Thursday, January 21, 2021

When Lana Clarkson Met Phil Spector: To Know Him is NOT to Love Him


Well, music mogul Phil Spector is dead. I’m sorry, of course, for anyone who succumbs to COVID, but far be it for me to pay tribute to a madman and a murderer. Instead, I want to mark his passing by remembering his victim, Lana Clarkson. She was a B-movie actress—tall, blonde, and gorgeous—who on February 3, 2003 met Spector at Hollywood’s House of Blues, and accompanied him back to his castle-like mansion in (of all places) suburban Alhambra, California.  Exactly what happened between them that night remains a mystery, but she suffered a fatal gunshot wound to the mouth, and courts did not buy Spector’s claim that her death was an “accidental suicide.”

 I never met Lana Clarkson, but I knew many of the people involved with making perhaps her most notable film, Barbarian Queen (1985). It was a classic Roger Corman quickie, shot in Argentina by Héctor Olivera, a courtly Argentine gentleman best known for the satiric Funny Dirty Little War, and written by a Corman regular, the late Howard R. Cohen. Corman’s minions were well versed in the selling of movies by way of eye-catching poster art, and Boris Vallejo’s poster for Barbarian Queen says it all: it shows a gaggle of young lovelies who wear little but suntans, each of them brandishing a lethal-looking sword or spear. The catchline: “No man can touch her naked steel.” (At Concorde-New Horizons, we were good at coming up with suggestive turns of phrase.)

 Barbarian Queen well served the audience for which it was intended, which I think of as horny young men with money for video rentals. The irrepressible Joe Bob Briggs, a Texas-born promoter of B-movies, gave it a stellar review: "It's no Conan the Barbarian II, but it's got what it takes, namely: Forty-six breasts, including two on the male lead. Thirty-one dead bodies. Heads roll. Head spills. Three gang rapes. Women in chains. Orgy. Slave-girl sharing. One bird's-nest bra. The diabolical garbonza torture. Sword fu. Torch fu. Thigh fu (you have to see it to believe it)."

  The fascinating thing about Roger Corman’s Concorde flicks is that they merge a feminist outlook with raw exploitation. Corman leading ladies are as tough as they are gorgeous. They have no patience for being pushed around, and they can out-think -- as well as out-fight -- pretty much everybody in the room. Still, they do have this penchant for taking their clothes off, making the males in the audience very happy indeed. Corman’s many disciples certainly borrowed the master’s strategy. When I saw that moment in Titanic when Kate Winslet poses for Leonardo DiCaprio wearing nothing but the Heart of the Ocean necklace, I knew that alumnus James Cameron had learned his Corman lessons well. Ditto for the smart, tough Sigourney Weaver strippng down to her scanties before rescuing her cat in Alien. (No, director Ridley Scott didn’t work for Roger, but Hollywood in the Eighties certainly picked up on Roger’s style, then added a much bigger budget.)

 Movie heroines of old were always needing to be rescued. (See The Perils of Pauline, and everything starring Lillian Gish.) Corman heroines (like Angie Dickinson in Big Bad Mama and Pam Grier in just about everything) were always on the verge of being raped, tortured, or killed—but they knew how to turn the tables. That’s one of the very sad things about Lana Clarkson’s fate. In the movies, her Queen Amethea might have been threatened by rapacious bad guys, but she always managed to gain the upper hand. In real life, though, Phil Spector had her beat.

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