Monday, 17 June 2013

'Lipstick': 7 Wonderful Overblown Films from the 70s, Part 1

I was re-watching Lipstick (1976) yesterday, for the hundred millionth time (though the first time in 5 years).  I was joyful it’s still just as cracking a film as when I first saw it when I was far too young to grasp it properly.  In fact, all these films here, I was far too young to grasp properly and yet there I was, watching them anyway, Sunday after Sunday in my living room 6 floors up, alone in the midair of London. 

I grew up as homelife, with mum in the kitchen listening to sermons and doing the ironing and stuff; dad in the big bedroom, listening to classical music and reading.  This meant, mostly, during the day at the weekends and holidays from school, I would inherit the living room by default.  I also had very loose bedtimes, because I was good at getting up in the morning, even on school days.  So I saw lots and lots of late night Hammer horror double bills with dad, and lots and lots of gritty 70s thrillers and vigilante films and such (also with dad).  As well as lots of wonderful afternoon 30s/40s black and whites, and all those new wave and angry films of the 50s.  I was steeped in film as a child and teenager.  I did nothing much with my home life except read incessantly, watch TV and film and go for big fat long walks (we lived very near Hyde Park then, about 10 minutes max).

I’ve known for ages that the decade of my birth, the 70s, is my decade of obsession by choice.  I love the clothes, the music, the weird morality, the gritty sleaziness, the powercuts and striking bin men (I remember the smell).  I was far too young to be terrified by the way 70s England was in fact coming apart at the seams, though I was aware of the facts (I knew why we lit storm lanterns, and mum worried about stockpiling food and the costs of everything).  It just was as it was.  In many ways, it’s a lot similar to now, only now I’m grown up enough to be aware of how all these things really affect me, the planet and everyone, so I quake in my boots everyday.  Hopefully it will all work out just like the 70s and I will eventually look back and laugh – it all got better, things move on. 

TV used to repeat a lot of things in those days, way more than now.  And because there was only terrestrial TV, you got to see the same things with more regularity.  So I watched these 5 films in particular, over and over, by myself with the curtains closed in case real life and light interfered with the total immersion process.  When we got our first video recorder (we were very first with that – dad was a techno hound his whole life and both of us lapped up TV and film, though slightly different in emphasis on what we liked) – we quickly set to buying up everything we ever enjoyed.  I had pocket money which I was very good at saving, but dad was overwhelmingly generous when it came to my film collection.  By the early 80’s our living room was a library of VHS, organised by genre and who owned it, in every bookcase, shelf and box.

He was a strange man in many ways, my dad, but when it came to reading books and TV/ film, he denied me nothing.  If we could afford it and it existed, we both had, in our collections, whatever we wanted.  I had lots of very unsuitable things (to the great worry of my mother, who stood on the sidelines; and very often at the door of the living room, plaintively saying: “Sid, do you really think she should be watching this, she’s only 9/ 10/ 11/ 12/13?” at The Evil Dead/ Rabid/ Shivers/ 10 Past Midnight/ Scum/ Midnight Cowboy/ Midnight Express etc etc etc).  I of course, thought I should.  I was taking from them whatever I was.  Definitely it was something.  Though I understand all of the grittier or more adult themed films much better now in the literal sense, I got the feelings of each one perfectly, with zero experience of any of the situations to call on.  They all affected me deeply.

Though I do worry that I was so young and impressionable that the messages, sublimal or not of some of these films taught me things I might have done best not learning…I treated them as the bible, I believed these films (and most films I saw as a child/ early teen).  I trusted not their literal truth, but their morality and character messages.  They are partly responsible for the patchwork of me, the great mess that is sometimes good and sometimes not so.

Anyway – all these films are desert island ones for me.  I loved them then; I love them now.  I can re-watch them and never get bored.  So here are they are.  They aren’t my favourite films ever, but they are most definitely among them (I have lots in different categories!).

Lipstick (1976)

Ok, so, I first watched this rape drama on TV when I was 10 or so.  The thing that got me first and still gets me now, is the MUSIC.  That creepy, creepy, scary arse music that the rapist music teacher makes!  The plot is this: A successful model lives with her younger sister.  The younger sister has a crush on her music teacher.  Younger sister invites music teacher to meet older sister, hoping she can introduce him to others who may like his music (he composes), help him get on.  Music teacher meets older sister… and rapes her.  There is a courtroom drama. He is acquitted.  Older sister’s career is ruined.  By contrivance, he meets younger sister again, and rapes her too (yes, this does sound extraordinarily unlikely as I write the whole thing down, but suspension of disbelief is why fiction works, shhhhhh!).  Older sister loses it and kills him.  I never fail to feel very satisfied at this point, especially when she shoots him in the groin: Yay!  As you can see from the plot, this is 100% 70s politically incorrect drama; as it was also a Dino de Laurentiis film, it was also lushly colourful and beautifully shot.  But there was something small and low-key about it, much more so than some of the other films in this series I’m doing here.

