Sunday, November 2, 2008


There is SO MUCH going on in this film that I don't even know where to begin. Eyes of Laura Mars is an oft-maligned Faye Dunaway vehicle from the late 70s that holds up extremely well in spite of its flaws. It's a melodramatic mystery thriller about a famous fashion photographer/provacateur (Laura Mars, played by Dunaway) whose inner circle is systematically murdered by an icepick wielding maniac. Mars has visions of each murder and can "see" them as they occur through the killer's eyes. Suspects abound, Dunaway overacts within an inch of her life, and romance blossoms amidst all of the chaos. As a straight up thriller, it's debatable whether or not it succeeds or fails. But as a piece of filmmaking, as a tour de force for its actors, as a wildly careening melodrama, and as a time capsule of a bygone era, it is an amazing piece of work well worth watching...over and over again.

Try to imagine a world before cable tv, before Project Runway, before (gasp!) America's Next Top Model (Tyra Banks was most likely pooping her diapers and eating her own boogers when this movie came out). Imagine me, a young impressionable 12 year old gay boy staying up late on weekends to watch R-rated movies on ON TV (the precursor to HBO-if you need an explanation, do your own research, but it's worth checking out)...movies I barely understood such as Midnight Express, Luna and Equus...titillating at times, yes, but just as often quite disturbing and confusing, to say the least. This was a time when the fashion industry was a mysterious netherworld populated by barely human grown-ups who didn't move in the same reality as any of the ones in the suburbia I lived in.
The focal point of the film is Faye Dunaway, and it's to her credit that she manages to hold your attention amid all of the other things going on. She looks fabulous...except for those teeth. My God, the teeth! Teeth have changed, that's for sure. We're living in much-improved teeth times. Back to the film. Expertly shot in New York City, and seething with models, murders, nudity, cityscapes and loud disco music, the movie comes close at times to instigating sensory overload. The confident direction by Irvin Kershner (who went on to direct The Empire Strikes Back) masterfully switches between calm, frivolity, suspense and chaos to keep the viewer interested and just a bit on edge. Dunaway took this role right after winning her Best Actress Oscar for Network, so she was at her career high point. But her intensity and acting style is definitely a throwback to the 1950s and 60s, at least in this flick. Dunaway Acts in this flick, capital A. Watching her performance, you can kind of see Mommie Dearest lurking around the next corner, even if Faye obviously didn't. Her acting isn't terrible, it's just about 3 decibles higher than the rest of the cast. Her performance in this flick elevates it closer to a level of camp that it otherwise wouldn't be at if starring a more understated actress.

It may be difficult to imagine, but the subject matter of Dunaway's photo art in the film was considered so outrageous at the time as to be unrealistic. This movie was definitely ahead of its time in that respect. I also remember thinking that the models (such as the one in the first picture above) surely weren't acting like real models...but now, after seasons of ANTM and PW, I know that is exactly how they behave. The flick is aware of itself as a commentary not only on society's consumption of sex and violence (one of the movie's sly messages is that this is where we're headed, using tits and guns to sell perfume--another seemingly unrealistic aspect at the time that has come to fruition in subsequent years) but of the media's fascination with said subject matter and its role in delivering it to the public, even while it complains about its existence. Many of the photos used were taken by Helmut Newton.

One of the funnest parts of the film is the make-believe fashion shoot set pieces that punctuate the film. Again, I keep coming back to this, but while still over the top, they were completely outrageous at the time the film was released and a few steps beyond the imaginable at the time. Now, I could totally see this as a challenge on ANTM, with the judges critiquing the aspiring models' peformances the whole time. (She's just LYING there, I'm really getting no sense of WHO SHE IS). The above shoot was filmed on location in Columbus Circle during rush hour over 4 days, so there's great crowd reaction shots that go along with it. It must have been a lot of fun (and a lot fo work) to shoot.

There's another photo shoot sequence that takes place in a warehouse as a classic disco song called "Let's All Chant" plays on the soundtrack. That song, by the way, was big in the clubs, but not on the radio, another example of this films off the chart hip quotient. It's an amazing sequence, and I've only used one photo from it (above). I enjoy this movie so much on a visual level, and I've done all these screen caps, but don't want to use too many. This could be one of the first movies to continually use contemporary songs on its soundtrack to enhance the scenes or add to the mood. I think American Graffiti used the same technique with old tunes, but this film (minus its thriller elements) is clearly the precursor to 80s music-imbued films like Top Gun, Flashdance and Footloose.

Just to get back to how old this movie is, I remember being utterly FASCINATED and ENTHRALLED when Laura Mars explains to Detective/Love Interest Neville (well-played by a young, fit, but not quite hot Tommy Lee Jones) how her visions occur, using a video camera and a monitor to illustrate her point. It was so high tech! WOW! I got all excited just seeing that scene, it seemed like a whole new era was upon us. Little did I know that the video era was right around the corner. This scene also leads us to the most clunky and awkward portion of the film: the budding romance between Mars and Detective Neville. I won't go too deeply into it because in the long run it serves its purpose, but boy...very much a square peg in a circle hole. Weird and not all that convincing. But it doesn't ruin the film, just adds to its camp quotient.

Here's a shot of Dunaway and a young Raul Julia, who plays her alcoholic man-whore of an ex-husband, and the prime suspect in the murders. He's trouble all right, and it's somewhat shocking to see him so young and healthy looking. One of the best aspects of this film is the male characters that surround Faye's: her ex-husband, the detective, her manager, her driver...she's surrounded by strong male characters, and yet she distrusts all of them to a certain degree. She obviously derives comfort from their strength, but she is threatened by it as well. It's an interesting feminist subtext to the film that isn't ever really explored in any depth, but I noticed it and I like it.

And finally, last but not least, the Queer Quotient. What would a film about high fashion be without a token gay character? In this film, it's an amazing actor by the name of Rene Auberjonois who plays Donald Phelps, Mars' manager. He's actually a great character, especially considering this is the mid to late 1970s. But then, it's totally pre-AIDS, pre-Moral Majority conservative backlash, so this was kind of a step toward treating gay characters with respect. He's a strong, no-nonsense, take no bullshit character, and I have always remembered him. The cap above is from a scene in which a black cop starts to tease him for being gay, asking him to give him a little bit of that (wink wink) Rona Barrett (if you don't know who Rona Barett is, go do your homework). Donald replies, without missing a beat, "Frankly (wink wink), I don't do Rona Barrett!" It's very empowering and funny, and quite refreshing especially considering the era from which it came.This final cap is a scene from Donald's birthday bash, which takes place in his somewhat creepy apartment with a collection of somewhat creepy guests...but no Village People! You know, us gay people, we like our birthdays. Those our OUR days, after surviving another year of putting up with the world's b.s. Donald plays a pivotal role throughout the movie, and unfortunately doesn't make it through to the end, but then, neither does hardly anyone else, so you can't really take it as anti-gay. Ultimately, it's a very gay-positive role, quite possibly the best of its time up to that point.

Overall, this film is a wonder. I enjoy it immensely for lots of different reasons, obviously, hence the long post and many screen caps. Bottom line is: as a thriller/mystery, it's pretty good but not great. As a time capsule, as a piece of filmmaking with amazing set design, stunning New York backdrops, and quite a bit of overacting from Ms. Dunaway, which ultimately raises the camp factor to a level of enjoyability that makes it a more fun gay viewing, it's fabulous. The Director's Commentary is thoughtful and informative, highly recommended on a second viewing.

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