Bobby (John Laughlin) and Amy Grady (Annie Potts) are married, with children, but not wealthy enough for Amy’s taste. In order to make some more money to keep Amy happy, Bobby takes on some extra night work conducting surveillance on a woman – Joanna Crane (Kathleen Turner) – at the behest of Joanna’s employer. Bobby is shocked to discover that Joanna is leading a double life as a clothing designer by day and exotic $50 hooker called “China Blue” by night; he’s even more shocked when he realizes he’s attracted to her despite being married. Aside from decency, the biggest obstacle to their potential happiness is the unhinged street preacher Rev. Peter Shayne (Anthony Perkins) who’s stalking Joanna because he wants to “save” her.
Preachers are like that.
Bobby Grady describes himself as a “boy scout” in a wonderful example of both painful honesty and brutal dishonesty. Ostensibly, he’s done everything that American society demands of a man: he’s married to his high school sweetheart, has two kids, runs his own business, fixes things around the house, and barbecues; he’s living the American dream, complete with the flaws. On the other hand, he’s grossly immature like a big “boy” who still acts like he’s in high school despite being in his 30s. However, a boy scout should generally not cheat on his wife, and especially should not abandon his wife and family for a woman who actually makes him happy, that’s considered a big no-no and is a great way to show everyone that you’re still childish. It appears that Bobby goes from being an oblivious boy who’s happy to live a lie to becoming a slightly older boy who’s learned that a relationship based on dishonesty and the fear of being alone is not a good thing at all and that leaving his wife might, honestly, be better for both of them. More on this to come.
Amy Grady, Bobby’s wife, is very unhappy. She wants a grown-up husband who she defines in a pretty standard fashion: financially successful and mature, acting like an adult man rather than an overgrown kid. She’s displeased that Bobby refuses to fire Jerry (Stephen Lee), his employee and friend, because the business isn’t providing her with the income she wants. Rather than dealing with her issues directly, she gets prickly when Bobby won’t do what she wants and expresses her displeasure with passive-aggression directed at Bobby; she even insults him, both his intellect and behavior, in front of their kids. Finally, she doesn’t enjoy sex with Bobby and does it only to please him, which is not recommended as it really cuts down on the passion in a measurable way
Amy’s big problem is that, like so many people, she went into the marriage with a fairy-tale idea of how it would turn out, but Bobby’s refusal to meet her expectations has led to her frustration and disappointment. Now, this is not all Bobby’s fault, but he does have to shoulder some of the blame related to his immaturity – Joanna’s reaction to a man in his 30s calling himself “Bobby” shows that it’s not all Amy’s perception. I’ve seen Amy described as “frigid” but would be pleased to point out that her lack of enjoyment of sex probably has something to do with her unhappiness with her partner; dissatisfaction with sex in a relationship usually has some basis in problems outside the bedroom. However, it’s possible that Amy never enjoyed sex at all, this seems likely given how uncomfortable she is even discussing it and how naïve she seems to be about the sex lives of others.
Enter Joanna – Bobby does in several ways – as the catalyst to the end of the marriage. Joanna’s story is mostly unclear, but she does reveal that she’s been seriously hurt by men in the past; her character’s backstory remains nebulous because she’s so prone to lying – or is it ‘playing a role’? – when she’s ‘in character’ as a hooker playing out a fantasy. Her customers love their fantasies, and she plays different characters for each, but there’s still something of Joanna present. When she’s “China Blue” she’s the object of men’s desires and in control of the situation, but she also gets to be someone else who’s pretending to be someone else, her fantasy characters are two steps removed from her, and can provide a lot of psychological distance as she works out – or indulges – her pain. Her men come in all types, from the pathetic to the powerful, but she tries to keep her distance and retain her authority at all times.
The first customer she has when we’re introduced to her is an ugly man named Carl (John G. Scanlon), who gets to watch her pretend to be “Miss Liberty” while she sits in a gynecologist’s exam chair before smearing her lipstick while blowing him; his sad desperation at his wife leaving him makes the whole thing even more pathetic. Joanna seems to find the whole thing distasteful if the look on her face as she gargles with liquor is any indication. It’s almost as if his sadness, loneliness and the way he seemed so lost reached her and reminded her for a moment that they’re not that different. Sure, she does the tough-chick act by insisting that she’s China Blue and refusing his overtures toward her, but she’s not especially convincing and seems weak for a moment.
