Rewind: Films of the 60s, 70s, 80s – Lipstick (1976)

by RICHARD WINTERS

During the mid-Seventies, Margaux Hemingway, granddaughter of the legendary author Ernest Hemingway, was one of the most photographed and highest paid models in the business; in fact, she was the very first model ever to be awarded a million dollar contract. After appearing on the June, 1975 cover of Time magazine she caught the eye of famous Hollywood producer Dino De Laurentiis who thought he could turn her into a star. The idea was to prove that she wasn’t just another pretty face by casting her in the difficult and challenging role of a rape victim, which they hoped would affirm her as a “serious” actress. The gamble failed and she appeared in only a few more B-pictures (although her kid sister Mariel, who was cast in the film by Marguax’s suggestion, saw her career take off). Alcoholism and depression followed before she eventually committed suicide in 1996 at the age of only 42.

The story is basically just another tired exercise in the now cluttered rape and revenge genre. Chris McCormick (Marguax) is a beautiful lipstick model who is brutally victimized by a weirdo named Gordon Stuart (Chris Sarandon). She is dragged through the long and arduous court proceedings only to have him found not guilty and then start to stalk her younger sister (Mariel), which forces her to take matters into her own hands.

Right from the beginning this film comes off as very clumsy dramatically. Gordon is the high school music teacher of her younger sister Kathy. Chris is introduced to him at one of her photo shoots, but is too busy to listen to his music tapes, so she gives him her home address and tells him to “stop by anytime.” Now, back in the Seventies people may have been a little less cautious than they are these days, but giving her home address to a man that she barely knows and isn’t interested in just to listen to one of his weird music tapes seems utterly ridiculous.

The rape happens almost right away before there is any character development. It almost seemed like this was the intended leering “highlight” of the film with the rest just thrown in as second-rate filler. Wikipedia describes this scene as being one of the most “infamous in film history.” That may have been the case at the time, but since then there have been many films that have exceeded what you see here, most notably in the controversial French hit Irreversible. Personally, I didn’t find it to be all that extreme. The one good thing I could say about it is that Sarandon is effectively menacing. I also liked the way his character is initially shown to be very meek and geeky and his inner-rage only comes out after he feels he has been slighted, which I felt made him a little less one-dimensional.

The courtroom scenes fall flat. Normally I find a good court drama to be riveting, but here it is stagy, phony, and uneven. The best thing about this segment is the presence of Anne Bancroft as Chris’s attorney Carla Bondi. She helps give the picture some stature and I wished she could have been in more of it.

If the film comes together at any point it is after the assailant is found innocent and Chris is forced to try to move on with her life and career despite the emotional toil and stigma. This segment has a certain socially relevant drama quality and to an extent it works even though it is brief. It also conveys some rather alarming statistics including the fact that only 10,000 out of an estimated 50,000 rape cases every year actually ever get reported and only 2 out of 100 rapists ever get convicted. Since the credits list experts in the field that were consulted I can only assume that these numbers were accurate. Things may have hopefully improved since then, but the figures still seemed startling. However, all of this gets undermined by a tacked-on, manufactured, over-the-top, Rambo-like finale that relies too much on extreme coincidence and severely stretches credibility.

I also found the film’s visual style to be unappealing. The colors are garish and gaudy while captured through a soft focus lens that resembles a model shoot in a glamour magazine and gives one a glossy trash perception.

I can see why Mariel made a strong impression with viewers. Her testimony on the stand is both touching and heart-wrenching and her emotionalism seems genuine and gripping. Marguax does not fare as well. Although her performance improves as the film progresses I still felt she was in way over her head and her nasal sounding voice is a bit irritating.

Although this film was pretty much panned by critics and audiences alike upon its initial release there is a new generation of people who feel it is underrated as evidenced by the many positive comments about it at the IMDb. I approached this with an open mind, but couldn’t help but come away from it feeling it was exploitation from beginning to end, and even at that level it seemed derivative and uninspired. The whole thing left me cold and feeling like I wasted 90 minutes.

My Rating: 3 out of 10 stars

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Last Time on Rewind: Happy Birthday Gemini (1980)
Coming Up Next: Who’s Been Sleeping in My Bed (1963)

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