In interviews for his 1974 adaptation of Henry James’ Daisy Miller
, director Peter Bogdanovich
is fond of recounting that he chose somber-faced actor Barry Brown for the role
of self-serious Frederick Winterbourne because Brown was the only actor in
Hollywood who looked like he’d actually ever read a book.
In a similar vein (but at the entirely opposite end of the
spectrum), one of the most egregious of the countless missteps taken in
bringing Harold Robbin’s relentlessly trashy 1976 novel The Lonely Lady to the screen was to cast in the lead role of
Jerilee Randall—gifted English major, novelist, and aspiring screenwriter—an
actress who not only looks as though she’s never read a book, but upon
encountering one, might be overheard asking, “How does it work?”
|Of course, because that's what intellectual writer-types do|
The actress is Pia Zadora: the pint-sized kewpie doll who
sought to set movie screens ablaze in the early 1980s with her scorching
sensuality, only to see out the decade as a household name via punchline—a
female Rodney Dangerfield who got no respect.
Although Zadora had been in the business since childhood (her
film debut was in 1964s Santa Claus
Conquers the Martians
), as an adult, she fairly burst on the scene out of
nowhere, ubiquitously showcased in high-profile gigs that placed her front and center
like a star. The only problem was that absolutely no one knew who she was.
Like that other pop-culture question mark with the exotic
name, actress, and Alberto VO-5 pitchwoman Rula Lenska, Pia
Zadora’s assumption of fame ultimately became what she became famous for. Thanks to the bankrolling
of her billionaire industrialist husband Meshulam Riklis (age 54 to her 23),
Zadora became the TV and print ad face of Dubonnet, a recording artist, a Vegas
headliner, posed nude for Penthouse. and earned “introducing” billing (and a controversial Golden Globe
win) for her widely panned starring role in the 1982 Orson Welles film Butterfly.
She was everywhere and did everything, but genuine stardom always managed to elude her. Indeed, if stardom could be
bought, she would have been; but public consensus was that she was little
more than competent as a performer, and as an actress she was (per the New York
Times) “spectacularly inept.”
|Hey, Looka Me! I'm A Writer!|
But deep pockets don’t read reviews. So, while Hollywood was
still giggling over the fact that Pia Zadora was awarded the New Star of the
Year Golden Globe over Elizabeth McGovern, Howard Rollins, and Kathleen Turner; sugar daddy Riklis was ponying up more than half the budget to land his five-foot
inamorata the leading role and above-the-title-billing in a film adaptation of
Harold Robbins’ The Lonely Lady.
|Pia Zadora as Jerilee Randall|
|Lloyd Bochner as Walter Thornton|
|Anthony Holland as Guy Jackson|
|Bibi Besch as Veronica Randall|
|Jared Martin as George Ballantine |
|Joseph Cali as Vincent "Vinnie" Dacosta|
A member of that rarefied, they-don’t-make-‘em-like-this-anymore
club of tantalizing cinema trash reserved for such gems as Valley of the Dolls
, The Oscar
, The Other Side of Midnight
The Lonely Lady
is a film to be
cherished. For in everything from content to execution, it exhibits that one essential
quality shared by all craptastic classics—a surfeit of ambition, pretension,
and ego supported by a scarcity of talent, budget, and good taste.
Pared down and retooled considerably from its unwieldy and
often incoherent source novel (Robbins credited cocaine for his writing prolificacy),
the screenplay for The Lonely Lady
is attributed to the contributions of no less than three writers. A rather astonishing fact given the banality
of the results, but it does go a long way toward explaining why the lead
character comes across as a tad schizophrenic
Borrowing from the popular “three working girls” format of
movies like The Pleasure Seekers
, Three Coins in the Fountain
, The Best of Everything
, and Valley of the Dolls, The Lonely Lady
these three standard female tropes: the pragmatist, the romantic, the
maker-of-bad-decisions -- into a single character: Jerilee Randall...the serious
writer saddled with the name of an aerobics instructor.
|When The Lonely Lady was released in September of 1983, |
Pia Zadora felt the burn of unanimous critical censure
Jerilee is inserted into a garden-variety showbiz
cautionary tale depicting Hollywood as a cutthroat, dog-eat-dog business which exploits
the talented and corrupts the innocent. The
’s ostensibly feminist angle (don’t you believe it) is that
Jerilee, unlike the victimized heroines of Jacqueline Susann novels, has no interest in being an actress, model, or singer; she has brains and ambition and only wants to
succeed behind the scenes as a screenwriter. But true to the genre, Jerilee just
also happens to be sexually irresistible to all she meets, male and female, so sexism,
misogyny, and her overall, impossible to conceal hotness conspire to sabotage her success and prove to be major hurdles to overcome on
her path toward being taken seriously as a writer.
