Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Women Under Attack: Theresa Saldana and Some Others

Somehow it’s fitting that, at the time that a particularly ugly campus rape (and its prosecution) is making news across America, media sources are announcing the death of actress Theresa Saldana. Saldana, who died of an unnamed illness at age 61, was a working actress celebrated for her role in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull and for a number of TV appearances. But the public best knew her for surviving an attack by a deranged fan, who traveled from his home in Scotland to track her to her West Hollywood apartment. On the morning of March 15, 1982 he approached her on the sidewalk and stabbed her ten times, only stopping when accosted by a passing bottled-water delivery man. Thankfully she recovered from her wounds, founded an advocacy group to push for stricter anti-stalking laws, and had the fortitude to play herself in a 1984 TV movie titled “Victims for Victims: The Theresa Saldana Story.” Re-enacting the scene of her attack for the cameras must have taken real courage. (Sadly, the story was repeated—with a much more tragic outcome—last week when a finalist on The Voice, singer Christina Grimmie, was killed after a concert in Orlando, apparently by yet another male “fan.”)   

It’s not only women who suffer at the hands of stalkers: look at what happened to John Lennon. But women, whether famous or not, are particularly vulnerable. Which reminds me of another death that occurred this past year, that of British actress Adrienne Corri. She may not be well known, particularly in this country, but personally I’ll never forget her. For it was Corri who played a ghastly scene in Stanley Kubrick’s brutal dystopian drama, A Clockwork Orange (released in the U.S. in 1971). In the film, Corri is an affluent housewife, lounging with her husband in an isolated suburban house filled with arty bric-à-brac. Suddenly, the sanctity of their home is violated by protagonist Alex (Malcolm McDowell) and his band of marauding delinquents, known in the parlance of Anthony Burgess’s source-novel as Droogs. As her husband, bound and gagged, is forced to watch, Corri’s character is attacked by the young punks. Her red jumpsuit is sliced away, leaving her naked and vulnerable. Alex then assaults her viciously to the cheery tune of “Singin’ in the Rain,” before ramming her with a phallic-looking piece of object d’art. The scene is staged by Kubrick to be darkly funny. Most of the first-run audience surrounding me at the Grauman’s Chinese Theatre howled with laughter. Personally, in all my days of moviegoing, I have never felt so female, nor so vulnerable.

Why would a woman want to play such a role? The legend is that Corri took the part when another actress refused to go through with it. For her, a role was a role. In the course of her long stage and screen career, she acted in the works of Samuel Beckett, and was directed by legends like Jean Renoir (The River) and David Lean (Doctor Zhivago). Her New York Times obituary describes her as “fearless,” and she was even able to approach a harrowing rape scene with a sense of humor.

But rape, as we keep needing to be reminded, isn’t funny. Jonathan Demme drove  home that point in a 1988 film, The Accused. The role of the victim of a brutal gang rape in a pool hall won Jodie Foster her first Oscar. The film forcefully argues against the “blame-the-victim” mentality that still shows up in too many courtrooms. Still, it’s sad that Hollywood actresses are so often rewarded for parts that trade on their characters’ victimization.

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