Monday, March 27, 2017

Retro Review: THE STUD (1978) and THE BITCH (1979)

(UK - 1978)

Directed by Quentin Masters. Written by Jackie Collins, Dave Humphries and Christopher Stagg. Cast: Joan Collins, Oliver Tobias, Sue Lloyd, Mark Burns, Doug Fisher, Walter Gotell, Tony Allyn, Emma Jacobs, Peter Lukas, Natalie Ogle, Constantin De Goguel, Sarah Lawson, Franco De Rosa, Chris Jagger, Peter Bourke. (R, 96 mins)

In constant rotation in Showtime's late night "After Hours" block in the early-to-mid '80s, the softcore porn cult classics THE STUD (1978) and its sequel THE BITCH (1979) were the first film projects of UK brewery and pub company Brent Walker as well as the first big-screen adaptations of legendary trashy romance novelist Jackie Collins. Co-scripted by Collins and conceived as a starring vehicle for her older sister Joan, THE STUD was a big hit in the UK and it proved to be the first step in reviving 45-year-old Joan's stagnant career, which began in the early 1950s but by 1978 found her slumming in Eurotrash crime movies and drive-in fare like EMPIRE OF THE ANTS. That would all change in 1981 when she enjoyed a major comeback with the zeitgeisty success of the ABC series  DYNASTY. A resurgent Collins became so synonymous with the DYNASTY phenomenon that it's easy to forget that she didn't even join the show until its second season. THE STUD gave the actress a chance to give her Alexis Carrington/bitch-on-wheels act a test drive as Fontaine Khaled, owner of the posh, members-only disco Hobo and trophy wife to wealthy businessman Ben Khaled (Walter Gotell, best known as General Gogol in the Roger Moore-era 007 movies). Fontaine is a sexually voracious nympho with a ton of studs on standby, but her favorite is Tony Blake (Oliver Tobias), Hobo manager and insatiable player. Tony beds a different woman every night but is growing disillusioned with ennui and the excess of the night life and being at Fontaine's beck-and-call, and he's even planning on quitting Hobo and opening his own nightclub with unscrupulous investment broker Ian Thane (Peter Lukas).

Despite the film ostensibly being a showcase for Collins, the real focus of THE STUD is Tobias, who has a sort-of second-string Warren Beatty quality here, especially once Tony's SHAMPOO-esque character arc is complete. Though he doesn't change his ways immediately, he falls hard for Alex (Emma Jacobs), Fontaine's barely-legal stepdaughter. Alex is stuck in a boring relationship and wants revenge on serial adulteress Fontaine for cheating on her father, so she throws herself at Tony, who declares his love for her after one night of passion. He finally seems ready to settle down after a drug-fueled night at a hotel where he, Fontaine, her best friend Vanessa (Sue Lloyd) and Vanessa's husband Leonard (Mark Burns) have a foursome in the pool. Vanessa and Leonard are swingers, and Fontaine is "gifting" Tony to Vanessa for her birthday. While they're getting it on, Fontaine and Leonard ride a giant fuck-swing over the pool before the four-way, which comes to an abrupt end when a dazed Tony gathers his senses and realizes he's being blown by an adventurous Leonard. He finally lays it on the line for Alex, who flatly rejects him, cruelly informing him that she was just using him to get off and get back at Fontaine. This culminates in a New Year's Eve bash at Hobo where he finds out he's losing his job and his partnership with Thane is off, and he encounters a conga line of all of his conquests over the course of the film, almost as if his life is flashing before his eyes. THE STUD is totally unabashed trash, but there's some genuinely effective drama and ambition in this final sequence, which blurs the line between fantasy and reality to such a degree that you wouldn't be surprised if Tony started belting out "Bye Bye Life" from ALL THAT JAZZ. It's almost like director Quentin Masters stages it as a mini-homage to the legendary, one-hour banquet sequence in Luchino Visconti's THE LEOPARD, where Burt Lancaster's aristocratic nobleman goes from room to room witnessing the downfall of the upper class, essentially bidding farewell to the world of privilege he's always known. Tony faces the harsh reality of his situation and realizes that a change must be made. He races toward the exit as the New Year's countdown ticks away, finally getting out the door at "zero" and taking a deep breath, the weight of the world and Fontaine Khaled finally off his shoulders.

It's an unexpectedly serious and ingeniously constructed finish to an otherwise tawdry and campy affair. A frequently nude Collins has a blast as the vamping, strutting Fontaine, dropping bon mots like "When I first met Tony, he thought 69 was a bottle of scotch," and "Old Ben gets his cock sucked once a month, in the dark." There's some unexpected humor in a prophetic throwaway line by the frontman of a rock band who's warned about his hard-partying lifestyle and smirks "Who ever heard of a 70-year-old rock star anyway?" The line is funny now because the actor playing the rock star is Chris Jagger, the younger, lookalike brother of Mick. With its dated fashions and its plethora of disco tunes and cheesy, pre-Skinemax sex scenes, it's easy to laugh at THE STUD, but it really steps up its game in the home stretch, demonstrating some unexpected depth and thoughtfulness that one doesn't usually associate with the work of Jackie Collins. Dave Humphries and Christopher Stagg are credited with "additional material and dialogue," so it's possible they brought that out in some rewrites (Humphries' writing credits also include such respected titles as the 1977 cult horror film THE HAUNTING OF JULIA and the 1979 Who rock opera QUADROPHENIA). There's occasional hints of that drama here and there--there's just something haunting and sublimely melancholy about last call at a dimly-lit '70s nightclub with the remaining desperate stragglers either facedown drunk or hooking up to the tune of 10cc's 1975 hit "I'm Not in Love."