Middle-aged Frank (Pat McNamara) gets off on chasing and ‘raping’ her, but afterward he seems to have some genuine affection for her, which leads to her breaking character when his question about her father leaves her vulnerable for a moment. All the time he’s having rough sex with her, she’s somewhere else, visualizing some of the many pieces of art that are used as bookends or inserts into the film. The art includes works by Aubrey Beardsley, Sir John Everett Millais, and some Asian stuff I recognize and some other stuff I don’t. The artwork adorns her actual apartment and shows that she is better-educated and more sophisticated than many of the other denizens of the skid row where she plies her trade. Speaking of trade, at the end of her encounter with Frank, he asks to keep the panties he tore off of her and she agrees, for ten dollars. After he leaves, she spits her gum out into the ten dollar bill and tosses it aside, as once more she’s back and stuck as herself.
This is the point that Bobby comes into her life – he probably comes into her vagina as well – and the thin veneer that she’s put over her feelings has worn so thin that her raw, bare self underneath can be seen. The carefully-built fantasy that she was living has taken its last hit and it gets less and less satisfying from there. We can see how seriously it’s been damaged when she gets picked up by Arthur (John Rose) and Claudia (Louise Sorel) who want to have a three-way with her and yet treat her worse than any of her regular Johns do; more like a stray dog than anything. She gets out of the limo when her disgust rises to the point that she has a sudden attack of self-respect. The illusion has been broken.
Even her rather severe sadomasochistic encounter with a young cop (Randall Brady) that climaxes … yeah … with her jamming his nightstick into his ass isn’t enough for her to regain control. She plays the dominatrix effectively and brings him off with her unorthodox baton use and stiletto heels, riding him hard enough to draw blood with the cuffs she’s … well … cuffed him to the bed with. While I don’t mind a dominant woman once in awhile, zipper-crotch panties don’t seem that appealing to me, however as I don’t like zippers near my best buddy – there was this one time I zipped up and caught some skin and then had to zip down again … shudder – so I swear I never touched myself inappropriately while watching that scene. Speaking of painful truths and the lies that go with them, when she’s done dominating him, she seeks a little tenderness from the cop by making a joke that Bobby made their first time together, which results in the cop spitting in her face.
Generally, women don’t like it when you spit in their faces.
This indignity – going from total control to none in a split second – and her next (possibly final) client breaks her China Blue character completely. A middle-aged woman, Adrian (Peggy Feury), hires China Blue for her sick husband, Ben (Gerald S. O’Loughlin). Ben is on his way out and Adrian can’t bear to touch him so decides that she’ll get some outside help. Ben isn’t really into the idea, but is willing to go through with it as a way to assuage his wife’s guilt. As China Blue tries all of her tricks to get Ben’s interest up he asks if she can raise the dead, treats her with genuine kindness, and cries; nothing happens and she leaves. Now, when I say “nothing happens” I mean that there’s no sex between them, but he breaks China Blue – as surely as if a piece of fine china were dropped on a hard floor – and she takes off her blond wig and tells him she’s Joanna. So something did happen, Ben became the man who killed China Blue more thoroughly than Peter Shayne ever could.
Ah yes, the Rev. Peter Shayne, a major character that I’ve thus far neglected. His character is the result of a collaboration between director Ken Russell, writer Barry Sandler and actor Anthony Perkins. Many people have commented that he’s just another psycho in Perkins‘ long career of playing variations on his Norman Bates character from Hitchcock‘s Psycho, but I believe that there’s more at work here. Sure, there are some commonalities – he’s nuts, he spies on a woman, and he dresses in women’s clothes in one scene – but these similarities are minor while the differences are significant. Norman killed women because his mommy gave him sex issues, while Shayne doesn’t actually kill anyone, but seems misogynistic in general; Norman spied because sex was forbidden, while Shayne is obsessed specifically with Joanna / China Blue; and finally, the scene where Shayne dresses in women’s clothing while attempting to kill Joanna is substantially different from the apparently similar scene in Psycho. In Crimes of Passion, Shayne isn’t trying to kill Joanna so much as kill himself, but his obsession leads to him believing that they’re each other. Like Joanna, Shayne hides from his misery by playing a role – in his case, that of the reverend – but he actually wants to take over her life and become her so he doesn’t have to be himself anymore. When he forces Joanna to dress up like him while he dresses as her as China Blue at the end, he’s hoping to metaphorically kill himself and become her, but instead gives her the chance to kill China Blue and be freed.
Or was that his intent all along?
