As I have written elsewhere, my adolescent love affair with film was inextricably linked to my voracious teen appetite for looking at naked boobs. I used the adult-content codes in the movie listings of TV Guide as a Rosetta Stone unlocking top-quality boobage. “Adult Situations” was namby-pamby, unpromising stuff. “Brief nudity” excited the senses, but the “brief” all but negated the “nudity.” “Nudity” was a lot more promising, but awfully ambiguous. “Strong Sexual Content” joined with “Nudity” was the holy grail of late-night television debauchery; it all but promised a non-stop fuckfest of historic proportions, something to plan your week or month around.
In lieu of anything resembling actual sex, I became a connoisseur of cinematic nakedness. I developed a hierarchy of movie nudity. I would become angry if a film’s vaunted nudity consisted of nothing more than the hero cops chasing the bad guys through a strip club. Stripper boobs somehow didn’t count. They were fake, obviously, and had no character. Body doubles similarly vexed my adolescent self; somehow my raging hormones were sophisticated enough to feel terribly disappointed if an R-rated film cut from a famous actress to the cruel silicone orbs of an obvious double.
Ah, but genuine, 100 percent real celebrity nudity? That more or less got me through the gauntlet of pain and humiliation that was my teen years, seven years of frenzied masturbation interrupted only by sleep and the occasional trip to school or work. If a film featured copious genuine celebrity nudity, rigorous fornication, and (be still, my quaking heart) hot lesbian action, then I felt duty-bound to write a thank-you letter to the good Samaritans responsible for such a bounty.
I’d like to be able to tell you that my 18-year-old self was attracted to Color Of Night primarily because I was a fan of many of the character actors involved (Brad Dourif, Rubén Blades, Kevin J. O’Connor, Lance Henriksen, Lesley Ann Warren, Shirley Knight), or of Richard Rush’s previous film, the 1980 cult masterpiece The Stunt Man. But that would be a goddamned lie. I was, and am, a fan of all those actors and The Stunt Man—if you haven’t seen it, you really must—but the fact is, I was promised boobs. Lots and lots of boobs. An insane cornucopia of boobs. So many boobs that even my teenaged self eventually threw up the white flag of defeat and wearily conceded, “All right, I like boobs and all, but this is getting fucking ridiculous.”
But while my interest in Color Of Night was overwhelmingly prurient, I nevertheless recognized in it something special. This was no ordinary erotic thriller; it was something much rarer, much more sublime. It was the craziest fucking fuckfest I had ever seen in my whole fucking life; it clearly took some very smart people to come up with something this spectacularly, intentionally stupid. Sure enough, Billy Ray, who devised the story and co-wrote the screenplay, later emerged as an accomplished writer-director of stellar fact-based dramas like Shattered Glass and Breach.
Color Of Night begins on a note of complete hysteria: a troubled young woman pulls lipstick off her lipstick carousel, smears it all over her teeth, sticks a gun into her purse, puts the gun into her mouth, then mimes fellatio on a tube of lipstick.
We then cut to her ranting away in the shiny office of analyst Bruce Willis.
“You are the goddamned enemy, Capa, you and your tower of psychobabble. I hope that God gets real pissed off and he shrivels up your cock so it points straight down to hell where you belong,” she shrieks. Then she adds words that will soon become prophetic: “You think that everything needs to be black or white, because you’ve gone color-blind.”
When Willis admonishes her to take a long, hard look in a mirror, she loses her shit and decides to take the plunge, literally and metaphorically. After quipping, “I think I prefer the view outside, actually,” she leaps out of the window and plunges to her doom. Dammit, when will they build suicide-proof windows? They’d be especially useful in the offices of headshrinkers who work in skyscrapers.
Most filmmakers would cut directly from the unfortunate woman jumping out of the window to her lying dead on the ground, but Rush lingers lovingly on the image of her falling, falling, falling. It takes a mere five minutes for Rush to beat audiences upside the head with a recurring motif of reflections (mirrors that distort the truth, man!), prisms, and blood-red lipstick.
We are in the hands of an auteur, albeit one who seems to have taken on the screenplay as part of some bizarre ironic joke only he understands. Rush’s participation is even more bizarre considering Color Of Night is only the second film he’s made in the last 34 years, and that he was very deservedly nominated for two Oscars (for writing and directing) for his previous films. Is Rush deliberately trying to make the most ridiculous, convoluted, purple, self-parody-riffic erotic thriller of all time? The answer, I suspect, just might be yes.
Willis is so traumatized by his patient’s suicide that—wait for it—he literally becomes colorblind so he can no longer see the sinister red of oozing blood. To help recuperate after the trauma, Willis heads West to Southern California to hang out with long-time bro Scott Bakula and help him lead group therapy featuring an all-star contingent of heavyweight character actors.
There’s a nymphomaniac kleptomaniac (Warren), an obsessive-compulsive neat-freak lawyer (Dourif), a tortured trust-fund masochist (O’Connor, who would later play Daniel Day-Lewis’ brother in There Will Be Blood), a moody, mysterious badass mourning the death of his wife and child (Henriksen) and last and most assuredly not least, a stuttering “young” “man” named Ritchie. In his fingerless leather gloves and coke-bottle glasses, he looks like a cross between a pre-pubescent Corey Haim, Corky from Life Goes On, a fetus, and a supermodel in unconvincing drag. Could this preposterous creature turn out to be something other than what “he” professes to be? Will I run out of ironic quotation marks before this piece is over? Perhaps, but then everything in the film seems to exist between ironic quotation marks, so maybe that’s fitting.
