Butterfly (1982) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)
After having worked as a child star in a film
universally acknowledged to be one of the worst ever made (Santa
Claus Conquers the Martians), Pia Zadora disappeared for a couple of
decades. When she returned to Hollywood, she soon built a reputation
as the ultimate 1980s bimbo. People said that she not only looked
like a bim, but she couldn't act worth beans, and she eventually
ended up winning a special Razzie as "worst actress of the decade."
To be honest, it was amazing that people still remembered her when
the decade was over. By the time of the election which summarized
the decade for the Razzie folks, Pia had virtually disappeared from
the public eye. She was able to achieve the notoriety of being the
decade's worst actress based on nothing more than two obscure
early in the decade: Butterfly (1982) and The Lonely Lady (1983).
Zadora's appeal, if that is the correct word, was her uncanny facial resemblance to a very young teen, despite the fact that she was nearly thirty when she made those two films. You know how it is with guys and young girls. Moreover, Zadora combined her little girl face with a lost puppy neediness and a very impressive womanly body. Put her in a Catholic prep school uniform, and she would have become the richest woman in Japan. Blessed with a decent set of pipes, she also could have become a Broadway-style singer, but for some reason she chose to be an actress instead, and she just never seemed to have the chops for that profession, or so went the conventional wisdom. During and after those two films, she became one of Johnny Carson's instant punch lines, and eventually her entire career seemed to consist of playing herself in skits and spoofs.
I agree with the contemporary reviewers that The Lonely Lady was a genuinely awful movie, and Pia was awful in it. The verdict of history seems to concur. The Lonely Lady actually gives Santa Claus Conquers the Martian a good battle for the dishonor of being the all-time worst Pia Zadora movie in the IMDb ratings. That is an amazing achievement, considering that Santa is rated the 40th worst of all time!
The Lonely Lady destroyed any hope Pia may have had to become a respected actress. The film was nominated for eleven Razzie awards and won six, including all the important ones. Pia, of course, won the "Worst Actress" trophy.
Butterfly also won her a Worst Actress Razzie, but that movie is a whole different kettle of crawdads. It also won her some legitimate positive awards. They loved her at Cannes, and Rex Reed praised Butterfly as if it were the second coming of Battleship Potemkin. Pia was not only nominated for the Golden Globe for Best New Star of the Year in a Motion Picture, but she won the award, and she didn't beat a bunch of nobodies, either. She beat out one of the greatest debuts in film history - Kathleen Turner in Body Heat!! Think about that. The 1982 voters had to choose the hottest newcomer and took Pia Zadora in Butterfly over Kathleen Turner in Body Heat. Pia may have become a universal punch line by 1983, but it is obvious that not everyone thought she sucked in 1982. (In fairness, there have always been rumors that the Golden Globes election was fixed by Zadora's rich husband.)
Butterfly is not a great movie, but it's not so bad at all, and Zadora's limitations were offset by the fact that she was cast perfectly as a Lolita character. Stacy Keach plays a lonely hermit of a miner assigned to guard an abandoned mine out in the desert. Zadora shows up on his doorstep one day, claiming to be his long-lost daughter. She's not exactly the pigtails-and-Barbies kind of daughter. She soon proceeds to show him her naughty bits every chance she gets, and does her best to seduce him. At one point Keach is actually bathing a naked Zadora, scrubbing her breasts, before he finally pulls back and declares, "This isn't right." You have to admire his resolve in that scene, since Keach had been without a woman for a long time, and ripe li'l Zadora was definitely offering the ol' miner a chance to strike the daughterlode. A minor for a miner.
The atmosphere of the film can best be described as "sweat and saxophones" - pretty much what you'd expect from a script based on a steamy James M. Cain story. Unfortunately, Stacy Keach never seemed to get into the rhythm of the film and seemed oblivious to the script's inherent potential for entertaining over-the-top sleaze. He approached the entire project as seriously and professionally as if he were performing Henry V at the Old Vic, or even Vic V and the Oh Henry. The supporting cast, however, cheesed it up. Burl Ives couldn't make his customary Southern Gothic appearance as the sweaty fat authority figure in a Colonel Sanders suit, but Orson Welles filled in for him, and a host of B-list celebs dropped in from time to time, including Stewart Whitman, James Franciscus, and me, I'm Ed McMahon.
The last name is the key to Zadora's infamy. It was McMahon's presence in this film which eventually turned Pia into a standing joke. Carson loved to ride his sidekick, and this project provided ideal grist for Johnny's joke mill. Without McMahon in the cast, Zadora might have simply faded into obscurity like so many other wannabes, but Ed's presence in Butterfly guaranteed Johnny's eternal vigilance, and Johnny did as much as anyone in the world to shape the public's opinions about popular culture.
To tell you the truth, the entire movie is raunchy and melodramatic, but it is much better than the judgment of history and the IMDb voters. The plot is just your typical potboiler, but the film has a lot of positives. Cain is the guy who wrote Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, so his work had both the competence and the sleaziness to provide an ideal vehicle for Pia, and the premise of Butterfly seemed to fit her like a custom-tailored suit. The cinematography captures the isolation and stark beauty of the desert quite effectively, and the score was written by screen legend Ennio Morricone, who has written some of the greatest scores in screen history. (Once Upon a Time in America; The Good The Bad and the Ugly; Days of Heaven, Malena, Nuovo Cinema Paradiso, The Legend of 1900; and about 400 more! That's a not a misprint. He has 486 musical composition credits at IMDb.)
All that plus Ed McMahon, plus Orson Welles. How can you not be interested? You may well find this film highly entertaining in an operatic kind of way. I do.
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