For a brief, shining moment, 1993’s Boxing Helena appeared to be a publicist’s dream. While barely old enough to buy wine coolers at the local Wal-Mart, David Lynch’s brilliant, beautiful young daughter Jennifer Chambers Lynch wrote a screenplay that gave a perverse quasi-feminist slant on her father’s pet themes of voyeurism, obsession, and psychosexual motherfuckery. Or did it? When viewed from different angles, Boxing Helena is either a subversive feminist statement or a creepy sexist fantasy of power and control.
Actresses lined up for the juicy lead role of a femme fatale who spurns the advances of a brilliant, deeply troubled surgeon and ends up as a woman in a box when her would-be suitor decides he must have her at any cost. The film would be a baroque sadomasochistic fairy tale, lush and erotic, heralding the arrival of a bold new voice in American film—David Lynch’s true heir in every conceivable sense. That was the spin, at least.
Kim Basinger signed on to play the lead. Then everything went to shit. A publicist’s dream devolved into a PR nightmare. In a fit of utter reasonableness, Basinger came to her senses and realized that playing an increasingly limbless, scantily clad shrew in glorified Skinemax fare looked more like professional suicide than a great leap forward. Basinger opted out of the project and was sued by producers who were initially awarded a whopping $8 million settlement for their troubles.
Faced with financial ruin, Basinger declared bankruptcy; to pay her bills, she had to sell the small Southern town she owned. My trembling heart still grieves for her. The verdict was eventually overturned on appeal, but the damage was already done, to Basinger and to the film. Basinger picked up a reputation for being difficult, and Helena’s tagline billing it as “the most talked-about film of the year” became true for all the wrong reasons. Audiences once atwitter with anticipation over the cinematic debut of America’s first daughter of mindfreakery were left wondering just how awful a film would have to be for an actress of Basinger’s lack of stature to risk professional and financial ruin just to avoid it.
Helena flamboyantly announces its contempt for subtlety with its very first lines. As a boy who will grow up to be Julian Sands watches his father do doctor-y stuff at a party, one of his father’s exposition-mad friends exudes, “Father’s pretty busy in there, eh? You know, he’s been awfully good to you and your mother. He’s given you this nice house, and we all know that you will follow in his footsteps at the hospital, right? You remember the family motto? Hard work and persistence will get you anything in the world you want. What’s the motto? That’s right. Hard work.” When it comes to establishing the character’s background, Lynch leaves nothing to chance.
We then meet Sands’ mother, a sexy blonde in a slinky dress. She shoots Sands’ preteen self a simultaneously sexy and scolding look that launches a thousand sticky Oedipal fantasies. But how does Sands’ mother feel about her sad-eyed little boy? Is she somehow ashamed of him and her status as a mother? Is she maybe even in denial? Thankfully, party guests are on hand to clear up the confusion with the following banter:
“Whose little boy is that?”
“That’s Mary’s child.”
“That’s funny. She never mentioned having any children.”
In a shocking twist, Sands grows up to follow in his father’s footsteps in the hospital. Even more surprisingly, he’s all fucked in the head when it comes to women. He’s got a perfectly lovely, understanding girlfriend, yet he spends his days and nights pining for ravishing mystery woman Sherilyn Fenn.
While out for a jog one evening, Sands decides to scamper up a tree outside Fenn’s house and watch longingly as she strikes a series of perfume-ad poses. For Sands, Fenn is a former one-night stand turned lifelong obsession. So he’s shattered to discover that Fenn is making the beast with two backs with leather-pants enthusiast Bill Paxton, whose hormone-addled, meathead sensibility is reflected by his parting line to Fenn: “Hasta whatever!”
Sands’ anguish is indelibly conveyed by a hilarious sequence in which he runs in slow motion with a super-duper frowny face while Paxton ravishes every cell of Fenn’s being. Sands is devastated, but then he remembers that family motto. He isn’t about to let the fact that Fenn is fucking Bill Paxton, or possibly Bill Pullman, keep him from being with the glowering, hateful succubus of his dreams. Nor does her utter lack of interest seem to bother him. Fenn could hire a skywriter to emblazon, “I want nothing to do with you, Julian Sands’ character. You are unfathomably uninteresting to me. I could live to be a million years old, and you could be the only man in the known universe, and still, the thought of making love to you would never cross my mind, not for an instant, not for a millisecond, never, never, ever, ever, ever,” and Sands would think she was playing hard-to-get.
“Lawrence, tell me how to get her back!” Sands pleads to best friend Art Garfunkel (whose presence never ceases to be a bizarre distraction) after being traumatized by the hot Paxton-on-Fenn action. Garfunkel answers his friend’s desperate cry with the sound of silence, so Sands throws a fancy party at his home, where he watches helplessly as Fenn wriggles out of her dress and dances in a fountain in a flimsy slip in super slow motion before sneaking away to fuck one of Sands’ friends.
