[Originally published in Movietone News 49, April 1976]
Lipstick is Dino de Laurentiis’ latest lynch-fury kit, designed to soap up the viewer, tease him through the requisite stages of arousal and frustration, and ultimately leave him peacefully drained, with a terrycloth caress of redeeming social import to beguile him out of postcoital triste. I’m by no means persuaded that Dino’s place should be closed down. Death Wish provided a particularly gratifying fantasy experience to coincide with the hoped-for but never-quite-expected ouster of Tricky Dick, and the black viewers who screamed “Kill him!” at the climax of Mandingo were able to pass the popcorn salt to their white neighbors in the lobby without a hint of either Uncle Tom servility or glacial Muslim irony. But the new film is interestingly confused in ways that may compromise the patron’s simple pleasure, and the reason could be that Lamont Johnson is less of an erogenous engineer and more of a director than either Michael Winner or Richard Fleischer, the respective shot-callers of the earlier de Laurentiis productions.
Johnson’s stylistic integrity is such that David Rayfiel’s hamhanded scriptoral gestures toward the legal and societal inadequacy of rape laws—and the attendant turn-on of legally unpunishable rape ultimately followed by personal reprisal—almost amount to window dressing on Johnson’s theme of … well, windows, among other things. From the opening moment of the film, when a lipstick/blood-red wash gives way to a closeup of Margaux Hemingway’s glistening lips while breathy erotic encouragement is whispered offscreen, Johnson’s imagery maintains a running discourse on sex-as-media and media-as-sex, and comments, moreover, on how much of contemporary life is media. Now, as a theme this is hardly new stuff. Indeed, it’s a staple, virtually a given, of many of the best (and some of the worst) English-language movies since the days of Blowup, Bonnie and Clyde, and Point Blank—and even those late-Sixties entries didn’t mark a beginning, only a decisive movement into public consciousness. (Cf., for one, Citizen Kane….) What’s going on in that opening moment of Lipstick could be a love scene, maybe even that rape everybody knows is going to happen; but of course it’s an advertising-photography session between Margaux/Chrissie and Francesco/Francesco (Scavullo), and right afterwards the payoff shot spills across the screen in the form of a massive, macro-lipped billboard ballyhooing the product—and (ah yes…) the title of the movie.
The scenario that schematically follows: Chrissie meets her kid sister’s hero-worshipped music teacher and fails to listen with proper concentration to the concrete music (pun there) he composes with a Margaux/Chrissie-covered issue of Cosmopolitan near his console; he rapes her—after liberally smearing her with The Product—and blithely takes his leave; she sees him brought to court and, thanks to an “18th-century jury” convinced she enjoyed the whole thing, acquitted; at the earliest, incredibly contrived opportunity, he does the same for the little sister, whereupon Chrissie shoots him to pieces with a handy hunting rifle (a Mannlicher?), is herself put on trial and acquitted by a presumably more enlightened jury. So. Johnson pelts us with purposive media commentary that is left virtually unacknowledged by script. His camera sweeps over the sensual lines of ultramodern architecture, tilts up to invert actions in slanted overhead windows distinctly reminiscent of the louvered billboard on which LIPSTICK is promoted, juxtaposes the scream of an adolescent rape victim filtering down a yonic corridor against the sweet whine of a motor-wound camera. His carefully judged rhythms—of actors’ movements and glances, and casually glancing montage—take lucid measure of how erotic compulsion evolves out of inadvertent intimacies that constitute business-as-usual for the professional model and fantasy figure, disclosures of forbidden delights to the rapist-in-the-making. Chrissie’s functional toplessness a hundred yards away at an isolated beach shooting-site, her careless failure to reckon with the angle of a couple mirrors in her lushly appointed apartment are scarcely indictable offenses, neither intentional nor unintentional come-ons; they simply bespeak her habituation to a world in which surface and substance are held in effortless equipoise, whereas Gordon Stuart (Chris Sarandon), his delicate fingers sensitive to the voluptuous submissiveness of his soundmixer, is programmed precisely to be unhinged by her fortuitous availability and enticed into synthesizing a new tactile level with his screeching decibels.
Such structural logic is scarcely to be read as a justification for rape; rather, the rape is simply to be recognized as a logical—and in its way, inevitable—perversion of the basic currency of these two characters’ lives. That makes a good deal more sense than anything put forward in the screenplay. There are periodic indications that Ambition is the root of all evil here, whether on the part of a would-be composer, a top model and her agent/lover (Perry King), or a female prosecuting attorney (Anne Bancroft) who wants to make an object lesson out of the rapist defendant; but these mostly go nowhere—and in the case of the agent/lover, literally nowhere, since it’s pretty apparent that whatever part he may once have played in the overall design was diminished into nothingness in the cutting room. Just as well. Johnson’s visual intuitions save what’s worth saving here, and provide some justification for the otherwise opportunistic Pirandellianism of casting the hugely untalented Margaux Hemingway in the lead. Not that Johnson’s hand is all that sure, his structural control all that rigorous. There’s an appallingly blatant shock cut to a wrecking-ball powdering a building just after the D.A. has taken a hard line on the rape menace (though even this is interesting as an index to the abstractness of Johnson’s intentions); and he plays Rayfiel’s trial scenes as basic courtroom-tension stuff (admirably sustained by Bancroft’s, Sarandon’s, and defense attorney Robin Gammell’s performances) instead of zeroing in, Welles-like, on the trial as one more stylized media event. The scenario’s blunt gestures are what has the audience chuckling conspiratorially with the acquitted Stuart or cheering for Chrissie’s revenge—depending on their monolithic position on the rape question. There’s no harm in getting that polarization out in the open. But it’s Johnson’s direction that senses out a less overtly violent but perhaps more complexly malignant condition in the contemporary scene.
Direction: Lamont Johnson. Screenplay: David Rayfiel. Cinematography: Bill Butler; additional cinematography: William A. Fraker. Music: Michel Polnareff. Production: Freddie Fields; executive producer: Dino de Laurentiis.
The players: Margaux Hemingway, Mariel Hemingway, Chris Sarandon, Anne Bancroft, Robin Gammell, Perry King.
© 1976 Richard T. Jameson