Leaving no cliché unturned, The Lonely Lady
charts Jerilee’s struggle to hang onto her
innocence and principles while making that brutal climb up that Mount Everest called success. Surviving assault, impotent husbands, horny producers, philandering
matinee idols, drugs, alcohol, abortion, lesbianism, and sanitariums (not a nut
house!). When she finally reaches that peak, Jerilee stands there waiting for the rush of exhilaration to come. But it doesn't, and she's all alone. And the feeling of loneliness is overpowering... 'cause she's The Lonely Lady
. (Thank you, Anne Welles.)
|Vinnie Goes for the Big Pocket Shot|
By the time The Lonely Lady
limped to movie screens, public tastes and mores had changed significantly in regard to these Harold Robbins/Jacqueline Susann/Sidney Sheldon-style sex-power-glamour sleaze and cheese fests. Nighttime television—in the form of soaps (Dallas
) and the miniseries (The Thorn Birds
, Winds of War,
and Princess Daisy
in 1983 alone)—had completely co-opted the no-longer-shocking genre that had been such boxoffice bait back in the days of Peyton Place
. The boom in the availability of VHS and cable porn rendering Zadora’s frequent nude scenes and so-called steamy couplings quaint, if not downright passé.
Thus, The Lonely Lady
arrived on the scene looking like an artifact from another era. A low-budget,
Cinemax-tacky take on the glossy soap operas of the ‘50s and ‘60s, with nothing
new to say about Hollywood, relationships, or systemic misogyny (what could the
movie say about the exploitation of women when the willing exploitation of its
leading lady was its sole raison d’être?).
Worse still, it arrived with virtually none of the usual compensations
movies like this offer: exotic locales, glamour, beautiful people. First off, the
men. Seriously, you’d have to look far to find a less appetizing and charmless
roster of male co-stars. It’s a virtual parade of receding hairlines, flabby
middles, and hairy backs. Sure, the movie might be trying to make a point about
the kind of slimeball our Jerilee has to fight off (several of them uncannily
resembling Harold Robbins), but even the film’s so-called hunks are an
uncommonly bland and unprepossessing bunch.
|What Becomes A Legend Most?|
I don't think this is the kind of fur coat Jerilee had in mind when she married a millionaire
As for glamour, Zadora gets to strut around in a few becoming Armani gowns, but by and large, The Lonely Lady has the look of a cut-rate “supply your own
|No, Jerilee didn't just appear in a production of Anne of Green Gables. This pigtails and pinafore getup is the film's weak attempt to make 28-year-old Zadora look like an innocent teen, while simultaneously camouflaging her physical "charms" (to be unleashed later, full throttle). Incredibly, the two middle-aged gentlemen flanking her are also supposed to be teenagers, the individual on the left offering a bit of unintentional plot foreshadowing by thrusting a conspicuously tumescent wiener in Jerilee's face.|
And say goodbye for any hope of this Italian-American co-production
offering any escapist glimpses of faraway places with strange-sounding names. In its place, we have the breathtaking splendor of San Fernando Valley; Beverly Hills as viewed from
one interior restaurant set after another; and picturesque Rome stands in for
Los Angles in a chintzily-rendered movie industry awards event populated by what looks to be about 30 enthusiastic, poorly-dubbed fans (the movie doesn’t even give the fake award a name, it’s simply called The Awards
|Let's Have Lunch...& Dinner...& Brunch...|
Ingenuity not being one of the film's strong suits, The Lonely Lady
stages no less than five scenes in restaurants
In light of the film’s blitzkrieg of bad acting (you expect poor
performances in films like this, but The
seems to be trying to set a new precedent), risible dialogue (Vinnie
[clearly naked with two just-as-visibly naked women] to Jerilee: “Hey doll, we’re naked!”
