And I gather he’s mellowed since the days when Alan Bennett could say “Christopher is his own worst enemy, but only just.”

    I suspect Doris knows EXACTLY how to turn her webcam off and on. Long may she reign.

    I wonder if the Ray girlfriend was dancer Betty Utey? Probably not, he no doubt had many (including Monroe!). Or was she the same loud one David Sherwin met while trying to sell what became If… to Ray?

  13. I doubt it. According to Plummer she was only a “pro” in the drug-dealing sense.

  14. Utey was around on Party Girl, playing a party girl, and choreographed Salome’s dance in King of Kings, so the time frame is right, but I’m sure Ray always kept his options open…

  15. According to several sources the girlfriend on Wind was a Moroccan girl called Manon. Lambert talks about them meeting after he was forced off the set of Bitter Victory and his relationship with Ray ended. IIRC she claimed to be descended from royalty buy Lambert thought different. She was a complete mess from the start. Just having a Moroccan on location in the Everglades caused many problems- before the heroin and wild times. I wonder what happened to her.

    I’ve always felt sorry for Betty Utey. From the little I’ve read about her she didn’t know what she was getting into and tried to civilize Ray

  16. Her daughter, Nicca Ray, is writing a biography of her father. She interviewed me for it awhile back.

  17. I remember watching Mahogany on television, many years back, and I don’t remember being as appalled by it as your clips made me. Maybe the tv programmers cut some of it out…or maybe age does bring better taste. One can only hope. Thanks for reminding me.

    As to your rules regarding films about fashion producing the worst examples of it…I’d tend to agree. I keep thinking about House of Elliot, the Briticsh television series, which I love, don’t get me wrong, but they wore gorgeous frocks, but designed mostly horrible ones. The fashion shows were hysterical. The ones on extras, however were occasionally real period pieces from the twenties, and you could always tell the genuine.

    Interesting report on the Doris Day event, too. I hope Michael Fassbender and Christopher Plummer formed a connection there…since first seeing Michael in Jane Eyre, I’ve had a real desire to see them playing father/grandfather and son in something. MF’s just got that early VonTrapp sort of smolder goin’ on…or maybe from Royal Hunt of the Sun era. Now there’s the perfect oddball classic film for you to review! Plummer was amazing as Atahualpa!


  18. I get the impression that Susan and Nicca each regard themselves as rival guardians of Ray’s memory. A shame. Still, great to see We Can’t Go Home Again re-emerging. No Bridget Welles style obstruction there.

  19. Fiona loved The House of Eliot too!

    I should’ve given credit on the observation about Dali and Gershwin to my friend Comrade K. We speculated at the time about what a combination of the two would be like… pretty indigestible, I would think (and I love SD and GG, separately).

  20. The films with fashion designers wearing or displaying horrid creations certainly goes back to the ’30s – I remember a Kay Francis film where she was modeling a dress and it was by far the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen on her. The genre makes fashion parodies generally lame or really silly. They can’t beat the ghastly “daring” stuff that’s supposed to be taken straight.

    I saw Mahogany on TV years ago and I remember laughing at some of it, but I can’t say I remember all that much of the film.

  21. The exception might be Mitchell Leisen, who engineered a gigantic fashion show in Artists and Models Abroad which has real designer clothes in it, some of them rather smart.

  22. Jenny, I love Plummer in RHOTS too. I love his state of undress, but most of all I love his pronunciation, which I sometimes impersonate. “It is nocht.” *licks bible and throws it to the dusty ground*

  23. La Faustin Says:


  24. La Faustin Says:

    Not Plummer, she hastens to explain, but the exception to hideous film fashion.

  25. Yes, that one’s handsome alright. It’s very rare that you see Audrey in a less-than-stunning creation at any point in her career.

  26. Been meaning to check out Klein for SO long…

  27. Yikes! The dangers of architectural clothing.

  28. Klein is a mad genius. Don’t miss his Modern Couple, The Little Richard Story, Mister Freedom and Muhhamed Ali: The Greatest.

    Also, Louis Malle’s Zazie dans le Metro is a Klein collaboration in the same way that Stanley Donen’ Funny Face is a Richard Avedon collaboration.

    Featured in the Poll Maggo clip above is Donyale Luna — of Fellini Satryricon and Skidoo fame.

  29. Someone else turned on by Plummer’s performance and (OK, I admit it) state of undress in RHOTS? I do nocht believe it!

  30. I do wish it were possible to see Robert Stephens’ original version, just for comparison. Stephens was rather bitter, claiming his interpretation rescued the play, and was then stolen wholesale for future productions.

  31. david wingrove Says:

    Two other sublimely twisted ‘fashion’ movies that nobody’s mentioned so far – EYES OF LAURA MARS (photos by the great Helmut Newton) and BLOOD AND BLACK LACE.

    Have yet to see Faye Dunaway in PUZZLE OF A DOWNFALL CHILD. It’s a cult movie in France, but virtually a ‘lost film’ everywhere else.

  32. Ooh, that’s a good idea. Never seen that one either. Must see if I can trace a copy.

  33. @judy. “He had a face like a yama.” *Does ‘yama’ face.*

  34. I have a nice French DVD of Polly Magoo. There’s also a bar in Paris themed after the film…!

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