[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.
In his first theatrical release, The McKenzie Break (1970), Johnson turned a routine escape drama into a compelling study of the similar ambitions and failings of two opposing characters, and created his most profound film statement to date. The suspension of the social and moral order that concludes My Sweet Charlie is the premise of this film: the war itself and the POW camp setting remove us in time, distance, and circumstance from the reach of conventional norms of order and behavior.
Charged with maintaining discipline and morale in this volatile atmosphere, like the D.A. in Deadlock, is Connor, a likeably bullheaded maverick of a Scots officer. On the other side of the barbed wire is the German naval officer Schrader, ambitious and, as it turns out, ruthlessly amoral. His mission is to stage an escape from the camp—McKenzie, Scotland—and to lead his escapees to a rendezvous with a U-boat that will return them to the home country. Schrader engineers a number of diversions to mask his real avenue of escape, a tunnel, which no one suspects is there because no one can imagine where the dirt from such a tunnel could be concealed.
Connor is aware of the escape plan, but determines to allow it to proceed, with the aim of not only stopping the escapees but capturing the U-boat into the bargain. As the time for the escape approaches, Schrader unleashes chaos in the camp by causing one of the barrack houses to be inundated under tons of earth that had been packed into the crawlspace beneath the roof during the building of the tunnel.
Johnson’s most obvious device in comparing the two adversaries is to dissolve from Schrader, as his escape plan unfolds successfully, to Connor, in a commandeered aircraft, searching for the escapees and the U-boat that will meet them. At the end of the film, the actual outcome of the escape attempt remains unsettled (will they get away, or will the British torpedo boat stop them?), but the character study is complete: Connors and Schrader are seen as brothers under the skin, each a renegade, willing to take any risk, employ any unorthodox methods in order to achieve the desired military objective, and to further his own reputation and standing. But each man’s success is qualified by a certain amount of failure due to miscalculation, and so they reach stalemate: Each officer has fallen from the favor of his superiors as the film ends, and Connors murmurs to Schrader, too far away to hear him, “Well, Willi, it looks like we’re both in the shit”—or “doghouse,” as the TV print has it.
In the midst of a dissolve from Connor to Schrader, Johnson freezes frame, superimposing them so they cross, facing different directions, but share the screen equally. But is the equation a fair one? Do the men, after all, not differ in their intentions and attitude? If they share the guilt for the deaths caused in the barrack collapse, Schrader’s is the greater share, since he deliberately caused the cave-in while Connor’s guilt is based only on the fact that he could have prevented the disaster had he acted sooner to abort the escape.
In the Potemkin–like action sequence that precedes the falling action and the final freezeframe, our attention is called to the hand of a British seaman working the controls in the torpedo boat sent out to intercept the German U-boat. On the fingers are tattooed the letters L-O-V-E. The reference to the Love vs. Hate sermon of the demented preacher in Night of the Hunter reinforces the duality of the film’s moral study. Love and Hate are two hands of the same body, two manifestations of the same caprice. Schrader and Connor may be on opposite sides of the war, but it is that very war—and its attendant suspension of moral behavior—that motivates them both.
Schrader misses the U-boat when it dives to escape the oncoming British torpedo boat, and is thus cheated out of enjoying the fruits of his master escape plan. Above, Connor is on the bad side of the RAF for his unauthorized use of radio frequency and air space. Schrader, a Navy man, has been at odds with the Luftwaffe prisoners in Camp McKenzie from the beginning; at the finale, he is in the water and helpless, with Connor in the air above him. Johnson’s final shot unites them, and the message of My Sweet Charlie comes through again: people are close to each other because of who they are and how they feel about each other, not whose side they’re on or where they’re from.