), and the irrefutable
sense that nobody involved in this slapdash production is very much invested in
it (get a gander at the cover art for Jerilee’s two novels); there’s no denying
The Lonely Lady
falls short on a number fronts.
|I'd like to thank my publisher, Fisher-Price|
Seriously, these are supposed to be the covers of Jerilee's published novels.
But The Lonely Lady is invaluable in illustrating the difference between a showcase and a vanity project. A showcase is intended to present a performer in the best
possible light, emphasizing their strengths and minimizing their weaknesses. A vanity
project is a vehicle so ruled by ego and delusion that the performer, in so overestimating their talents, winds up only calling attention to their limitations. The Lonely Lady is
a four-star vanity project.
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS MOVIE
For the true connoisseur of cinema claptrap, what’s not to love? I
largely look back on the ‘80s as a nightmare decade for movie fashions, hairstyles,
décor, music, and flat, washed-out cinematography; therefore, The Lonely Lady gets off on the right
foot (which is to say, the absolute wrong foot) almost immediately with an absolutely
dreadful theme song (sung by Larry Graham) playing over an amateurishly shot
title sequence. And, like a Malibu mudslide, things just keep going down from
|The Night Belongs To Michelob|
The Lonely Lady is loaded with subtle mise-en-scene
The Lonely Lady episodically
chronicles Jerilee’s pursuit of a writing career as a semi-pornographic Pilgrim’s
Progress in which we’re invited to ponder the unique problems faced by an intellectual
woman burdened with the dual curses of flawless beauty and low self-esteem. Because
the film shares with us but a single example of Jerilee’s writing skill (and it’s
a doozy), we are forced to take her intelligence and talent on spec. However, the film is generous
to a fault in treating us to scene after scene of Jerilee being the world’s biggest
creep magnet or of having to compromise her sexual integrity for the sake of her ambition.
|A scene from Homeland, the comically slipshod film-within-a-film for which Jerilee contributes|
this single line of dialogue. Magically transforming a B-movie into an Oscar contender
The Lonely Lady is a case of the wrong story (over-familiar to the point of formulaic), starring
the wrong actress (it's as though the film's real star refused to show up and they shot the movie with her lighting stand-in), at the wrong time (even 1960s audiences would be
hard-pressed to find it shocking). It's a pungent potpourri of miscalculations, poor judgment, and
ragingly bad taste. Small wonder it has earned the reputation of being the Showgirls of the ‘80s.
|Every trash movie made from a trash novel needed its exploitation setpiece. Valley of the Dolls had a catfight wig-snatching, The Other Side of Midnight had abortion-by-coat-hanger, and The Lonely Lady had assault by garden hose. That's Ray Liotta (possessor of the phantom crotch above, as well) making his inauspicious film debut. |
I particularly like how The
’s half-hearted efforts to be a scathing, feminist indictment of
Hollywood’s rampant sexism and misogyny is consistently at cross purposes with the
film’s gross objectification of Zadora, and desperate attempts (by way of clockwork-consistent nude scenes) to
convince us that its wee cherub of a leading lady is actually a smoking hot sex symbol.
|Let's Make A Deal|
Current headlines reveal that after all these years not much has changed in terms of systemic sexism in the film industry. Too bad The Lonely Lady merely treats the issue as fodder for sensationalism
|It could be said Ms. Zadora dedicated her career to|
making sure no one would ever refer to her by that name
There's no getting around it. Pia Zadora's performance here most definitely calls into question the credibility of her Golden Globe win, while emphatically cementing the validity of her multiple Golden Raspberry Award wins (although she lost 2000s Worst Actress of the Decade to Madonna).
In truth, Zadora is so unconvincing and inexpressive in the film, it's pushing it to call hers a performance at all. But on the plus side, it's not one of those pitiably bad performances that makes you feel bad or embarrassed for an actor. In the tradition of Patty Duke and Elizabeth Berkeley, Pia Zadora's awfulness is so robust and zestfully devoid of anything resembling technique or skill, it achieves a kind of guileless purity.
