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Queens of Women: Five Cult Stars, Five Cult Films

  Quentin Tarantino, for it was he, called Blaxploitation icon Pam Grier "The Queen of Women" for her contribution to cinema, but at the time she was headlining her movies, there were a number of actresses from all over the world who could lay claim to that accolade. As the nineteen-sixties wore on, a new freedom in what was allowed to be depicted on the silver screen was exploited by filmmakers with a variety of intentions, from those who wished to bring out the arty side of their works to those who simply wished to make a healthy financial profit by serving up as lurid an entertainment as possible. As a result, a selection of female stars became known for their near the knuckle performances which more often than not involved them taking their clothes off for the cameras at key points in their appearances, but surely there was more to them than this? Certainly many of them were there for decoration - but not always.

Let's take a look at five cult stars who appeared in that key period of the late sixties to the early eighties, whose sex appeal was a major part of their allure for a range of audiences, but were not willing to be doormats either for the characters they shared their films with, nor the roles they were asked to adopt. First, Linda Hayden made her debut and started as she meant to go on with 1968's Baby Love, made when she was a teenager which was significant, as she was not playing an adult, she was playing her own age. Also significant was that in the role of her mother was a sex symbol of an earlier age, Diana Dors, who opens the story by committing suicide in the bath: this literally and symbolically affects Hayden's Luci deeply, but also stood in for the sense that Dors and her fifties pin-up ilk were on the way out as a very different style of female sexuality was starting to show up in films. Dors would be in some of these herself, but her days of essaying nubile were behind her.

Make way for Hayden, then, and those like her such as Caroline Munro, Madeleine Smith or Valerie Leon, and a host of British actresses who disrobed to some degree or other in the fad for sex comedies that dominated the nation's screens without so much as a nod from the tastemakers that any of this was worth a morsel of respectability, no matter how they were lapped up by the general public. It wouldn't last, of course, mainly because the British film industry was staggering to a virtual halt and this last gasp of decadence was all that was sustaining it, briefly flickering into life before grinding out the usual low ambition business once again, but Baby Love was notable for two reasons, it presented the new freedoms to tell its tale, but also that it was not a comedy. Indeed, it took Luci and her troubled mind very seriously, so while there were scenes of nudity provided by Hayden, she was offering a far more layered reading of her character that illustrated why she picked up the following she did, as she could genuinely act, and in another era this would have led to great opportunities.

However, she had played the seductive card and that's what she wound up required to do for the rest of her heyday. Luci moves in with her mother's old boyfriend Keith Barron, who may or may not be her actual father, and represents a step up in class strata for the girl; he has a wife, Anne Lynn, and teenage son, Derek Lamden, who in curious fashion become sexually obsessed with Luci, with the son frustrated when he cannot make any progress but also aware the last thing she needs to be is corrupted, and the wife in a particularly perverse twist finding herself mothering the girl as a stand-in for the deceased presence who still haunts Luci's nightmares only to wind up becoming her lover and leaving us wondering who was exploiting whom. Many picked up that this was a variation on Pier Paolo Pasolini's Teorema, but with a very British filter of kitchen sinks, Swinging London and class conflict, a lot for any actress to shoulder but Hayden made an impression on any who saw her, probably because the film was so disturbed by Luci and the mixed feelings she elicited. It was a very odd thing.

Across the Atlantic, America was embracing the new, less restrictive censorship rules with a series of increasingly explicit movies; certainly you could go and see a porno if you wanted that sexual element given full rein, but what if you actually wanted a story and proper characters to present thrills and spills? You were well-catered for here as well, and one of the leading lights of the female-led action flick was the aforementioned Pam Grier, who starting from a minor supporting role in Russ Meyer's Beyond the Valley of the Dolls went on to work with Roger Corman and the folks at A.I.P., gaining roles of increasing stature until her popularity deemed her ideal for her very own starring part. Following on from the women in prison films that had raised her profile, in 1973 she appeared in Coffy, the brainchild of cult auteur Jack Hill whose productions would deliver on the more saleable aspects of your typical night out at the drive-in or grindhouse.