Peter Shayne is clearly fascinated by China Blue as he spends much of his time peeping on her while she does her job. When not watching her, he’s preaching on the street or watching a sad-looking nude dancer (Janice Renney) in a “live nude girls” place. He finally breaks down entirely and fantasizes about stabbing the dancer with his sharpened metal vibrator while actually stabbing a blow-up doll as a proxy. Before this point, he’s made overtures to “save” China Blue and stated that they’re really the same person, perhaps he recognizes the same damaged psyche in her. Perhaps he knew he was circling the drain and took on the persona of the reverend to allow himself to actually die in a meaningful way by giving someone else a chance? In effect, he sacrifices his life to help forgive the sins of someone else, making this another take on the Christ story … or perhaps a ruthless parody of the same.
This is a Ken Russell film, so it’s hard to say.
Yes, this story of the insanity of several people’s struggle to find some kind of happiness is the stuff of melodramas and chick flicks, and this has its share of mundane suburban life. The scenes with the kids – Lisa (Christina Lange) and Jimmy (Seth Wagerman) – at home are opportunities for Amy and Bobby to show each other how badly everything is working, but the barbecue shows how stifling and dysfunctional suburbia can be. Donny Hopper (Bruce Davison) – Bobby’s buddy since high school – and his ex-wife Sheila (Yvonne McCord) – Donny’s high school sweetheart – do not get along while the other couple – Patty (Janice Kent) and Tom Marshall (James Crittenden) – seem okay … for now. The thing is, the guys don’t seem to have grown up much since high school while two of the women are, quite rightly, dissatisfied with how things ended up; relationships that begin when the couple are young are unlikely to be long and happy, though it does happen sometimes. When Amy tries to get Bobby to come back to her, she resorts to pulling out his old high school football uniform and says that she was always so turned on when he wore that, which is troubling; she seems to be trying to recapture their youth when she was happy, but it’s gone.
It’s a bit of a tough sell to make a film about a man who leaves his wife and two kids to find the sexual fulfillment that his marriage doesn’t offer and not make him look like a complete bastard. This sort of thing isn’t terribly uncommon in women’s films, but in this case the genders are reversed because it’s more okay for a woman to break out of an oppressive marriage than for a man to do the same thing. The only way for the general audience to accept Bobby’s decision is to make Amy as shrewish as possible, but Ken Russell and Barry Sandler actually discuss how they had to tone her character down to keep the audience from hating her because Annie Potts nailed her role. Any claim of anti-male sexism is pretty much blown out of the water when a woman who’s acting in a reasonable way considering how miserable she is gets considered to be nothing more than a bitch by the audience. Not cool people, not cool.
Herein lies the crux of the film: the juxtaposition of the extreme empty sex of China Blue with the extreme unhappy marriage (and corresponding empty sex) of Bobby’s marriage. In both cases the sex serves a purpose, Joanna (as best as I can tell) uses it to attempt to fill an emotional void in her life (not between her legs), while Bobby believes that sex is nothing more than an act of love between Amy and him – he even tells the story of her worry that he’d no longer respect her when he thought that’s why they did it – but it’s actually just as empty as anything that passes between China Blue and any of her clients. Joanna’s greatest fear is that there’s no way that a man could ever respect, let along love her, while Bobby’s fear is very similar. In this way, the MPAA getting all worked up over the sex and stripping it out did some damage to the film as it left Joanna’s character much murkier than she should have been and emphasized the breakdown of a marriage.
Much of the great quality of the film comes from the acting of the women. Kathleen Turner has cited this as her favorite performance, it’s a damned good one; she acts like a fashion designer pretending to be a good, but imperfect, hooker who plays other roles and she’s totally convincing. Annie Potts‘ performance as the unhappy Amy is so perfect that she’s made many viewers hate her, but anyone who’s seen her in Ghostbusters (from the same year) or other roles in 80s comedies can see that she has one hell of a range and she’s also convincing; unfortunately, playing a role of a horrible person really well is no way to endear yourself to the audience, and can lead to typecasting. Speaking of typecasting, there’s Anthony Perkins to consider as well. At this point in his career, he was stuck playing psychos because of his masterful performance in Psycho (a role he returned to for three official sequels plus others, like Pretty Poison), but he did a lot of research to get his role right and even was actually sniffing amyl nitrite to appear convincing; method acting to the extreme. I sometimes wonder how much Psycho III, which Perkins directed, was influenced by working on this film. Finally, there’s the weakest actor of the main roles, John Laughlin, but, and this is important, he’s only weak when compared to the others, each of whom gives excellent performances; he’s not, in any sense of the word, bad in his role, he’s just an A in a film when everyone else was an A+.