Words can't come close to expressing the full-tilt comic lunacy of Zadora's worth-the-price-of-admission nervous breakdown scene. From her going-for-broke emoting to the acid-wash graphics and tilt-a-whirl not-so-special effects, it's a Golden Turkey instant classic.
THE STUFF OF FANTASY
If The Lonely Lady
works on any other level than simply high-octane camp, I'd say it works best (as he places tongue firmly in cheek) as a disquietingly self-referential exposé. The construct of the entire film places the viewer in the position of scrutinizing the Pia Zadora phenomenon through the guise of meta-fiction.
Take for example the fact that The Lonely Lady
is about an author no one takes seriously simply because she doesn't look like what people expect writers to look like. The movie places the viewer in a similar position. I began this article with the arguably sexist observation that Ms. Zadora appeared to me to be miscast because she doesn't "look" like a writer. On reflection I have to ask myself, what does that even mean? Sure, Zadora can't act, and indeed, that is where the chief implausibility lie; but do I also mean to imply she's not believable because, instead of looking like Lillian Hellman and sounding like Fran Lebowitz, Zadora is petite and has the face and voice of a kewpie doll?
Viewer self-confrontation is further tweaked by the way The Lonely Lady
appears to court the drawing of parallels between the misadventures of Jerilee and Zadora's own real-life circumstances. Like Zadora, Jerilee has considerable difficulty finding anyone who'll take her and her work seriously. Also like Zadora, Jerilee marries a wealthy man old enough to be her father who helps her career. By the time the film finishes with Jerilee giving an award show speech in which she explicitly expresses what many have whispered about Zadora behind her back, it's not hard to convince oneself that perhaps such cross-referencing is what the filmmakers had in mind all along.
THE STUFF OF DREAMS
As much as I adore The Lonely Lady
for its wholesale lack of redeeming
value, and how I thank the gods of cinema dross that Pia left us all this wonderful, enduring gift before retiring from acting; I must also add that I have become a big fan of the Pia Zadora of today. Like so many stars
who once took themselves so seriously in their youth, only to mature into fun, easygoing personalities able to take a joke (Raquel Welch, William Shatner, Cybill Shepherd,
Candice Bergen); Pia Zadora has learned how to laugh at herself.
|Carla Romanelli plays a Sophia Loren-type Italian actress (complete with Carlo Ponti-esque husband) who, like everyone else in the film, finds Jerilee impossible to resist. I never realized screenwriters were such sex bombs|
abandoning acting and the whole sex symbol hype (and husband Meshulam Riklis after 16 years together) Zadora pursued what was always her strongest suit, singing, and, in a few cameo roles, revealed herself to
be a natural light comedienne. She's been active and good-natured in promoting the DVD release of The Lonely Lady
(which includes a spirited interview) and harbors no illusions about either the film's quality or her performance in it. In being so OK with the film's renewed cult status and everybody hailing it as one of the best of the worst, Pia Zadora has given us all her blessing to enjoy a great guilt-free laugh with
her, not at
Back in 1976, Variety
announced that Susan Blakely (The Towering Inferno
) was slated to star in The Lonely Lady
Harold Robbins dedicated The Lonely Lady
to Jacqueline Suzanne,
and many believe the character of JeriLee Randall to be based upon her. In a November 1976 issue of Pageant
magazine, Robbins denied this claim and stated he based the character partially on Peyton Place
author Grace Metalious.
As per the Evita
lyric—"My story’s quite
usual: local girl makes good weds famous man”
Pia Zadora's story is nothing new. From William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies to Bo and John Derek; stardom by benefactor is as old as show business itself.
One of the more amusing examples is the forgotten Dora Hall
, wife of Solo Cups magnate Leo Hulseman, who funded his wife's late-in-life showbiz career to the tune of giveaway albums and hilariously weird TV variety specials in the 1970s.
Pia Zadora has said she is most proud of these two comedic cameo film roles.
As a beatnik in John Waters' Hairspray
(1988) - See it HERE
As herself in Naked Gun 33⅓: The Final Insult
(1994) - See it HERE
The late actor Kenneth Nelson appears briefly in The Lonely Lady as hairdresser Bud Weston. Fans of The Boys in the Band (1970) will remember him as Michael, the role he originated in the 1968 Off-Broadway production.
Copyright © Ken Anderson 2009 - 2017