(UK - 1979)

Written and directed by Gerry O'Hara. Cast: Joan Collins, Michael Coby (Antonio Cantafora), Kenneth Haigh, Ian Hendry, Mark Burns, Sue Lloyd, Carolyn Seymour, Doug Fisher, John Ratzenberger, Pamela Salem, Peter Wight, George Sweeney, Chris Jagger, Peter Burton, Maurice Thorogood, Bill Mitchell, Jill Melford. (R, 93 mins)

THE STUD did a great job of capturing the UK perspective of the kind of Studio 54 debauchery that defined the excess of late '70s nightlife. It was such a smash in England--as well as a minor grindhouse and drive-in hit when Trans-American Films released it in the US in 1979--that it spawned an immediate sequel with 1979's THE BITCH, bringing back Joan Collins and much of THE STUD's supporting cast. Though it was based on her novel, Jackie Collins didn't return for THE BITCH, nor did director Quentin Masters, so the Brent Walker guys assigned writing and directing duties to veteran British journeyman Gerry O'Hara, whose career as an assistant and second unit director dated back to the 1940s before he moved into making his own films in the 1960s. Though he worked as an assistant on prestigious fare like RICHARD III (1955), ANASTASIA (1956), and CLEOPATRA (1963), O'Hara never really distinguished himself as his own director, jumping from genre to genre, finding a niche after THE BITCH with 1983's bawdy Brent Walker/Harry Alan Towers co-production FANNY HILL, and eventually ending his career with Cannon during their life support years, when he replaced Ken Russell during pre-production on the dire THE MUMMY LIVES, a horror movie with Tony Curtis that spent three years on the shelf before going straight to video in 1996. O'Hara sticks to the STUD formula with THE BITCH, but the results are less successful. The continuing chronicle of Fontaine Khaled's sexcapades is dull and plodding, even with a surplus of skin and sex scenes, and the action is bogged down by an uninteresting plot about Fontaine tangling with gangsters over an expensive diamond ring that inadvertently comes into her possession.

Fontaine gets the ring from mob-connected Nico Cantafora (BARON BLOOD's Antonio Cantafora, a Robert Goulet lookalike going by his "Michael Coby" pseudonym that he used in several TRINITY knockoffs with Paul Smith) on a flight from NYC to London, where the in-flight movie is...wait for it...THE STUD. He needs to get the ring through customs and knows he'll be stopped, so he plants it on Fontaine, hoping to catch up with her later. He needs the ring because its value will get him out of debt with a British crime organization led by ruthless mobster Thrush Feather (an ill-looking Ian Hendry), who's respected and feared by all despite being named "Thrush Feather." What follows is a convoluted chain of events with double-crosses and tons of sex, sort-of like O'Hara wanted to make a softcore porn version of THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY. There's also boring subplots about Fontaine being warned by her attorney (Kenneth Haigh) that her club Hobo is facing bankruptcy since she still insists on living the kind of jet-setting lifestyle she can't afford since Ben Khaled divorced her after the events of THE STUD. She finds herself in the Tony role here, falling for Nico even though he's just using her, though she eventually turns the tables and uses the ring to get herself out of debt. THE BITCH delivers when it comes to the kind of softcore action that made these two films so well-known to late-night cable viewers and hopeless insomniacs in the 1980s, but it really drags when people aren't bumping and grinding in quintessential 1979 soft focus.

Other than The Olympic Brothers' amazingly catchy earworm of a theme song that will stick with you for days, the most fascinating part of THE BITCH today is the sight of a young John Ratzenberger, then an American expat living and working in the UK a few years before moving back to the States and landing his signature role as Cliff Claven on CHEERS, as a New York mob guy who becomes Nico's contact in London. It's pretty surreal seeing the future Pixar voice mainstay in this bit of softcore sleaze, sharing scenes with Italian cult star Cantafora and tearing up the dance floor at a London disco with a chick on each arm (tragically, O'Hara deprives us of any J-Ratz sex action that talk show hosts could've ambushed him with forever). Ratzenberger gets a lot of scenes in the middle of the film, but then completely vanishes from the story, which is indicative of how sloppy and careless THE BITCH can be. Character motivations and behavior change from scene to scene with little regard for story continuity. People can be furious with someone in one scene and then walking arm in arm with them in the next like nothing happened. But hey, you aren't watching THE BITCH for the story, right? 1978-79 seemed to be a breakout period for Jackie Collins on the big screen: THE STUD and THE BITCH, both recently released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber in defiant objection to the "physical media is dead" narrative (both have commentary tracks by film historians David Del Valle and Nick Redman, and THE BITCH features an interview with 92-year-old Gerry O'Hara) were two of four Jackie Collins-derived works over that two-year period, which also included another After Hours favorite with 1979's THE WORLD IS FULL OF MARRIED MEN, with Anthony Franciosa and Carroll Baker, and 1979's YESTERDAY'S HERO, an original Collins script about a hard-drinking, washed up soccer star (Ian McShane) that represented a bit of a departure from her signature romance trash. The British-made YESTERDAY'S HERO was never released theatrically in the US, despite McShane's love interest being played by Suzanne Somers, riding high at the time thanks to the enormously popular THREE'S COMPANY. From then on, Jackie Collins' novels were adapted for the small screen with miniseries like HOLLYWOOD WIVES and LUCKY CHANCES. THE STUD and THE BITCH did find a fan in Aaron Spelling, who saw both and hired Collins to add some catty, vindictive bitchiness to DYNASTY, which gave the veteran actress' stalled American career a powerfully gusting second wind that turned her into a TV icon.

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