Yes, Sands, he of the zombie-like pallor and cold, dead blue eyes, is suffering from bad timing and a sensual obsession, not unlike Art Garfunkel in Bad Timing: A Sensual Obsession. Garfunkel is clearly in a privileged position to give Sands advice, but his lips are sealed, so Sands lures Fenn back to his spooky old haunted house of a home by promising to return something she left at the party. While fleeing his home, though, she’s hit by a car and wakes up without any legs. Sands winds up in the curious position of being her savior and her tormentor. A woman he could never control or obtain has been rendered powerless by fate, a big-ass automobile, and Sands’ skilled surgeon hands. Sands devotes himself to taking care of his involuntary guest full-time, but the only person who seems to notice he’s stopped showing up at the hospital is fellow surgeon Kurtwood Smith, who stumbles upon Sands’ sinister secret. Fortunately, Sands is able to buy him off with a letter of recommendation for Sands’ abandoned position as chief surgeon.
Buried somewhere deep within Boxing Helena is a potent feminist allegory about the desperate measures weak-willed men employ to render strong women powerless, and a sly commentary on the way men project noble qualities on dream girls. In more skillful hands, Helena could have been a powerful, hallucinatory black comedy about the masculine need for complete control. But Lynch’s noble aspirations never lead to anything more than a kitschy muddle of David Lynch For Beginners imagery and embarrassing histrionics from actors given abstract ideas to inhabit rather than human beings to play.
Fenn wasn’t the producer’s first choice, but her casting as an impossible object of desire might be the only thing the film has going for it. Fenn possesses not just the beauty and ripe sexuality that are the birthright of every Hollywood sexpot, but also an old-school Hollywood glamour and the bottomless air of mystery that David Lynch exploited beautifully. As a 13-year-old, I fell hopelessly in love with Fenn from afar. She represented an impossible ideal not just to Sands, but to me and millions of other awestruck young men and women who watched her every week on Twin Peaks.
Alas, Sands’ all-consuming lust for the former Audrey Horne is the only element of his character that’s remotely relatable. As a ubiquitous character actor, Sands specializes in playing Eurotrash creeps that will murder you in your sleep. That’s ideal when it comes to playing pimps, drug dealers, and he-witches, but it’s problematic when audiences are forced to spend 106 minutes in Sands’ clammy, pathetic company.
Helena offers no points of entry. It’d seemingly be easy to empathize with a woman being held against her will and gradually robbed of limbs, but Fenn is as devoid of admirable qualities as her creepy captor. Intentionally or otherwise, she’s nothing more than a beautiful blank. Fenn and Sands don’t have a redeeming facet between them, nor do any of the scheming supporting characters. And in its third act, Helena plunges deeper and deeper into a dream state. What exists within the dreary, limited confines of reality, and what occurs in Sands’ fevered imagination? Who cares, since Sands is the kind of whiny, disturbed ninny who screeches sentiments at Fenn like “You don’t understand! I love you! If you were a real woman, you’d lie to me about our sex! Real women lie about sex all the time!”
In her bid to spell everything out for the symbolism-impaired, Lynch regularly cuts to shots of a statue of the armless Venus De Milo and a parrot angrily hurling itself against the bars of its cage in slow motion. I suspect this is some sort of cryptic commentary on how Fenn is, like, a limbless beautiful woman or a caged bird or something. The cornerstone of Lynch’s overwrought directorial style is flagrant abuse of slow motion: Replace all the artsy slow-mo shots with sped-up film set to Boots Randolph’s “Yakety Sax,” and the film would be 15 minutes shorter and slightly more bearable.
By writing and directing a major motion picture at 24, Jennifer Lynch wasn’t going from high school to the pros: She was going from the Pee-Wee League to the Major League all-star game. With its grotesque imagery and provocative ideas, Helena might have made for a knockout short, the kind of calling card that wows them at Sundance and Tribeca, but when stretched sadistically over 106 minutes, it has all the time in the world to reveal its fundamental emptiness and paucity of imagination. Jennifer Chambers Lynch directing Blue Velvet: The Next Generation was a sexy idea; the reality was something else entirely.
So instead of launching Fenn’s film career, Boxing Helena essentially killed it, while Sands slunk back into supporting roles, and Jennifer Lynch had to wait 15 years for the opportunity to direct again. $8 million might have proven a small price to pay to steer clear of a turkey of this magnitude. For perhaps the first and last time, Kim Basinger was right.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Fiasco