Released in the spring of 1976 to near universal disdain and almost killing off the film career of Margaux Hemingway before it even had a chance to truly begin, Lamont Johnson’s LIPSTICK remains one of the best, if most under-appreciated, revenge flicks of the seventies. An exhilaratingly seedy film propelled by Johnson’s stylish direction, Hemingway’s electric screen presence and an incredibly off kilter score by legendary French musician Michel Polnareff.
Lamont Johnson is probably best known as a television director for such series as The Twilight Zone but a quick glance over his filmography will show some real surprises, like the bone-chilling Patti Duke thriller YOU’LL LIKE MY MOTHER (1972) and the winning Robby Benson-Annette O’Toole romance ONE ON ONE (1977). Johnson lent a sure hand to all of his projects (his television film MY SWEET CHARLIE (1970), also starring Patti Duke, is one of the real lost treasures of the period) and his work on LIPSTICK is no different as it is an exceedingly well-directed and confident film.
LIPSTICK was the brainchild of mega big time producers Dino De Laurentiis and Freddie Fields. It began to take shape in the mid seventies and it was first offered to award winning British director Michael Winner in 1974. Winner, no stranger to revenge thrillers, as he had just come off the smash hit DEATH WISH with Charles Bronson, turned down the project and it ended up with Johnson and screenwriter David Rayfiel. Rayfiel had spent much of his career touching up quality screenplays like JEREMIAH JOHNSON (1972), THE WAY WE WERE WERE (1973) and THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR (1974) and it is a pity that he didn’t have some back up on LIPSTICK as his formulaic script is easily the weakest thing about it. The much-maligned Margaux Hemingway is actually very good in the film when she is asked to react and express emotion, but Rayfiel’s wooden dialogue consistently lets the inexperienced actress down.
LIPSTICK marks the first feature film by Fields where he is granted sole production credited. De Laurentiis is listed as executive producer and LIPSTICK does indeed feel more like a Freddie Fields production than one of Dino’s works as it shares much in common stylistically with Fields later monster hit, Paul Schrader’s AMERICAN GIGOLO (1980). It can be argued that the look and feel of LIPSTICK had more of an effect on American cinema in the early eighties than the several uber-hits of the period that get most of the credit.
Fields got the idea to fill the role of the lead in the film, a super-model named Chris McCormick, with an actual big time model of the period early on in the film’s planning stages. After juggling around a few possibilities with De Laurentiis the named that kept popping up was a young model who was quickly becoming one of the most in demand and influential of the period.
Margaux Hemingway was born in Portland, Oregon in the winter of 1954. She grew up on her father Jack’s farm in Ketchum, Idaho and was scarred at the age of seven with the news that her legendary Grandfather, literary giant Ernest Hemingway, had killed himself with a shotgun blast to the head. Her Grandfather’s legend and tragic death would haunt the young Hemingway for the rest of her life as she consistently battled her own personal demons until her untimely demise in 1996.
In the mid seventies though, tragedy seemed very far away from Margaux as she made huge headlines by being the first model to ever get a million dollar contract, for the Faberge fragrance 'Babe'. The just past twenty year old Hemingway’s face was every where and she can lay legitimate claim to being one of the first genuine ‘super-models’ in history and she would influence everyone who followed from Gia Carangi to Adriana Lima.
Movies seemed a logical step for Margaux and she accepted Fields offer to star in the very difficult role of a McCormick, a model very much like herself who is brutally raped by an assailant and then the judicial system before brandishing her own form of justice on them both. In hindsight it is easy to see that the part was too much for a first time actress with zero experience, but everyone at the time thought LIPSTICK would be a major hit and Margaux would become one of the key stars of the late seventies.
Joining Margaux in the cast were Chris Sarandon as the twisted music teacher who rapes McCormick and Anne Bancroft as the prosecutor who signs on to her case. Both Sarandon and Bancroft were coming off recent Oscar nominations and the two were really in peak form when they filmed LIPSTICK, with Sarandon’s performance proving to be one of the most chilling of the period. Other cast members included future television star Perry King, and famed top fashion photographer Francesco Scavullo playing, appropriately enough, a photographer named Francesco. His rather astounding work as a photographer can be seen throughout the film in the form of some of the most unforgettable images of Margaux ever shot.
