[Originally published in Movietone News 51, August 1976]
Lamont Johnson’s Lipstick is not as bad as it has been reported to be by many critics and reviewers, nor yet as good as it might have been. The ultimate failure of the film may be attributed to an insurmountable discrepancy of intention among writer, director, and studio. Yet it is precisely that discrepancy that makes Johnson’s directorial personality stand out so starkly in the film, and consequently makes Lipstick one of his most interesting efforts to date.
Lipstick has been promoted more heavily than any of Johnson’s previous films; and for that reason, as well as the ads’ exploitation of its potentially sensationalistic subject matter, it will probably make more money than any other Johnson film. I’m glad of that, because that kind of success may well give Johnson the reputation and freedom to make more and better movies.
Johnson, in my estimation, has the makings of not only a major American director but also an important auteur. A rough-edged but intensely personal style, a thematic and technical consistency, and recurring concern for certain key issues and situations have manifested themselves in virtually all of his work. A brief summation of some of the more important points about Johnson’s earlier films provides an illuminating basis on which to examine the director’s presence and approach in Lipstick.
Like many contemporary directors, Lamont Johnson has gone neither from television to film nor in the opposite direction, but has applied his talents ably in both media. His earliest work of note is a made-for-TV movie called Deadlock (1969). The film, which mayor may not owe a debt to Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool of the same year, focuses on a black district attorney in the process of becoming a Negro Politician in an important senatorial race. His image in the election campaign hinges upon his handling of the near-riot tensions in his city’s black district, brought on by overuse of the wrong kind of law enforcement action and underuse of sociopolitical recognition of the minority powers-that-be. In the course of the film, via a number of vignette-like encounters and a climactic barrage of sight-and-sound flashbacks, the D.A. recognizes he shares the guilt for the seething condition of the ghetto with a tough, bigoted police lieutenant whose personality has been too domineering for the D.A. to control.
The two-character confrontation and the racial issue recur in the following year’s My Sweet Charlie, also a television movie. The film is essentially a somewhat labored sermon on social and racial polarities, embodied in the changing relationship between a bigoted white unwed mother-to-be and an itinerant black civil rights worker who hole up simultaneously in the same abandoned lighthouse. In the film’s climax, the efficacy and integrity of law enforcement—and therefore of the prevailing social order—are effectively discredited, and personal needs and relationships are seen as superseding accepted convention.