Director: John G. Avildsen
Screenplay: Joan Tewkesbury
From the Oscar-winning director of Rocky (1976) and the co-writer of Nashville (1975) comes this unbelievable mess of an ’80s romantic drama-fantasy (dramantasy?), centred on a Florida community-college professor’s affair with one of her students, who moonlights as a male stripper. The professor, Faye (Lesley Ann Warren), is having marital problems at home (her husband [Robert Logan] has lost his job at NASA, and is too tired or defeated to make love at night); the student, Rick (Christopher Atkins), is a bright but cocky 21-year-old who is paying his way through college working the peeler circuit under his nom de strip “Ricky the Rocket.”
One night Faye and a couple of her girlfriends visit the club (“Heaven”) at which Ricky is the star attraction. When he emerges for his big supergalactic dance number, among the hordes of ogling women he locks eyes with Faye (who obviously likes the kid, despite recently flunking him out of her class for his glib effort on the final exam); Ricky zeroes in on her with a series of sexy moves, and after some initial reticence on her part the two are caught in a passionate open-mouthed kiss. This will naturally have ramifications over the rest of the film, as Rick and Faye attempt to resolve their (forbidden) feelings for one another, while her suspicious husband battles with jealousy and his own feelings of inadequacy.
As much as I’ve tried to synthesize the plot for you, A Night in Heaven has to feature one of the most (unintentionally) incoherent narratives you’re likely to see out of Hollywood. Several critics (notably Roger Ebert) have surmised that large sections of Joan Tewkesbury’s potentially interesting script were excised in the cutting room, occasioning some pretty glaring leaps in the plotting and sizable gaps in the character development. I’d estimate that the husband, Whitney, suffers the most from the vagaries of the editing (for which director Avildsen is also credited). His character arc is meted out in choppy, bizarrely staggered scenes, the most random of which happens upon Whitney calmly loading a gun at his kitchen table – an almost surreal image given the filmmakers have yet to hint at this point in the story that the character is either suicidally depressed or homicidally suspicious enough to have any use for the weapon. (What Whitney finally does with the gun is equally random and ridiculous.)
I hasten to admit that A Night in Heaven does contain one extraordinary scene: the aforementioned “Ricky the Rocket” striptease. (Note: all stills in this review are taken from this scene; the scene itself can be viewed here.) The opening moments of this striptease are alone worth the price of admission: as the club emcee works the all-female audience into a frenzy of anticipation, Ricky, garbed in a disco-inspired version of an astronaut suit, rises from a blanket of fog to the opening chords of Jan Hammer and Next’s “Like What You See”; when the thumping beat of the song kicks in, Ricky takes to grinding his crotch along one of the club’s handrails as though riding a rocket like a bucking bronco. It’s all marvelously lit (love those glinting bubbles!), photographed and – yes – edited. Christopher Atkins, no doubt beloved by many as that curly-haired dude from The Pirate Movie (1982), brings an irreverence and joie de vivre to the striptease that makes it both hilariously over-the-top and surprisingly sexy, if in a highly corny sort of way. (Atkins was rewarded with a Worst Actor Golden Raspberry for his efforts; sometimes I think the Razzie folks have no sense of humour.) And in case you’re wondering, the scene doesn’t shy away from its gay connotations either, as Ricky at one point grabs the hand of the male emcee and, to the latter’s delight, playfully rubs it against his crotch.
If I were pressed to put my serious-face on and analyze the scene further, however, I’d have to concede that it does seem to evince an off-putting power imbalance (or power reversal) in the relationship between Ricky and Faye; if the latter is professionally-speaking an authority figure, she is mainly subjugated by the sexual authority of her pupil Ricky in the strip club, and at all points afterward in their affair. Faye seems positively intimidated by Ricky during the striptease, and because Ricky clearly senses this, there is a temptation to read the boy’s aggressive sexual come-ons as his (subconscious or not; harmless or not) revenge on Faye for flunking him in class – a way for the libidinous lad to gain the upper-hand. Though the film tries for a time to sell Faye and Ricky as a pair of kindred spirits (I think; one can never be sure with the editing), it remains obvious that Ricky acts as the sexual master of the relationship, guiding a trembling Faye through her paces as they conduct their illicit affair.
It’s a fairly ludicrous proposition – that the young, still-boyish Ricky could hold such sexual sway over the mature professional Faye (or perhaps it’s Lesley Ann Warren I’m thinking of) – but at least the film seems to understand this (e.g., by including an absurd scene meant to parallel the main action of the plot, in which Whitney goes to a job interview at an arcade-game company only to find that the position’s been filled by a ten-year-old boy), even if at the same time it fails to excuse the ideology behind making Faye so sexually timorous. As in Thief of Hearts (another piece of cheesy ’80s eroticism I reviewed, rather facetiously, here) the lead female character of A Night in Heaven seems fundamentally incapable of instigating sex on her own, requiring the assertive advances of a man (or man-boy) to unlock her sexual desires; this has the effect of not only denying female sexual self-determination, but also of positioning the male as both sexual liberator and sexual superior.* This is perhaps best encapsulated in Heaven by the first image of this review, where Ricky is framed from below, haloed like a glistening angel – a saviour – looking down on Faye, come to rescue her sexual soul. I’m not sure A Night in Heaven is quite coherent enough to constitute a thorough repudiation of female sexual autonomy (as Thief of Hearts does), but it does seem caught in that typically reactionary mindset of ’80s Hollywood that makes female sexual fantasy look alarmingly like male sexual fantasy. I’d love to track down Tewkesbury’s original script and find out where Avildsen’s film significantly truncated, and perhaps corrupted, her material.
Despite everything I just said, I stand by my claim that the dude from The Pirate Movie does a mean striptease.
* Jonathan Demme effectively reverses this standard in his wonderful Something Wild (1986), in which Melanie Griffith’s flaky, fun-loving character liberates Jeff Daniels from his tight-collared repression by whisking him into bed before he knows what hit him. Griffith actually seems to enhance Daniels’ life, making him more adventurous, whereas in A Night a Heaven, Ricky only succeeds in subjecting Faye to his sexual whims, leaving her guilt-ridden about her extra-marital indiscretions.