Yes, I’m a teacher, get over it.
Crimes of Passion explore two of Ken Russell‘s favorite themes: sex and religion. Writer Barry Sandler handed Russell a script that allowed him to indulge himself a little … okay, maybe more than just a little … … … okay, fine, indulge himself a hell of a lot … and they ran with it. While the sex angle is obvious and I’ve gone on about it at great length (note: not a penis joke), the religion aspects go to redemption. The interaction between Peter Shayne and Joanna is straightforward as he dies for her (and his own) sins, leading to redemption for both of them. However, it must be said that in another way, Bobby is also Joanna’s redeemer as he accepts and loves her, but she is equally his as she makes him truly happy for the first time in many years. The only one who ends up getting the shaft – which, ironically, she’s never liked getting – is Amy as she’s left with the kids while her no-good ex-husband runs off with some floozy, leaving her alone. One of the deleted scenes that probably should have remained in the film is an interaction between her and her friend Sheila where Sheila says that she was never happy until she was divorced, so maybe Amy will have a chance at happiness afterward.
It doesn’t matter that much though, since there’s no reason that everyone has to have a happy ending, after all, life isn’t a massage parlor in a sleazy neighborhood.
Cinematographer Dick Bush (what an unfortunate name to have in general, but on this film in particular) made the most of the sleazy neighborhood and the sleazy sets when shooting, and leaves us with a film that makes the viewer feel like they need a shower after watching. The lighting is especially good, and is evocative of an era that was very mid-70s to mid-80s where neon and streetwalkers went hand-in-hand in many urban areas before “downtown revitalization” efforts ruined all the sleaze to make way for Disney and Apple stores. The film is shot well throughout and reminds me of some of the best work of the 70s that showed off American urban decay, like Taxi Driver and Hardcore. Russell would wander back into this territory later when he made Whore, but this one is much grittier.
Finally, the last aspect that makes this film so memorable – aside from the sex and seediness – is the score. Rick Wakeman took Antonín Dvořák‘s New World Symphony and used it as a basis for the soundtrack, adapting it to the needs of the film. Now, there are lots of people who were really disgusted by the use of a very lovely piece of music in such a twisted way, especially since it was done with a synthesizer! Gasp! This piece of music was chosen by Brit Russell because this film was his take on the New World (America) just as Dvořák was inspired to write the symphony based on his impressions of America; as an amusing aside, the film was produced by Roger Corman’s New World Pictures. The classical flavor of the piece, interpreted through the 1980s electronic synthesizer, is much like the plot of the film: a love story given a thick, viscous coating of sleaze. Ironically, synthesizer music would become heavily identified with porn later, but in the late 70s and much of the 80s it was used extensively – maybe excessively – in pop music; synthesizers are still used a lot, but they’re more subtle these days.
In a bit that summarizes the whole film in a nutshell, Ken Russell filmed a music video of song “It’s a Lovely Life”, which is just the same bit of the New World Symphony with Rick Wakeman‘s lyrics. The video is bright and garish and gave Russell a chance to give his daughters Molly and Victoria roles as well as a cameo by Rick Wakeman. The video shows a bride and groom on their happy day as the groom seeks out material wealth – in the form of silverware – while the bride seems entranced by love and / or beauty – symbolically represented by doves. The conflict between which is more important – love or money – right from the beginning of the marriage leads to the quick death of love as the doves drown in the pool while the bride and groom are left as skeletons on poolside chairs, together with their wealth. The video, which Amy would rather watch than engage in friskiness with Bobby, is a mirror image of what’s going on in their relationship in a quasi-literal sense as the bride and groom roles are reversed in Amy and Bobby.
That reversal is part of what makes the character of Bobby tick though: he’s more interested in love and happiness than just sex than most movie men, especially in the erotic thriller genre.
One last thing that I feel I should mention. I’ve been a fan of this film for many, many years; I actually played Peter Shayne in a scene from the film we did in high school. I credit this film with being one of the ones that showed me that there was more to movies than people blowing stuff up and boobies, there were sometimes actual explorations of the human condition.
Or maybe this is just a film that’s sleazy and offensive and anyone who likes it is a fool.
Still, I feel that I’ve really only scratched the surface of this film as there’s so much – the film drips with symbolism and meaning like a bukkake bottom’s face drips with semen – that I could write a few thousand words more.
Trailer on YouTube.