The increasingly allegorical bent of Johnson’s two-character confrontations reaches its greatest moral directness with A Gunfight (1971), in which two retired gunfighters are persuaded by a town’s populace to face each other in a showdown for no other purpose but the entertainment of paying customers. The failure of the characters in the film to find any real reason for what happens is significant. Both Abe Cross and Will Tenneray need the money that the winner of the gunfight stands to gain; but that is no reason at all without the scores of people willing to pay that money to see the modern gladiators face off in the arena. The women in the men’s lives both suggest that Abe and Will ultimately consent to the shootout not for money but because of the kind of men they are. But above them stands always the will of their society: a violent, bloodthirsty people encourage the development of violent tendencies in their heroes, and then participate vicariously in the ritual destruction of those heroes. A Gunfight is actually about the suspension of the social and moral order that has by now come to be a recognizable motif in Johnson’s work: it is specifically an examination of the circumstances whereby financial profit and vicarious blood lust override the natural instinct for right and personal safety.
But a new motif enters Johnson’s oeuvre at this point: an almost Hellenic concern for family. The itinerant gunfighter Abe Cross is a loner, but Will Tenneray is a family man, settled in the town, with responsibilities to face. Whether it be because of the kind of man he is, or merely for the promise of financial gain, he turns his back on those duties, goes·back on his promise to his wife, and straps on his guns again. It is Tenneray’s violation of familial duty that separates him from Cross; and, judging from the growing emphasis on family ties that marks Johnson’s work from this point onward, one may surmise in retrospect that this violation is what dictates Tenneray’s death in the arena.
Johnson pursued familial relationships further in his celebrated 1972 television movie That Certain Summer, which again suspends conventional order and brings two characters into confrontation as a son discovers his father’s homosexuality and struggles to accept a different sexual norm, a different kind of love. Family relationships also form the premise of a 1972 theatrical film, You’ll Like My Mother, a chiller in which a young, pregnant widow travels to visit the mother-in-law she has never met, only to be swept into a claustrophobic nightmare: the presumed in-law is an impostor, the conniving mother of a feeble-minded girl and a brutally psychopathic son, in ‘whose company the young woman has her child and then finds herself and her infant prisoners marked for death. The very concept and form of family is distorted into a pattern of threat and bondage, and the young woman must undergo a monumental struggle to free herself and her child from the circumstances in which she has unwittingly trapped them.
By contrast, The Last American Hero (1973, retitled Hard Driver for television in 1976) is a success story, not overly optimistic, but not gratuitously fatalistic, and lacking in the moral gravity of the preceding Johnson films. Nevertheless, the basic concerns are present: Junior, the stock-car driver, is firmly grounded in family, motivated in all he does by a desire to make things up to his father (whose jail sentence for moonshining was largely Junior’s fault) and to help take care of his mother. The validity of the existing social order is suspended by discrediting the integrity and motivation of the powers of law enforcement and administration early in the film. The failed sense of Justice that victimizes the petty moonshiner is replaced with the more elemental moral order of racetrack and bedroom.
* * *
With this record behind him, it’s no wonder that Lamont Johnson sought to take full advantage of the especially Johnsonian themes and characters implicit in Lipstick. All the previous motifs are doubled and redoubled: more than one moral dilemma forms the philosophical core of Lipstick, more than one set of circumstances serves to suspend the conventional social and moral order, at least three separate two-character confrontations inform the dynamics of the plot, and family loyalty is of the very essence.
A moral dilemma is implicitly introduced in the film’s opening scene, the question of sexuality in—or versus—art (and if advertising cannot be considered an art, at least photography can). Young Cathy McCormick’s middle-school music teacher Gordon Stuart arrives at the beach location where Cathy’s big sister Chris, an important advertising model, is posing for a photographic layout for a product called, simply, Lipstick. Chris has expressed an interest in hearing Gordon’s music, to which end he has come armed with cassette recorder; but she’s too busy with her session to spare him the time. Nevertheless, she seems genuinely interested and asks him to come to her apartment later. Gordon is visibly both aroused and embarrassed by Chris’s semi-nudity, and the question emerges: Is this kind of advertising persuasive or provocative?
