Friday, November 4, 2011

One A Week Reviews #44: Butterfly


Ok, the first thing to address with Butterfly is that Pia Zadora isn't horrible. She's not... great, but she's not as gawd-awful here as you'd believe based on her reputation.

What first strikes a contemporary viewer, 20 years away from the height of her reputation and 30 from the release of this and The Lonely Lady, is how much Jessica Alba resembles her.  Zadora's millionaire husband at the time produced Butterfly, and while I'm not sure why he's so enthusiastic about getting her (admittedly slammin') body displayed (male preening pride?), you have to appreciate that he's created a handsome, well-produced period piece filled with recognizable stars of the time. Zadora is young, with a baby face and killer body, but she's not an awful actress here.Being surrounded by Stacey Keach, an obviously drunk Orson Welles, and James Franciscus doesn't hurt either. Edward Albert,  Stuart Whitman, and George "Buck" Flowers are on hand, as well. Best casting of all? Ed McMahon and June Lockhart show up as a pair of rich, affected comic relief parents of a wealthy character.

Butterfly is based on a James M. Cain novel, and if you've never read him you simply must. Kady, a manipulative temptress in the Cain tradition, shows up suddenly in the life of her lonely father Jess (a quite-good and surprisingly lean Stacey Keach) and seems to be as interested in an intimate relationship as she is in a filial one. She's also rather obvious in her motivation, which is to get her hands on the silver in the closed mine he tends. She's greed personified, while Keach's Jess wears the broken heart of a parent who feels they failed on his sleeve. In other words, he's a painfully easy mark. One wonders how the material was sold to Keach to get him to engage in the scene of frozen-faced brain-freeze as he slides his hands around to Kady's breasts in the bathtub... then escalates from there.

(There's some spoilers and a bonus video from here on in, kids. Fans of campy crap beware!)

There is nothing right about this situation... or this movie.
He's indulgent, guilt-ridden, and clearly only tolerant of her behavior because of his feelings of guilt, because she's a rude, needy wanton who's trying to seduce him and of a one track mind about getting into that mine. Evidently owned by the father of the man who fathered her baby. Much of her downfall comes from a lack of patience and dedication to the work mining silver requires. It's clear her energies are better put towards seducing a man to do the digging for her, even if it is her daddy.

Things get campy and trashy once they do strike it rich and all Kady wants to do is tramp around the local bar trying to arrange herself an "air-tight" while Jess sits slumped with defeat in the corner. A bar fight leads to an encounter with the bloated and gravely-ill looking Orson Welles as a judge mostly concerned with pinning down Kady's age and getting a good whiff of her. Then, what Id' really call act 2 starts...

Jess and Kady's happy little "love nest" gets complicated when other daughter Janey arrives with Kady's son. Surprisingly, the introduction of a grandson and sibling can put the kibosh on some pending incest. Go figure. Worse, wealthy baby-daddy Wash shows up. This is where Zadora really starts to chew the scenery and Keach shifts from conflicted father to rejected puppy-dog of perversion.
Immediately after that, ex-wife Belle and Moke, the lover she left Jess for arrive, mostly so she can swan around with an advanced case of "Movie Disease" accompanied by some "terminal rudeness," as her first motherly act is to warn Janey she'll go "barren as that desert out there." I mean, seriously, Jason Voorhees stomping into a scene with his machete carries more grace and character dimensions than Belle does.

Crap, I think I got a butterfly in my eye...
Even worse, Belle's new man, cuckolding meddler James Franciscus starts planting the idea to reopen the mine in Wash's head. The words "useless meddling jackass" come to mind and I'm not even very invested in the movie at this point. Belle tries, most sensibly, to take him out with a hatpin, but he winds up killing her. Useless Meddling Jackass then spends her funeral stealing silver from the mine. It's also revealed he has a butterfly birthmark on his belly that Kady's baby also has, which could compromise her claim to the mine a bit. It makes family relations more appropriate for Jerry Springer than James M. Cain when it's revealed, even though it's a pretty iffy plot contrivance genetics-wise, that the butterfly means Kady is his daughter, and not Jess'.

I don't know about you, but I'd shoot him.

Jess, now pretty snapped at this point, starts Act 3 by trying to plant the seeds of doubt to keep Wash from marrying Kady, then takes her into the mine and closes the deal since she's not really his daughter anyhow. At this point it's worth noting they've been observed periodically by a bearded, mountain man prospector, who becomes the star witness as they're immediately brought to an incest trial. Seriously, 2 scenes after the deal gets sealed, they're in front of Orson Whale... I mean, Welles.

Orson chews the scenery quite well for a man who looks like he's in some late stage of food and alcohol poisoning. Jess quickly contempts the court into a 10 year sentence, so it's up to Zadora to go for the Oscar and get him out of it. Her stirring courtroom objection is that "he didn't do anything to me... that I didn't want to happen." Her testament to voracious lust gets her a decade's sentencing, too, leading Jess to finally pony up that Moke's her real daddy, not he. At this point, it's totally Springer with a dismissed case and a crushed Kady who still wants Jess to know HE is her daddy. It'd be really almost, remotely moving if the movie wasn't such an overripe pot-boiler of the sun-baked passions of people who really need hobbies or cable TV to fill some of their free time. Anything to distract from their ill-judged incest and bad social skills.

In the end, Zadora, with her wealthy husband bankrolling her Hollywood splashdown never had much of a chance at movie success, which is a shame. They'd have done better if they'd tried to launch her as a singer, as she really is a good one as the song over the closing credits proved. However, he put his money on the screen and this early '80s HBO-staple and camp howler is a crap film film in some high-quality, period piece trappings.

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