Grier could not have been better cast, as in Coffy she was a one-woman engine of vengeance, getting back at the drug dealers who had ruined her little sister's life and finding herself increasingly betrayed the further into the mire of corruption and violence she got. It was obvious why audiences wanted to watch her, as not only was she beautiful, but she had enough talent to deliver her lines with authority and even shade her performances with genuinely convincing emotion, not bad when often what was going on around her was pretty much a live-action cartoon for adults. Hill gave her some lines right at the end where she surprises you with her heartfelt sincerity, allowing us to feel, after all that mayhem, that Coffy was a three-dimensional person; it may sound absurd that Grier would even want to invest such a sleazy film with that degree of seriousness, but that's was precisely why she was so treasured by her fans.

That plot was essentially an excuse for Coffy to infiltrate and destroy the influence of the gangsters and those in power who would allow them to operate with impunity, as meanwhile those on the lowest rungs of the social ladder are suffering the most, and profited from by the evildoers. There was an interesting hierarchy here as the white men seem to be at the top of the tree, then the black men, then the women in general, and finally clawing her way to some respect was nurse Coffin, nicknamed Coffy, who did not necessarily find solidarity in sisterhood or her fellow African American citizens, a development that would be dispiriting and cynical were it not for our heroin-busting heroine who stands proud as a beacon of decency in this miserable world. Not to say she was not above turning to underhand tricks to get her way: there's an epic catfight scene where she not only makes sure to rip open her rivals' tops, but also puts razor blades in her afro as a defence device. That this ended with Coffy shotgunning her chief villain in the crotch was all too apt.

Another actress doling out punishment to the men who would dare mess with her was Claudia Jennings in the hickiest of her hicksploitation flicks, Gator Bait. This was released in 1974 when the drive-ins and grindhouses were heaving with such fare, but managed to stand out thanks to the striking, red-haired Jennings and her signature outfit of cut-off denim shorts and shirt, buttoned above the navel: publicity shots from this film were used time and again to illustrate her glamour. It was those Southern exploitation masters the Sebastians, Ferd and Beverly, who dreamt this up, hoping to make an action movie on next to no money without any sets, or hardly any, using the great outdoors locations of the Louisiana swamps as a cost-cutting measure. What they did have was Jennings, who was fast becoming a true star in her field, and landing her in the lead role, around which the entire production was constructed, was a genuine coup for them.

Gator Bait had since gone on to be a firm favourite of Jennings' fans, thanks to it showing her off to her best advantage, the capable, physical young woman she excelled at playing. She certainly looked to be thoroughly enjoying herself when it came to driving her motorboat through the rivers and lakes around the swamp, so much so that about half her time in the actual movie consisted of her with the wind in her hair as she powered about the waterways, evidently in her element. When you settle down to watch this, you begin to notice that while Jennings was the undoubted star, she was not really in this as much as some lead actresses would be in their efforts, as quite a bit of this was taken up with the ghastly men hunting her character Desiree down thanks to the misapprehension that she had murdered the son of the patriarch with them, when in fact it was the deputy who had accidently killed the man when Desiree threw a sackfull of snakes in their boat to get rid of them.

The results were an extended chase, with interludes, through that swampland, a picturesque but unforgiving region where Jennings had you believing she was tough enough to exist there with her weaker in constitution younger sister and brother. When the sister is murdered by the search party in a most unpleasant fashion, the theme of punishing the worst of the male gender for their repellent behaviour was clear - though not without the Sebastians showing those acts, to keep the audience on their toes - as the bad guys make frequent mention that they want to rape Desiree before they kill her. She's not having that, and if it wasn't easy enough to cheer for Jennings before, then it assuredly is during this. In real life, the former Playboy Playmate of the year was just about to end her relationship with songwriter Bobby Hart and spiral down into drug addiction, though she continued to work; at the time of her death aged 29, having fallen asleep at the wheel of her car one night, she appeared to be getting herself sorted out once again. Her fans mourn her to this day.

One actress who got stuck in roles where she had to be nude but yearned to be taken more seriously and "go legit" as it were, was Laura Gemser. Originally born in Indonesia, she moved to Europe with her family at a young age where she eventually became a model, and after that, parts in films happened along, though nothing that could be described as particularly respectable. See one of her most notorious efforts, Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals, an Italian softcore porn epic-cum-horror with extreme elements, as you would note from the very first scene where our heroine was undercover in a mental hospital, taking photos with a camera hidden in a doll, who when we encounter her had just seen one of the nurses be attacked by one of the inmates when her breast has a bite out of it. If you thought that was a bit much, just wait till you see what happens over the course of the next ninety minutes as Emanuelle becomes involved with a deadly Amazon expedition.