Her comfort in undress around men contrasts sharply with his obvious discomfort, and begins a series of emphatic character contrasts provided in image rather than dialogue. Foremost among these is the abrupt cut from Stuart’s last-minute survey of his shabby apartment (window to a busy inner city street, pigeons on the windowsill, sparse furniture, two walls dominated by a sound system in which he has clearly invested all his money) to a slow pan of Chris’s apartment, where the phone is ringing to tell her Gordon has arrived for their musical date. Her apartment is dominated by photographs of herself with famous people, autographed pictures of stars, pictures of herself as a sportswoman.
Gordon, dressed, waits in the lobby as the desk clerk talks on the phone to Chris, nude, who has frankly forgotten the engagement. She admits as much to Gordon when she lets him into her apartment moments later. She’s still in a dressing gown, and proceeds to change into lounging clothes in her bedroom, with Gordon able to see her via a strategic mirror. As Gordon’s sexual tension builds, it becomes increasingly important that we remain uncertain whether Chris knows she is provoking him or not, whether she is a temptress or simply naïvely careless.
The music Gordon wants her to hear—and which she insists she wants to hear, though she never seems genuinely interested in it—is electronic. In their pre-music conversation, capricious injustice strikes Gordon a savage blow: Chris, who admittedly has no understanding of this kind of music, has nevertheless actually met John Cage, whom Gordon has always admired and emulated, without hope of attaining his exalted company.
Chris is associated, through the decor of her apartment and our awareness of her profession, with visual imagery. Her stock-in-trade is to be seen. Gordon, by contrast, is associated with sound; his ever present tape recorder and the telephone which heralds his arrival at Chris’s already cue us to that. He wants to be heard, and when an interfering phonecall takes Chris away from listening to his music, and serves only to underscore her lack of interest in it, his sense of justice is outraged to the breaking point. Art, then, is stripped away: the sexual provocation implicit in her art is confronted by the sexual frustration implicit in his. What follows is sexual violence. Sex, not society, is the tyrant here, and even in the rape sequence Gordon is as much a victim as a villain; he sardonically acknowledges his helpless subjugation to the id-monster. “Catholic education can’t do a thing about it—it’s on all their minds.”
* * *
A premonition of the inadequacy of justice already haunts Chris’s mind. When Cathy asks her, “What’ll they do when they find him?” she replies, “Not enough.” Deputy District Attorney Carla Bondi has a different viewpoint. She stresses that the People of California, not Chris herself, constitute the plaintiff of the case. Her argument for the Law as Principle brings back into play that gorgon Society that haunts Johnson’s films and so often stalemates or renders irrelevant the efforts of his characters.
Steve Edison, Chris’s boyfriend and manager, is hesitant about the ordeal Chris must undergo in order to prosecute Gordon, but seems swayed by Carla’s argument about the long-range good that will be done. Chris’s own motive is less idealistic: “I want them to do it to him in jail.” It’s the passion for revenge in Chris that Carla plays on in order to bring the case into the courtroom.
What happens there is not unexpected by her; but the extent of her own inefficacy comes as a bitter surprise to both her and her client. Gordon smugly admits that sexual violence took place between him and Chris, and bases his defense on the contention that Chris provoked and enjoyed the violence. Defense Counsel Cartright sums up the argument: “There was a rape … but it is not possible to tell from the evidence who the victim was.”
Whatever scenarist David Rayfiel or producer Dino de Laurentiis may have intended, in the film as Johnson has directed it, Cartright is correct. We never do see Gordon tie Chris up in the rape scene. We learn later that he has a knife, but whether or not he threatened her with it is left unsuggested. In fact, nothing Chris does in the rape scene or afterward—including vomiting—is necessarily something she would not have done had she actually wanted and enjoyed everything that occurred between her and Gordon.
