RETRO ACTIVE: Blaze (1989)
by Nick Schager
[This week's "Retro Active" piece is inspired by the Will Ferrell-Zach Galifianakis political comedy The Campaign.]
struts through Blaze
with disheveled hair and a crazed glint in his eye, looking like a man who's just awakened from a nap still half-drunk. Booze, however, isn't the problem for Newman's Earl Long, the notorious 1950s governor of Louisiana; accusations about insanity are, courtesy of his staunch belief in voting legislation aimed at helping African-Americans, as well as his fondness for carousing with the ladies of New Orleans' hot night spots. "Looks like a fine night for prowling around," opines Long as he exits his car in front of the ShowBar, and it turns out he's right, as that particular evening brings him into contact with Blaze Starr
), a busty redheaded beauty who entrances Long from the moment go. As the intro of Ron Shelton
's film (based on Starr's memoir) lays out with hokey conventionality, Starr is a country girl whose dreams of making it big in the city as a singer were dashed by a shady burlesque club owner (Robert Wuhl
) who convinced her to take up a stripping career, and by the time she meets Long, she's transformed herself into an empowered unclothed individualist—a process that Shelton visualizes via a montage in which she comes into her own by perfecting the application of sexy stage make-up.
For the follow-up to his debut Bull Durham
, Shelton sloppily mythologizes both his protagonists, whose subsequent May-December relationship involves Blaze simultaneously rejuvenating and hindering the larger-than-life Long. Blaze is a firecracker who has Long buy her a panther for her stage show, and whose overpowering sexuality—despite her backwoods religious upbringing in a rickety cabin where kids run about like stray dogs—blossoms so quickly and fully that it comes to seem elemental. Shelton imagines Blaze as the embodiment of you-go-girl sensual power as well as a woman of down-home values, as her loyalty and love for Long are genuine, and lead to eventual sacrifices for Long's career and her own life. It's a portrait so faultless that it doesn't quite hold, as Blaze saunters through the film with an unimpeachable strength and nobility that seems like fantasy, and a belief in Long that's so staunch and unwavering that it comes off as a screenwriting device. Beating Julia Roberts
and Pretty Woman
to the punch by a year, she's the epitome of a working girl with a heart of gold, a comforting cartoon figure who's more downy-soft teddy bear than carnal tornado, and who's eventually defined less by her sexuality (or her skeezy profession) than her girl-next-door loyalty, kindness and independence.
That sort of rose-tinted view is indicative of Blaze
, which portrays Long with a similar lack of complication. Emboldened by the legacy of his slain brother Huey as well as his own considerable ego, Long is an uninhibited boor whose lack of restraint makes his supporters nervous and his enemies fume, especially given his desire to support African-American voting rights on the eve of his re-election campaign. Given his taste for women, and his eventual relationship with Blaze, Long is soon slandered as a madman, but Shelton is so fully on Long's side as a fiery iconoclast doing what's right regardless of the consequences that there's no complexity to the character, merely a "colorful" symbol stripped of the very nuance that might make him more than just a charismatic caricature. That is Blaze
's biggest failing, especially in light of the fact that Newman so vociferously takes to the role, chewing scenery with a gusto that intermittently sustains the film's verve. Flashing a dreamy-kooky gaze that can harden at a moment into righteous inflexibility, and marching about the frame with a physical creakiness that can't stymie his relentless intensity, Newman personifies Long as a whirlwind of no-nonsense passion and intensity—a depiction that, as when he beds Blaze while wearing his boots (for "greater traction"), is also bolstered by a wily, idiosyncratic sense of humor.
Shelton, alas, wastes Newman's and Davidovich's performances in a film that has absolutely nothing to say about mid-century politics—since triumph comes to those who simply stick to their guns, and have the support of their friends and lovers—and no more to impart about its particular characters' unconventional affair. Shelton would like Blaze to be the spark that reignites the crumbling Long's confidence and power (i.e. his manliness). But even that thread is undercut by the fact that Long seems, from the outset, to be a lion rather than a mouse, thus turning the stripper less into a vehicle for his rebirth than merely an angelic companion who sticks by him through thick and thin. Shelton's writing is full of amusing southern-friend bon mots (upon finding his below-the-belt equipment unresponsive during lovemaking, Long quips "I'd fire the damn freeloader if I could"). Yet his fondness for sentimentalizing Louisiana through vistas of misty mountaintops and rolling streams is almost as one-note as his racist villains and his dramatic scripting, which adheres to an unadventurous formula of good triumphing over adversity and evil. The result is an occasionally rollicking film, but one that mainly feels toothless and cowardly, so closely hewing to its autobiographical source material that it merely prints the unbelievable storybook legend rather than any emotional or psychological truth.
Posted by ahillis at August 14, 2012 6:28 AM