I feel a little bad hinting so unsubtly at the true nature of this mystery character, but if you can’t figure out the big twist in Color Of Night, you probably don’t know how to read either, and see this sentence as nothing more than a meaningless jumble of squiggles taunting you and your illiteracy.
When not engaging in various homoerotic games of one-upmanship with his best bud, Bakula casually mentions that one of the people in his group wants to murder him. Sure enough, in this scene, Bakula is murdered by a gloved killer while engaging in some awesome slow-motion running, shouting, and contorting.
Against his better judgment, Willis agrees to take over Bakula’s group in hope of bringing his friend’s killer to justice. This brings him into the orbit of renegade detective Ruben Blades, a dark-horse contender in the film’s fierce competition to see who can give the biggest, campiest, most over-the-top performance. Blades brags about his disdain for civil rights, rifles through naked pictures of Bakula’s ex, marvels approvingly, “Nice bush!” while visiting the home Bakula apparently bequeathed to Willis, and generally tries to out-crazy the crazies.
What follows is an over-acting Olympics, a marathon crazy-off between actors liberated from subtlety, understatement, and, well, acting. So much scenery is devoured, it’s a marvel there were sets left standing in Hollywood after shooting wrapped.
While still acclimating himself to his new surroundings, Willis meets cute with strangely familiar-looking mystery woman Jane March when they get into a fender-bender. Again, I don’t want to give away the twist—WARNING: THE BIG TWIST IS ABOUT TO BE REVEALED—but if you’re going to cast a neophyte actress/supermodel in what is essentially a triple-role as the femme fatale, a slightly sluttier alternate identity of the femme fatale, and an ostensibly convincing facsimile of a stuttering teenaged boy, you might want to hire someone who
A. Can act
B. Doesn’t have the most instantly identifiable mouth and teeth in the world.
March is a lovely woman, sort of, but she has giant gums, giant teeth, and a giant mouth that give the game away. She looks like one of the creatures from The Dark Crystal more than she does a teenaged boy. Even while hiding behind Poindexter spectacles, she never looks like anything other than a crappy drag king.
Nevertheless, Willis immediately begins having sweaty, wildly acrobatic sex with March without ever noticing that she has the same telltale mouth as the creepy “boy” in his group. Willis probably also never noticed how Clark Kent and Superman looked an awful lot alike. Willis and March have hard-R sex in lots of places, primarily the pool and shower.
Shower sex is always an explosive orgasm machine in movies. In real life, shower sex invariably results in both parties emerging insufficiently washed and sexually unsatisfied. David Foster Wallace wrote about this phenomenon in his book A Supposedly Sexy Thing I’ll Never Do Again. Similarly, you can either get a good massage, or you can get a good handjob. God simply does not want you to get a good massage and a good handjob at the same time.
Willis gets menaced and threatened by an unseen figure. He knows nothing about March and seems to like it that way; finding out how, say, she supports herself would just ruin the fantasy. And March is nothing but a fantasy girl to Willis and everyone else in the movie. Incidentally, she’s also fucking everyone else in the movie, including the entire therapy group.
In the purple prose of Ray and Matthew Chapman’s screenplay, she is a “charming chameleon with a scorpion’s tail.” To Bakula, she was the ultimate rebound. To Warren, she’s the ultimately bi-curious girl-crush; they’re the most literal of lipstick lesbians, in that they’re invariably tarted up like $2 Parisian whores while making out and gazing adoringly into each other’s eyes. To Henrickson, she’s a nice old-fashioned girl; to Dourif, she’s a neat freak who perfectly complements his anal ways.
She’s everything to everyone, and empty and hollow at her bruised and battered core. In this scene, the group makes a remarkable discovery: They’re all fucking the same person. Then again, when you have three different identities, your chances for promiscuity increase exponentially. It’s like that old Woody Allen line about bisexuals doubling their chances of getting a date on a Saturday night.
Cinema’s Teflon superstar, Willis has transformed sleepwalking into an art form. He’s the king of ironic detachment, of winking at the audience and playing himself in every movie. Of course, a sublime sense of ironic detachment is crucial when delivering lines like “I’m a psychic when it comes to masochists.”
Soon, bodies begin piling up en route to the central revelation; March is a head case with three distinct identities, but she’s also being manipulated by her sadistic, murderous older brother, who is nice enough to explain everything to Willis in the climax instead of killing him while he has the chance, a hoary old cinematic trope Roger Ebert has codified as the “fallacy of the talking killer.”
Color Of Night is pretty much The Three, the hilariously convoluted thriller Donald Kaufman writes in Adaptation. It lustily embraces self-parody from the get-go: everyone appears to be in on the joke, with the possible exception of March. Yet even the promise of nonstop fucking couldn’t bring audiences to the theater: The film grossed about half its $40 million budget, though it did well on home video, where audiences were free to express their enjoyment in whatever ways they saw fit. The penis, it seems, does not care about irony or postmodernism. It wants what it wants, and is willing to put up with a lot of foolishness to achieve its ends.
So is Color Of Night a Fiasco or a Secret Success? It’s too much fun to be a failure and too transparently, giddily awful to be an unqualified success, so I’m going to split the difference. I think my 18-year-old self would be a little more lenient, but I’m pleased to report that I have slightly more stringent criteria for evaluating film these days. My enjoyment of a film is now only 20 to 30 percent reliant on the quality and quantity of boobs on display.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Secret Fiasco