The key role in the film though is undoubtedly that of Chris’ younger sister Kathy, which would turn out to be the debut role for Margaux’s younger sister Mariel. Margaux herself suggested the fifteen-year Mariel to Fields and it would begin one of the most notable film careers of the late seventies and early eighties. Whereas Margaux seemed to having trouble shifting into her new role as an actress, the younger Mariel took to it immediately and she would end up getting the films one Golden Globe nomination as best supporting actress.
The paint by numbers storyline of rape and revenge in LIPSTICK is radically simple. What makes the film special is how it teeters between being a stylish and serious attempt to look at the legal consequences of rape in this country and a down and dirty exploitation thriller. Considering that the film does drag in the middle a bit during the legal proceedings, it does finally work better as a stylized big budget thriller as there are few things more exciting in a seventies film than seeing Margaux Hemingway decked out in an unbelievably cool red dress yielding a shotgun during the film’s electric and unforgettable climax.
The more campy and exploitative elements aside, LIPSTICK does in fact make some good points along the way about the legal system and the way rape was perceived in this country in 1976 and to a certain extent today. One of the film's most telling moments is indeed that only 1 out of every 5 rapes is reported and only two out of every 100 prosecuted rapists serve time. Now I am sure those numbers, at least I hope, have changed in today's society but the film does a good job in alering viewers to some disturbing facts.
The film received a lot of criticism at the time for the prolonged rape sequence between Sarandon and the older Hemingway. It is curious to me that Gaspar Noe’s IRREVERSABLE was attacked for the same reason several years back as the two films present rape as a very violent and ugly act. There isn’t anything erotic about the sequence in LIPSTICK; it is an extremely ugly scene about the ugliest of crimes. I have a lot more trouble with films that don’t show how horrifying the act is and LIPSTICK has always been unfairly abused over what is actually an extremely effective and well-handled sequence. Hemingway is particularly good here with the trauma and fear she is experiencing seeming totally real.
The film’s not perfect by a long shot. Several scenes just don’t play at all, especially a couple involving the usually reliable Bancroft, who comes off too over the top throughout the film. When it does work though, it does so splendidly and LIPSTICK is finally a hard film to shake.
Two things that help the film immensely are the photography and music. Oscar nominated director of photographer Bill Butler should be a household name with works ranging from Coppola’s THE CONVERSATION (1974) to Stallone’s ROCKY 2 (1978) on his resume and he gives LIPSTICK a sexy dripping exotic sheen that is hard to look away from. It’s an ultra slick and masterfully shot production that is among the best looking of the period.
Even better is the strange and powerful score by legendary French composer and musician Polnareff. Always under the radar in this country, Polnareff is one of the major figures in French music and his LIPSTICK soundtrack is one of his greatest creations, a weird mix of experimental electronica and dance that propels the film to greatness even when the script and certain scenes fall totally flat. The out of print album is one of the best soundtracks of the seventies.
Finally, one can't help but watch LIPSTICK without some sincere melancholy in knowing what happened to Margaux Hemingway. The critical community really took their time in burying someone who might have turned into a talented actress. Instead of labeling her as awful as many of them did, they should have passed it off to her obvious inexperience and let up a bit. It would take her three years to make another feature, Antonio Margheriti’s KILLER FISH (1979), and she would only sporadically work in mostly straight to video productions through the rest of her short life. There are some really chilling moments in LIPSTICK where one can recognize some real talent in the older and doomed Hemingway. It is tragic it was never allowed to be tapped into again.
Mariel would quickly become one of the major young actresses of the late seventies after LIPSTICK and would snag a well-deserved Oscar nomination just a few years later with Woody Allen’s MANHATTAN in 1979. She would call LIPSTICK a “fascinating experience” in her autobiography but noted that when it was released, “people said” she was “ the star, while Margaux’s acting was hurtfully panned” and that this “intensified her self destructive behavior and the distance” between them “began to take on adult dimensions.”
LIPSTICK collapsed at the box office almost immediately and was subjected to heavy cuts throughout Europe when it premiered a year or so later there. It appeared on Video in the eighties and then slipped out of print for more than a decade before Paramount surprisingly brought it back on a bare bones DVD a few years ago. Not even containing a trailer, this DVD at least features a sharp widescreen transfer and is still readily available for anyone interested.