Thursday, September 1, 2022

The Female Animal (1958)

The Female Animal was Hedy Lamarr’s last movie. And it’s not at all a bad way for her career to end. She has a really juicy part and she makes the most of it and it’s a very entertaining movie.

Lamarr plays movie star Vanessa Windsor. Miss Windsor deals with the stresses of stardom by having the occasional little drink. And you know how it is. Before you know it you’ve had quite a few little drinks. She’s also just a little bit temperamental. She doesn’t throw tantrums but if she doesn’t feel like doing a retake the retake doesn’t get done. She’s a star and she gets what she wants.

Then comes an accident on the sound stage,. She is almost killed by a falling spotlight. Luckily handsome extra Chris Farley pushes her out of the way, saving her life. The next thing Chris knows he’s on the front page of the newspapers - the man who saved the life of a big-time movie star. It’s all a bit bewildering to him and he’s even more bewildered when he finds himself escorting Vanessa Windsor to a film premiere. After the premiere she invites him to her beach house. She suggests they have a night-time swim but clearly she has other forms of recreation in mind as well.

Vanessa Windsor has fallen head over heels in lust.

Vanessa then realises she needs someone to look after her beach house. A sort of caretaker. She thinks Chris would be ideal. So Chris is now living in a luxury beach house in Malibu. It will be convenient for him, and it will be convenient for Vanessa.

At this point it’s important to stress that Vanessa is not a conniving scheming woman. She’s not a spider woman. Sure she’s set Chris up as a kept man but it’s not like he’s some innocent farmboy who just got off the bus from Iowa. He’s in his mid-thirties and he works in the film business. He knows the score. And Vanessa knows that he knows the score. He’s not the first man to be a paid stud for a female movie star and he and Vanessa are genuinely quite fond of each other. They’re both grown-ups and it’s a peasant setup for both of them. And Vanesa is still a very beautiful glamorous woman. Keeping her happy is likely to be rather a pleasant task. There’s no reason that anyone should get hurt. As long as they don’t actually fall in love, and of course Vanessa does just that.

Then fate steps in. Fate, as so often, comes in the shape of a young woman (played by Jane Powell). Chris sees her in a bar. She’s blind drunk. It’s nothing to do with him but then the guy she’s with turns nasty so Chris has to do the knight in shining armour thing. In the course of the unpleasantness the girl ended up in the gutter and her dress is covered in mud. Like a good knight in shining armour Chris takes her back to the beach house. His intentions really are entirely honourable and nothing dishonourable happens. He cleans the girl up and put her in a cab and sends her home. Everything would be OK except for one little detail that Chris is unaware of. The girl is Vanessa’s adopted daughter Penny.

This really complicates things. Especially when an obvious attraction develops between Penny and Chris. Vanessa knows something is going on with Chris but she doesn’t know about Chris and Penny.

Chris is also starting to feel unhappy about his kept man status. It’s not that Vanesa ever treats him as a mere gigolo. Vanessa has her faults but she would never do anything gratuitously cruel. It’s just an unfortunate fact that Vanessa has lots and lots of money and Chris has none and in the 1950s a man in Chris’s position was going to attract a certain amount of contempt for allowing himself to be kept by a rich woman. It’s something Chris just can’t deal with.

It all leads up to an ending which caught me by surprise.

This movie dates from a time when the studios were starting to find the Production Code to be frustratingly stifling. The studios felt (correctly) that they needed to make movies that were more grown-up. They wanted to be able to tell grown-up stories without the Production Code ripping the guts out of such stories. They wanted to deal with sex in a more adult way. The Female Animal is a prime example of the sort of grown-up movie the studios now wanted to make, and were starting to insist on making whether the Production Code Authority liked it or not. It’s remarkably open about female sexuality. We’re left in no doubt that Vanessa’s initial attraction towards Chris is entirely sexual. It later becomes a deeper and more complex emotion but at the beginning it’s pure sex. And the sexual nature of the relationship between Vanessa and Chris is made very clear.

It’s also surprising that the film is not particularly judgmental about this. Vanesa has sexual needs and she satisfies those needs. It’s not her sexual desires that cause the problems that the various characters have to face. It’s her failure to understand that Chris feels humiliated that causes much bigger problems (Vanessa has a tendency to avoid seeing things she doesn’t want to see) and the biggest problems are caused by Chris’s inability to swallow his pride. And of course it’s the developing romantic triangle that brings things to a head.

Vanessa is a sympathetic character. She has her flaws and she makes mistakes but she’s never malicious. She’s just a human being tying to cope the best way she knows how and she really does genuinely try to make things work with Chris.

I’m not quite sure about Jane Powell as Penny. She chews the scenery a it too much which can be effective in a melodrama but it contrasts unfavourably with Lamarr’s far more subtle performance. Modern audiences will probably feel less sympathetic towards Chris than audiences in the 50s. George Nader’s performance is OK although he does lack star power. Jan Sterling is fun as Lily Frayne, a star whose lustre has faded. Lily has had a string of kept men but unlike Vanessa Lily teats her men as mere sexual playthings.

This movie however belongs to Hedy Lamarr. Her career may have been winding down but her talent was undimmed. She gives one of her best and most nuanced performances. It helps that she was still capable of being very glamorous and very sexy. Vanessa is a fascinating character, made more fascinating by the fact that she doesn’t really understand herself.

The Female Animal also falls into the sub-category of movies that look at Hollywood’s darker side. It’s not a scathing indictment of Hollywood by any means and the occasional moments of satire are subtle. It’s not the wickedness of Hollywood that the movie focuses on, but the air on unreality. Both Vanessa and Penny have lived artificial lives and have had problems when faced with real life.

The movie does have some weaknesses. The major weakness is Penny. Jane Powell was much too old to be playing Hedy Lamarr’s daughter, she was miscast and the part is badly underwritten. Crucially we never find out why Penny is so bitter towards her mother. Vanessa seems to be a caring mother. Perhaps Penny is just a spoilt brat but we still needed to know more about why Penny is so messed-up.

Criticism of this movie are often based on a misunderstanding of the film. One such criticism is that Hedy Lamarr at 43 was too young, too beautiful and too sexy to be a convincing faded star. But this is not Sunset Boulevard. Vanessa is not Norma Desmond. We’re not meant to despise her or pity her. Vanessa is supposed to be a star at the top. There’s also the criticism that Vanessa doesn’t look like she’d need to rely on gigolos. But there are plausible reasons to explain this. With a daughter like Penny to deal with she would have problems forming relationships with men. Vanesa is also a woman who likes to be in control. With her toy boys she’s in control. It also makes the Chris-Vanessa relationship more interesting. Vanessa knows that men don’t have to pretend to be sexually attracted to her so she really doesn’t feel she’s exploiting Chris.

Jan Sterling on the other hand was too young to play Lily Frayne. She does her best but we don’t buy her as a faded has-been (and Lily really is supposed to be a has-been).

This movie has been released in one of Kino Lorber’s film noir Blu-Ray boxed sets. The Female Animal is not film noir. It’s a melodrama. There is no reason to apologise for that. There’s nothing wrong with melodrama. It’s like every other genre. It can be done well or it can be done badly. Here it’s done reasonably well.

The Female Animal is very entertaining grown-up melodrama, even with its flaws. It would be worth seeing anyway but Hedy Lamarr’s performance lifts it into the recommended class.

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