Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Felicity Huffman is the New Black

 So Felicity Huffman is going to prison. I confess I’m feeling sorry for her. Well, sort of. As Hollywood celebrities go, she’s always come off as a decent, down-to-earth type. She’s admitted wrongdoing in the college admission bribery scandal, and there’s a part of me that understands (even though I don’t endorse) mothers who do crazy things to smooth their children’s path. On the other hand, privilege undeserved is ugly indeed, and I hate the thought of buying your way into a prestigious college, particularly if this comes at the expense of a more worthy candidate.


When I read about the Huffman sentencing, my mind immediately raced to imagine a nice-girl type who—because of a single moral slip-up—is suddenly thrust among hardened criminals (thieves and murderers at the very least) and wonders whether she’ll have the fortitude to survive. This, of course, has been a major throughline of TV’s ultra-popular Orange is the New Black. One of this show’s virtues is its mixing of types: its cast members represent all sizes, all shapes, all backgrounds, all approaches to life. Prison (like a military platoon) makes such a compelling setting for a drama: because it begins with a high-pressure environment, then stirs together characters who wouldn’t naturally interact unless they were pulled away from their native habitats and forced to spend time together, 24/7.

Thinking about Orange is the New Black sends me back to my B-movie roots. When I first went to work for Roger Corman at New World Pictures, back in the good old days of grind-houses and drive-ins, we made lots of moolah on the Women in Prison genre, with down-and-dirty movies (usually shot in the Philippines) that featured babes behind bars. Realism was of no particular interest to us. Nor, of course, was originality. Flicks with titles like The Big Bird Cage and The Big Doll House (and, inevitably, The Big Bust-Out) all featured unfortunate gals in skimpy prison garb, unfairly confined to jungle prisons. Such prisons, needless to say, were presided over by evil wardens and Lesbian matrons (of the Barbara Steele variety) who found torture amusing. And of course the cast was diverse: the vulnerable newbie, the tough gal (Roberta Collins made a good one), the powerful black Valkyrie. Pam Grier got her start in this latter sort of role, long before she proved her chops in Tarantino’s Jackie Brown.

The women start out hating and mistrusting one another, leading to the ever-popular cat fight in the shower room. (Needless to say, excuses for on-screen nudity are much of the reason these films exist.) But finally the gals join forces for a daring escape from their captors. When I was doing interviews for my biography, Roger Corman: Blood-Sucking Vampires, Flesh-Eating Cockroaches, and Driller Killers, one New World alumna joked about how, in a film like The Big Bird Cage,  the female lead is inevitably falling out of her clothing while running through the jungle: “I think the faster she runs, with the machete in her hand, the more quickly the clothes fall away.”

Is there anything good to be said about the Babes Behind Bars genre? Well, it launched the career of a first-time director named Jonathan Demme. When he returned from Manila in 1974 with the footage that became Caged Heat, I thought his movie looked pretty much like any other Women in Prison flick. But film critics (particularly Kevin Thomas at the Los Angeles Times) gave Jonathan credit for making a deft parody of the genre. He also scored with a nifty catch line: “White hot desires melting cold prison steel.”. 


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