Who was Emaunelle? Well, she wasn't Emmanuelle (note the spelling), the central character of the Sylvia Krystel series of saucy skinflicks, she was a cash-in in a way that the British Carry On Emmannuelle definitely was not, starting out with Miss Gemser in Black Emanuelle, an African-set escapade for the titular photojournalist. Her adventures become ever more nasty thanks to the directors being of the go for broke sleaze merchant calibre of Joe D'Amato, who was at the helm of the cannibal effort, which mixed simulated sex scenes that Gemser's fans wanted to watch with other elements far closer to horror, with a dose of the mondo movie culture about them. So it was with titles like Emanuelle Around the World or most notoriously, Emanuelle in America, but the time when she headed off down the Amazon river to research the supposed tribe flesh-eaters who still existed somewhere, somehow was no walk in the park either.

Naturally, any semblance of reality here was strictly ridiculous, but as ever with Gemser, she wasn't playing the victim, she was a proactive presence in her films, observing, yes, but managing to make a positive difference if she could. Here, somewhat predictably, Emanuelle saves the day by taking all her clothes off which is so dazzling to the cannibals that they forget what they're meant to be doing with all their arcane (i.e. made up) rituals, which was just as well since like Jennings in Gator Bait she was in danger of being sidelined by other characters in her own movie. Fortunately, once seen, Gemser was difficult to forget, and though it may not have been easy to tell if she would have flourished in more conventional roles from the ones she did adopt, she certainly had the screen presence of a star, no matter the reduced circumstances she would often find herself in. As for the Last Cannibals, it was part of that curiously Italian subgenre of shockers that reached its nadir with Cannibal Holocaust, and thankfully there was no animal cruelty here for Emanuelle to report upon. Gemser's fans would appreciate her prevailing against the odds, as ever.

Another cult star who emerged in European films was the Berlin-born Nastassja Kinski, who went on to be highly admired but rarely appeared in a big success at the box office, in spite of having many fans who were captivated by her looks. She was the daughter of the notoriously dodgy Klaus Kinski, a cult star himself for far different reasons as Nastassja was far better behaved, and they were estranged from an early stage in her life, though his profession seemed to dictate where her future career lay, as if the world was expecting her to take up the family business no matter that there was no chance they would ever appear together on the screen. She made genre movies (To the Devil a Daughter, one of her first, was Hammer's last for decades) and arthouse projects (her appearance in Paris, Texas was one of the most magical sequences of the eighties), yet her filmography is littered with productions most will never have heard of, never mind have any inclination to actually seek out. One of these was Harem, which while a hit in France was greeted with a muted reception elsewhere.

However, unlike the other four films in this article, Harem secured many a showing on late night television across the globe, guaranteed an audience of those about to go to bed or outright suffering from insomnia and therefore awake anyway. Granted, this may have been thanks to the promise of nudity, from Kinski and others, but something about the actress remained compelling even in a plot that was, shall we say, rather unusual no matter the way it was approached with utmost sincerity and even romantic longing. It saw her play an American worker on the stock exchange who finds one day that she has been watched from afar by a mystery man for some time, and not only that but he has designs on her. This was where it grew yet more uneasy, thanks to that man kidnapping her and taking her abroad, to his desert palace to join the harem of the title. And was this Sheik the eighties equivalent of Rudolph Valentino? Nope, he was Ben Kingsley, fresh off his Oscar success for Gandhi and seeking a decent role that did him justice.

They certainly were an odd couple, not least because after initial resistance Kinski warms to this remote and emotionally stunted billionaire, accepting his advances and the chance to live in that palace amidst a bunch of women she can barely understand because Kingsley admits he may have them around to do his bidding, but not only has he never been in love with any of them, he also has never had sexual relations with them, so Nastassja should count herself lucky that he has shown an interest. Some very odd gender politics here, and like Jennings and Gemser, she wound up neglected in her own movie when the plot took a liking to the enigmatic sheik and started forgetting the first half hour had been all about the abductee. When he shoots someone dead for brushing their teeth in the main harem's vast bathing pool (!) it's just one aspect of a work that sounded like it was going to be capitalising on Kinski's looks yet finished as a rumination on what kind of man would be attracted to her, something that could apply to each of the stars outlined above. Whatever generated their popularity when so many others in their position were forgotten was a conundrum that would be with us as long as there were film stars.
Author: Graeme Clark

 

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Last Updated: 18 March, 2006