Independent cinema got a major boost with the arrival of Hector Babenco's unprecedented Kiss of the Spider Woman. Roundly rejected by all the studios both before and after its completion, the adaptation of Manuel Puig's novel was certainly a tough sell in that it told the story of a homosexual and a Marxist activist locked away in the same Latin American prison cell. Complicating matters, the Brazilian Babenco had yet to make an English-language feature, and wasn't sure he wanted to. In Burt Lancaster he had a star whose personal script rewrites strayed from the director's vision. When Lancaster parted ways with the project, Hollywood "It Boy" William Hurt stepped in, and the rest is Oscar history: Hurt would win Best Actor for his portrayal of Luis Molina, a man who identifies as a woman (the film also became the first independent to garner nominations for Actor, Picture, Director, and Screenplay).
It's a travesty that Hurt's co-star Raul Julia (who plays Valentin Arregui, the Marxist) wasn't even nominated, as he gives a performance that's, if not better, at least every bit the equal of Hurt's. The greater part of the film is a pas de deux between these two men as they attempt to stave off hunger and madness. Theirs is a kind of forced domesticity, an arranged marriage. When one hasn't been hauled off for interrogation or a meeting with the warden, Molina fills the silences by narrating to his cell mate old movies, the way Molina wants to remember them. The pasttime puts in relief the philosophical tension between the romantic-minded Molina and the political-minded Valentin:
Molina: I embroider a little, so you can see it the way I do.
Valentin: God help me.
Molina: You atheists never stop talking about God.
Valentin: And you gays never face facts. Fantasies are no escape.
Though Valentin insists, "Things are what they are," the story of the film repeatedly demonstrates that there's more than meets the eye when it comes to Valentin, Molina, and the allegorical stories Molina narrates. The principal film within the film is a WWII-era German melodrama realized by Babenco in sepia tones and purposefully overwrought acting (Sonia Braga plays Leni, a chanteuse modelled on Dietrich). Valentin immediately recognizes the film's propaganda; it's of no interest to Molina, who sees himself in Leni's glamorous romantic tragedy, a star-crossed love affair between a French Resistance damsel and a German lieutenant. "Is this propaganda or porno?" Valentin wants to know.
We leave the cell in Molina's lovelorn flashbacks to a chaste relationship with a straight friend, and Valentin's flashback to his own star-crossed love Marta (Braga again), a member of the bourgeois. Inevitably, Molina's forbidden love turns to his cell mate, with whom he has shared every non-sexual form of intimacy (including Molina tenderly cleaning Valentin's lower body after an attack of diarrhea). Where this path leads I won't reveal, but the journey is concerned with the nature of manhood. Molina asks bluntly, "Why do only women get to be sensitive? Why not a man?" As adapted by screenwriter Leonard Schrader, Puig's work retains its transgressiveness.
Babenco's film can be a bit poky, but it gradually expands in complexity where many films are content to tread water. Julia is masterful, his precise characterization always full bodied and clear (and heartbreaking). Because he is miscast, Hurt has a greater mountain to climb (no doubt why he won that Oscar). It's a truly great performance in that he gives it everything he's got. Hurt doesn't overact here, and his performance is studied in its physicality and emotional truth. The fact remains that it's difficult to accept the illusion that Hurt is a woman trapped in a man's body (a belief, after all, that Valentin calls just another fantasy). Hurt's sincerity wins the day, and after a while, the absorbing story overtakes any hesitancy on the part of the audience.
While looking at life under an oppressive regime, Kiss of the Spider Woman explores the rapture and torture of desire, and the tension between harsh reality and escapist fantasy. Babenco's film also has a thrilling tension of the theatrical (two men in a room, talking at length) and the cinematic (the movie fantasies, including Braga, in her third role, as the Spider Woman). Behind the making of the film, there's a whole other story, one that qualifies this seminal indie and quality film as even more of a miracle.