Carla Bondi’s brief argument that even if Chris did enjoy being violently overpowered by Gordon it wouldn’t change the fact that a crime had been committed slips by without the attention it deserves from Rayfiel’s presumably theme-oriented screenplay; but it may well be the suggestion that loses her the case. For she begins to admit the possibility of a merging, rather than a collision, of sexuality between Chris and Gordon,
This suggestion is reinforced by a nocturnal scene during the trial portion of the film. Gordon, out on bail, telephones Chris from his apartment, and plays some of his music to her over the telephone, without comment. This time both are naked, both are in darkness, and the associations are exclusively of sound rather than sight. Johnson cuts between the two apartments emphasizing parallel compositions similar to those employed in The McKenzie Break. The two confronting characters have begun to be compared rather than contrasted.
In court, too, both Chris and Gordon fall victim to the same legal tactics. Each, on the witness stand, is character. Provocative photographs of Chris are displayed to the court; Gordon’s music is played. In each case, the attorney attempts to imply that the art betrays some moral or spiritual weakness in the individual’s character. Chris and Gordon are equally victimized, and we sympathize with each one’s plea for understanding. Chris: “I sell Lipstick.” Carla: “To men?” Chris: “To women … I’m supposed to look like what every woman wants to look like … ” Gordon: “You can play my music till Doomsday and it won’t make me a rapist.”
The jury’s acquittal of Gordon sends Chris reeling from the courtroom in confusion and rage. Her career is suddenly on the wane (we next see her riding the down escalator in her apartment building). Would it have been different, one wonders, if Gordon had been convicted? Was the suggestion of sexual guilt really the damaging factor, or was it merely the attendant publicity; is the blame to be placed on the art on the surface or the sex at the center? Cathy sums up the dilemma: “Why didn’t the jury believe you?” The question goes unanswered, which is in perfect accord with Johnson’s customary moral ambiguity, but quite out of line with the pointedly moralistic intent of Rayfiel’s script.
* * *
The next section of the film is Cathy’s. If the earlier part of the film has been informed by a progress from contrast to comparison of Chris with Gordon, that same kind of progress now occurs with Cathy and her sister. In the beginning of the film the two sisters were rivals for the attention of Gordon, and were contrasted as woman and child. Now, however, Cathy proceeds to imitate her sister.
As Chris begins her last modeling session for awhile, Cathy poses on a studio prop ladder and mimics the motions of a seductive model. She’s quickly left to her own devices, however, and begins to explore the rest of the studio building. By a fated coincidence, Gordon is in another studio, rehearsing an electronic music-light-and-dance number with some of the girls from his music class.
Cathy is fascinated with the electronics and with the world of the studio. On her own, she has penetrated the world of her sister. She watches, charmed, and even approaches Gordon warily when he catches sight of her. Johnson allows her motivation to remain ambiguous; for if she truly believes he raped her sister, as she protested she did both in and out of court, can she be doing anything but deliberately courting danger—even provoking it—when she goes to him in his studio? And isn’t this carrying emulation of her sister a bit far?
Gordon seems to have benefited by his acquittal. He conceals his tension with a cocksure confidence now, and his music has become more rhythmic, more controlled. His medium is still sound, and he now uses supersensitive microphones to amplify the sound of Cathy’s respiration and heartbeat. The artist in him has apparently grown, no longer substituting artificial sound for experience but seeking to translate real experience into sound.
But the frightened child in Cathy takes over, and the sex-charged animal in Gordon ultimately responds, pursuing the girl through a jungle of some of the most audaciously sexual architecture since La Belle et la Bête, culminating in a rape in a narrow culvert. Gordon walks out into the sunny parking lot, and the inestimable distance between the man he was and the animal he has just been is brought stunningly to our attention as a nun greets him: “How splendid you must feel! It went so well-aren’t you pleased?” It takes us nearly as long as it takes him to realize she’s talking about the dance rehearsal that ended some time earlier.
Chris, meanwhile, has discovered Cathy and learned of the second outrage. We sense as she does that she is caught in some impossible recurring nightmare she has to escape. She descends resolutely to the parking lot, and from her car takes one of the rifles she had packed away for the camping trip she and Cathy planned to begin that day.