As I say, its music grabbed me.  It has a soundtrack by the avant garde French composer and pop icon Michel Polnareff, which is a real mixture.  One moment sweeping sad epic ballad of tragedy as a main theme, the next that scary scary electronic sampling and angry synthy sounds used for the music teachers compositions.  He used pigeons cooing, and human breathing to great and scary effect.  Of course this was used in the film as narrative as well, in that near end scene, where younger sister contrivedly meets him again and he is rehearsing his music for some sort of barely plausible ‘Essays in Light and Sound’ show, with innocent teenagers in leotards littered about.  The other children leave, and he sees her there, and calls her down.  She is struggling with her feelings about whether he truly raped her sister, and whether it was her fault for bringing him into their house, and whether he can really not be the so nice man she has always thought him to be (and that he portrays so convincingly).  He attaches her mike to her chest, via one of those hospital electrode sticky things (much creepy play of him licking it over and over to get it stuck, and of him reattaching it a couple of times, each time pulling her Tshirt down slightly more to get it lower on her chest).  He is scaring her, especially after he turns the lights off in the studio and projects weird evil twin Jean Michel Jarre light show effects over both their faces.  All you can hear is her breath getting shallower and shallower and her heartbeat, getting faster and faster.  She realizes in that moment that he is the man her sister said, that he is feeding on and getting off on, her increasing fear.  As a scene, it’s intense, melodramatic and effective.  She bolts; he chases.  You learn that a man who felt overtaken and overlooked in life, who felt others, especially women, had all the glory and privileges and wealth – and respect – he craves, is instead going to punish and dominate those women, as it’s all he thinks he has.  (See here:

Chris Sarandon’s performance in this is both understated and spot on.  As I got older, I would watch the earlier scenes, wondering why why why he does it.  It’s not telegraphed.  It’s all on his face, his reactions to the women, his perceptions of his lack of importance in the world.  It’s an early role for him, and a good one.  He manages a horribly convincing sweetness that you see is his daytime face; his other one (not the real one, just another part of him) is in that music and it’s just full of rage at the world, and a need to take back power.  Though this film is definitely exploitative and melodramatic (Anne Bancroft as the lawyer for the older sister in the courtroom scenes has great fun overplaying it), it makes good points about what rape is about.  You see clearly it’s not about just how you are perceived to look; it deals squarely with the ‘you were asking for it’ defence (and this model sells sexy looks to sell lipstick – “I’m supposed to look like every woman wants to look, its not for men, its for women”, she pleads, on the stand), but about who is in charge.

I also feel rather sad when I watch this film.  It’s star, Margaux (aka Margot) Hemingway, grand daughter of the famous Ernest, died at 42 from an overdose or a huge epileptic fit (or a combo of both), after too much modelling and acting fame got to her.  She died, apparently, friendless and alone, and was so decomposed when found, she had to be identified from dental records.  Her younger sister in real life, Mariel Hemingway, played the younger sister in this, at Margaux’s suggestion – and she was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Newcomer that year. Her performance is a powerhouse of nuance and teen confusion and honesty.  After this film, slowly slowly, Mariel’s star rose thanks to Margaux’s beginning it, and Margaux’s started to decline.  Nowadays, as well as acting, Mariel is a lifestyle guru, yoga, cookbooks and a love of nature.  She seems a lovely person, a survivor.  I hate when I used to hear people compare the two sisters and say Margaux was less talented – all it was, in my opinion, was that Margaux had a huge overbite, which made her face look a bit dopey in repose sometimes; but if you watch her acting, it was all there, she convinces me.  She’s not overblown, she’s just doing it, she had a quiet style.  Also, how hard is it to move from modelling to acting and be taken really seriously?  In the 70s?

Everytime I watch this, I am absorbed again.  In how people can come across one way and be another inside, whole layers to them unseen and seething.  How loyalty to a person can actually not help them; how honesty sometimes isn’t always the best move.  How the failure of justice can erode a society and cause its own kickback chaos – as Ann Bancroft quotes in the closing moments. 

It’s a dated film, sure, but I love it.  I’m not sure its vigilante message is a sound one. I have great personal love of summary justice of this kind; but I’ve had it explained to me a hundred times why people can’t go about doing stuff like this and I intellectually get it; its just that my vengeful gut likes loose ends tidied away and got rid of…and this film shows, from the look on her face, that needing to have had to shoot him herself because the system failed her, has changed her forever.  She’s not smug; she’s closed: that her sister, a 13 year old had such a horrible life changing experience because no one believed her own account of events, and because there are too many “eighteenth century juries” out there (that’s Anne Bancroft again)...  It does make you think.  This film is more than the exploitative sum of its parts.  Get a copy if you can, it’s out there.


I realized I have waffled too long on this one.  I was going to put all the films together, but I can’t now.  I will have to split them up, you know, so you don’t grow beards and get very old reading this.  So – I am going to be thematic: the first three films have themes involving the fashion world, but more specifically, the appearance of women, what it is used for, who looks and how (remember, feminists, the study of ‘the Gaze’?).  So – next: The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978).  Now that’s a cracker too.


  1. "You learn that a man who felt overtaken and overlooked in life, who felt others, especially women, had all the glory and privileges and wealth – and respect – he craves, is instead going to punish and dominate those women, as it’s all he thinks he has."
    I wish lol

    You do dissective writing of fiction very well - you don't have this apologist mentality in yr writing like you do when analysising real life in the coffeehouse entries, which is weird because we both know these fictional characters could equally get hurt feelings just as real people could ;)

    Good read


    1. I'm not aware of this apologist tone you keep telling me I'm taking!! Of course, the fictional characters could easily get hurt feelings - they have transmitters to our dimension, you know that ;-)) You'll love my next Dr Who book post if you can bear to snooze your way through it - I actually give a book a bad review, for the first time ever; you know I can find good in most things!