From City Lights Home Entertainment comes a two-disc Collector's Edition of Kiss of the Spider Woman, at long last reaching DVD (and Blu-Ray) for the first time. Between now and October 21, the DVD and Blu-Ray editions are exclusively available at Amazon.com, where it can also be rented or purchased as a full-length video download.
The picture quality is better than satisfactory: dirt, specks, and scratches are not uncommon, but detail is good and color is rich; the increased resolution on the Blu-Ray version gives the image greater dimensionality and detail. The discs also include original stereo and 5.1 surround tracks for your listening pleasure; this isn't the audio intensive film to test your system, but the aural presentation is excellent nevertheless.
Disc One houses the feature film, accompanied by a subtitle Trivia Track with information about the movie, the book, and the musical, as well as relevant real-world factoids. Rounding out Disc One is the Original Theatrical Trailer (1:57), plus previews for The Year My Parents Went on Vacation, The Matador, Manda Bala (Send a Bullet), and Harold.
Disc Two belongs primarily to a comprehensive feature-length documentary on the film's making, Tangled Web: Making Kiss of the Spider Woman (1:48:26). Participants include attorney Peter Dekom (founding chairman of American Cinemateque), producer David Weisman, director Hector Babenco, Sonia Braga, William Hurt, AFI dean Sam Grogg, executive producer Francisco Ramalho, Jr., costume designer/actor Patricio Bisso, acting agent Gene Parseghian, associate producers Michael Maiello and Jane Holzer, attorney/associate producer Altamiro Boscoli, first assistant director Amilcar Monteiro Claro, choreographer Mara Borba, cinematographer Rodolfo Sanchez, film editor Mauro Alice, assistant editor Becky Nauert, Leonard Schrader (seen in a Q&A; he died in 2006), and in vintage clips, Raul Julia and Manuel Puig.
Nauert sums up the documentary's amazing stories: "Everything about that film was crazy." The craziness began with the courting of Puig, who was resistant to Babenco's advances for the film rights. The madness continued with the involvement of Burt Lancaster, surprisingly eager to play the leading role of an imprisoned "queen." Funding was a nightmare, Lancaster rewrote the script to his own vision (one not shared by the rest of the production) and eventually severed ties to the project, and Lancaster's replacement William Hurt was, perhaps, too dedicated to the project.
Hurt proved so unremittingly uncompromising that his rehearsals with Julia would commonly invade the wee hours, and debates with Babenco delayed filming. Script issues finally caused a rift between Babenco and Hurt, who would only communicate with his director through an intermediary; nevertheless, according to the assistant director, Hurt's commitment made him beloved by the crew. It's all recounted in this frank and fascinating collection of perspectives, which emphasizes the film's breakthrough nature as an independent international production accepted into the Hollywood mainstream.
"Manuel Puig: Secrets of the Spider Woman—The Submissive Woman's Role" (9:09) utilizes audio from a 1985 Puig lecture and archival footage, photographs, and music to illustrate Puig's upbringing, his Hollywood inspirations, and his lifelong central theme of "submission to macho dominance." "Kiss of the Spider Woman: Making the Musical" (11:51) gathers lyricist Fred Ebb, composer John Kander, director Hal Prince, librettist Terrence McNally, and actress/singer/dancer Chita Rivera to recount the experience of working with Puig to develop the material, workshopping the new musical, and eventually finding the much-honored final version.
"Kiss of the Spider Woman: From Novel to Film" (36:09) is a critical essay on the themes of the film, with some comparisons to Puig's novel, by Norman Lavers, adapted from his book Pop Culture Into Art: The Novels of Manuel Puig. The material is presented as narration over production stills. A section of Photo Galleries constituting over 150 images is divided into "Behind the Scenes," "Costume Sketches," "Spider Island," "Book Covers," and "Moments from the Film." A section labelled Presskit again presents the Original Theatrical Trailer (1:57), along with the Teaser Trailer (1:24), and the text-based Excerpts of 1985 Reviews.
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