As Gordon comes down the parking lot lane in his car and Chris raises and aims her rifle, we are back at the conclusion of The McKenzie Break. The two rivals, both victims of Society, both victims of sexuality, both abusers of the powers of sex and violence, have their moment of confrontation. The moment is a more brutal one, and more farfetched, but it is not essentially different from Connors and Schrader’s “doghouse” or Cross and Tenneray’s arena.
* * *
There is an epilogue, the key to which is the voice of Carla Bondi quoting a line of Clarence Darrow: “The failure of justice may be more damaging to society than the crime itself.” This is followed by a shot of Chris in a courtroom—this time in the dock—in Gordon’s place now: she looks up as a verdict of “Not Guilty” is heard, and Johnson freezes frame.
Again, it seems likely that Rayfiel’s script intended this to be the ultimate moral judgment of the film: failed justice reviving itself not too late to renew hope in Western civilization. But as Johnson directs that final scene, with no establishing shots, no supporting characters visible, that second verdict may just as well be a memory of the first one, a fantasy, or a second miscarriage of justice, rather than the social and moral victory Rayfiel seems to be going for. Logic is on the side of ambiguity here; for, though many juries acquit in cases of rape, and even in cases of the killing, in self-defense, of a rapist, I don’t think the law yet recognizes frustration and revenge as legitimate motives for the taking of a life. Extenuation, perhaps; acquittal, not likely.
And the final verdict is not justified as sheer wish-fulfillment fantasy either; for, unlike that of Death Wish, this film’s point of view is not consistently that of the victim, but sees victim and villain on both sides of the issue. In addition, like it or not, there still remains the nagging question of the extent to which Chris may really have encouraged or provoked Gordon’s original acts of violence. The possibility that she consciously or unconsciously invited it is present throughout the film and Johnson’s imagistic reinforcement of her character.*
We might have more conclusive answers to the question of Chris’s motivation if Margaux Hemingway were any kind of an actress at all (she is, alas, only another model, worthy but to follow into anonymity the inauspicious footsteps of Jean Shrimpton, Julie Ege, et al.). Chris Sarandon, too, is an actor who seems capable of only one level of characterization, two degrees below impending hysteria. In allowing shallow acting to serve the purposes of ambiguity, Johnson has sown some of the seeds of Lipstick‘s failure.
But what is ultimately responsible for the film’s failure is the disintegration of the intriguing tension between the producers’ intent—to make and market the film as a sensational justification of the vengeance of a contemporary victim of failed justice—and director Johnson’s own inclination to make the film, in the tradition of his own best work, an insoluble moral dilemma in the confrontation of two complex and kindred spirits.
* An interview with Johnson by Judy Stone, which appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle of May 9, supplies some teeth for the doubts I’ve expressed about the film’s ending: “Johnson said there was a substantial difference of opinion about the ending of Lipstick…. That scene was a compromise, Johnson said. Producer Dino de Laurentiis, citing British newspaper accounts of a rape trial, wanted the acquittal to ‘stir up a storm of vigilante approval in the courtroom with Margaux borne out like a conquering heroine hugging her younger sister.’ Johnson said he wanted the last scene to be a closeup of Margaux firing away at the rapist. ‘I intended to show her last complete degradation, built up by all these mounting agonies. She had not only lost her career as a model and her public standing, but was finally driven to a crime of passion that caused her to take life: the final dehumanization in which she gave up another kind of virginity because the first kill is an ultimate and terrible thing and she will never be the same. I wanted that last thing to be a very solemnizing kind of death knell for the girl….'”
Direction: Lamont Johnson. Screenplay: David Rayfiel. Cinematography: Bill Butler; additional cinematography: William A. Fraker. Set decoration: Donfeld. Editing: Marion Rothman. Music: Michel Polnareff; additional music: Jimmie Haskell. Production: Freddie Fields.
The players: Margaux Hemingway, Mariel Hemingway, Chris Sarandon, Anne Bancroft, Perry King, Robin Gammell, John Bennett Perry, Francesco Scavullo.
© 1976 Robert C. Cumbow