Tag Archives: sexual politics

Perfect (1985)

Director: James Bridges

Screenplay: James Bridges and Aaron Latham (based on Latham’s articles for Rolling Stone Magazine)

Here I am again, stuck in the ’80s, like some broken Jan Hammer record. Between posts on Thief of Hearts, A Night in Heaven, and now Perfect, reviewing sexed-up, widely reviled stuff from the Reagan-era Hollywood assembly line is fast becoming my schtick here at Wipe. I might as well make this a running feature of the blog: “Searching for Sex in Reagan Hollywood’s Junk Trunk.”

Maybe it’s my fault for continuously seeking out such films; I admit I’m fascinated by ’80s Hollywood as an era of vulgar ostentation, cheeseball culture, and recrudescent conservatism. There’s also something extra-horny about Hollywood in the ’80s (perhaps it was all the coke being passed around at Don Simpson parties). The perspiring hardbody seems to be the sex object par excellence during this time; sweat and athleticism (or muscles) are fetishized (see Flashdance for arguably the key female figure of this fetishization; or really any Stallone movie for the macho-violent male alternative). What struck me about James Bridges’ Perfect as I watched it recently was not only that it took as its main focus Hollywood’s obsession with sweaty, fit bodies (the obsession to be “perfect”), but that it actually, almost in spite of itself, yielded insights into this phenomenon. I also found the film noteworthy for being less asymmetrical in its sexual politics than is usual for films of its type, i.e. ’80s Hollywood entertainments where the plot pivots around the problem of facilitating coitus – the methods used, the ethics involved, the reasons behind. And yeah, I realize I’m casting a broad net here.

Perfect sets out to blow the lid off the L.A. sports gym culture of the early ’80s. Based on articles by real-life Rolling  Stone writer Aaron Latham (who also wrote the script for Perfect), the film follows journo Adam Lawrence (John Travolta, playing the Latham part) as he braves the California gym scene to research a piece on how fitness centres are fast replacing single’s bars as the primo destination for eligible, lusty bachelors and bachelorettes on the West Coast.

At one of the gyms Travolta meets Jessie (Jamie Lee Curtis), a popular aerobics instructor whom he immediately targets as the central figure in his piece, being most drawn to her sexually. She refuses to let him interview her, explaining she’s been burned before for trusting a journalist (more on that later). But Jessie has no qualms about going to bed with him, and in fact is the first to make a pass, doing so by typing “Wanna fuck?” on Adam’s word processor – a pre-cell phone example of “sexting,” to be sure.

Even as one appreciates the brazenness of Jessie’s sexuality (in contradistinction to the repressed female leads in A Night in Heaven and Thief of Hearts), one cannot help feeling a little bemused by Jessie’s conviction that she doesn’t need to trust Adam as a journalist to want to have sex with him. Integrity is not an immediate issue for Jessie and Adam’s sexual relationship; in the beginning, it’s just “physical, physical” (to quote one of Travolta’s erstwhile co-stars). A very funny sequence (that’s also supposed to be very sexy) has Adam and Jessie facing off in one of her aerobics classes, where she pushes an increasingly risqué set of groin exercises, as if to test Adam’s ability to match her, hump for hump, in sexual endurance. The inherent narcissism of Jessie’s routine – she becomes more attracted to Adam the more he imitates her, and we might say vice versa – is enhanced by the mirrored walls of the aerobics room. In essence, the whole act of the group workout becomes masturbation en masse, with each person concentrated on his/her reflection (Jessie and Adam act as each other’s reflection). The sequence imbricates a fetish for the hardbody with an obsession over self-image, in the process becoming a perfect microcosm of ’80s vanity, topped off with an utterly vacuous pop beat (“Shock Me” by Jermaine Jackson and Whitney Houston).

Yet – surprise, surprise – Perfect is not only out to peddle gyrating gym bodies and superficial sex. Eventually serious complications arise in Jessie’s ongoing distrust of Adam as a journalist, when she discovers that he has, after all, been crafting a totally exploitative piece on the fitness centre and its horny-but-good-hearted patrons (one of whom [Larraine Newman] carries a reputation as “the most used piece of equipment in the gym,” a nickname Adam shamelessly picks up on and builds his cynical article around). Jessie breaks off the affair with Adam, remembering all too well the hurt once caused by a journalist who betrayed her trust by writing an unscrupulous article about her relationship with her Olympic swim coach. In order to woo Jessie back, Adam must take a dramatic, unprecedented stand on behalf of ethical journalism. I suppose we’re to understand from this that being “perfect” is about more than having a wicked hot bod – it’s a matter of possessing honesty and integrity, too. Razzie-founder John Wilson, in The Official Razzie Movie Guide, cuts through this baloney quite aptly, arguing that Perfect‘s real message seems to be: “Standing by your journalistic principles is good for your sex life.” It’s a shallow premise, but at least the film has a more balanced notion of what a sex life is than sleaze like Thief of Hearts and A Night in Heaven.

If anything can be said to carry Perfect, it’s Jamie Lee Curtis’ performance as Jessie. It’s a legitimately sexy star turn. The actress whipped herself into terrific shape for the role; she makes the aerobics routines sizzle, as hilarious as they often are.

And the film’s soundtrack’s not all bad. I’m now hooked on Dan Hartman’s “Talking to the Wall” thanks to Perfect – and thanks also, in no small part, to the hot-blooded Jamie Lee cardio-choreography that accompanies the song in the film.



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A Night in Heaven (1983)

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.

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