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Golden Globe-Award-Winning Case File #167: Butterfly

At the risk of generalizing, all awards shows are bullshit. They’re little more than popularity contests that transform the complex, complicated, and often-unquantifiable nature of art into a horse race with clear-cut winners and losers. They’re illegitimate, silly, and self-congratulatory, and it’s always a miracle when awards go to the deserving. Even Nobel Prizes are total fucking bullshit. Look at some of the folks who’ve won them: Henry fucking Kissinger. Yassir fucking Arafat. Even Barack Obama seems like a bullshit winner. Giving him a Nobel so early in his presidency was like giving a promising pre-med student the prize on the off chance that he’d find a cure for cancer somewhere down the line.

But some awards shows are more bullshit than others. The Golden Globes, for example, have a curiously bifurcated identity as both one of the most high-profile and watched awards shows, and a scam that exists primarily, if not exclusively, to provide perks for foreign-born freelance “journalists” of dubious ethics. In a 1993 New York Times article about the sketchy tactics studios employ to win Golden Globes, Rob Reiner had this to say about the Foreign Press Association that hands out the awards: 

“The one thing that’s most annoying and illegitimate about them is the way they conduct their interviews,” Mr. Reiner said. “Each of these people asks to have their picture taken with you. There’s something unkosher about that. That kind of cheesiness permeates that organization.”

“It’s one thing to have an organization writing articles all over the world,” he said. “But that doesn’t seem to be the main thrust. The main thrust seems to be an elaborate scheme to have their pictures taken with you. They interview you and then they come at you one at a time, one after another, to pose for a picture. Sure, I want to promote my movie, but I don’t want to waste my time with people who are just pushing for a photo op.”

The Foreign Press Association appears to be largely the province of what are cruelly but accurately known as “junket whores,” journalists whose souls can be purchased for a night at a fancy hotel, a bottle of expensive champagne, or a promotional jacket. Back in the prehistoric days of The A.V. Club, I went on just enough junkets to realize they turn everyone into whores: the press, the studios, and the “talent” promoting their films by answering the same stupid questions in one mindless group interview after another. 

The Golden Globes’ always-shaky reputation took what should have been a fatal hit when fabulously untalented newcomer Pia Zadora beat out lesser actors like Kathleen Turner (for Body Heat) and Elizabeth McGovern (for Ragtime) to win the New Star Of The Year Golden Globe in 1982. In a shocking coincidence, the same voting committee that objectively determined that Zadora was the top newcomer in all of the world that year (they are the Golden Globes, after all) had previously been treated by the film’s producer, Meshulam Riklis—also then Zadora’s husband—to a glamorous night in Las Vegas watching Zadora perform, plus a lunch and private screening at Riklis’ Hollywood mansion. Bear in mind that when Zadora won the Golden Globe for Butterfly, the film hadn’t even been released domestically, so if audiences knew Zadora at all, it was from her performance as a child actor in Santa Claus Conquers The Martians. To some skeptical souls, Turner’s incendiary, instantly iconic performance in Body Heat may have perhaps been a slightly more legitimate choice. 

Some husbands buy their wives jewelry or take them on expensive vacations. Riklis went much further. Zadora wanted a show-business career, so Riklis bought her one. According to a 1982 People article, Riklis owned the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas where Zadora performed. He was the chairman of the board of the international conglomerate that owned Dubonnet wine; Zadora starred in Dubonnet commercials. And in the early 1980s, Riklis decided to personally finance what he hoped would be a star-making vehicle for his 26-year-old wife, a lusty adaptation of James M. Cain’s The Butterfly, with a score by Ennio Morricone and a cast that included Orson Welles, Stacy Keach, and for some reason, noted thespian Ed McMahon.

Considering the controversy that ensued when the then-59-year-old Riklis bought his child bride her very own motion picture, it’s either bitterly ironic or all-too-appropriate that the film casts Zadora as a young woman of easy virtue who begins having a passionate, mercenary affair with a man she believes to be her father. The great Stacy Keach trades self-respect for a healthy paycheck playing a reclusive, hermit-like loner who ekes out a living protecting an abandoned silver mine in the arid desert of Nevada. Keach’s life changes dramatically with the arrival of Zadora, a puffy, chipmunk-cheeked minx with shaggy dirty-blonde hair who has just been dumped by the son of the wealthy man (Ed McMahon, whose appearance could never be anything other than distracting) who owns the mine Keach is protecting. 

Before Butterfly, Zadora had never starred in a movie, let alone carried one. Yet the filmmakers made the mistake of tossing her into the deep end immediately. For its first 40 minutes or so, Zadora and Keach are damn near the only characters onscreen, as Zadora teases, pouts, poses, and toys with Keach. It’s one long act of foreplay, as Zadora tries to get Keach to not let anything as silly or inconsequential as morality, biology, or religion get in the way of some sweet loving.

Keach is a brilliant actor, but throughout the film, he sports a pained, vaguely constipated look of internal distress. While fighting to keep his urges in check, Keach seems to be experiencing the following internal monologue on a perpetual loop: 

Don’t fuck your daughter
Don’t fuck your daughter
Don’t fuck your daughter
Seriously, dude, it would most assuredly be a mistake to fuck your daughter

Ah, but Keach can only hold out for so long, so soon he and Zadora are making the beast with two backs, getting to know each other in a biblical sense, mattress-dancing, and also having sexual intercourse. Zadora lures Keach out of his shell a little, but when he gets into an altercation with a pair of leering studs who want to take Zadora for a “ride,” the incestuous twosome end up in front of Judge Orson Welles, who looks for all the world like a bearded beached whale in judicial robes, with a terrible comb-over. It is, perhaps, not the most dignified role in Welles’ career.

Zadora begins seducing Keach just after the birth of her newborn son, a tot whose mysterious butterfly-shaped birthmark will go on to play a major role in the proceedings for reasons far too convoluted and confusing to go into. Zadora’s preppie baby-daddy shows up to win her back, but Zadora isn’t keen to shag anyone she doesn’t share a familial tree or genetic material with. In defiance, Zadora zings the hapless blueblood with insults like “I’ve got one baby sucking on me. I don’t need another,” and “And I thought I was loving a man, not a mama’s boy. When you decide which skirt to chase, hers or mine, then you come back and see if I’m still around.”

Considering Zadora’s character’s clandestine endeavors, it’s more than a little hypocritical for her to insult someone for having an Oedipal complex. Cain’s hardboiled pedigree and the greed, self-interest, and lust-powered plot seem to tip the film unmistakably in the direction of film noir, yet for much of its duration, director Matt Cimber seems to be making a soft-headed, melodramatic romance about an unusual pair of star-crossed lovers, if not a full-on endorsement of quasi-incest.

Keach faces the acting challenge of a lifetime in pretending that Zadora is a real actor, not an Israeli tycoon’s dead-eyed trophy wife. Alas, the two eventually face a grim reckoning when a hillbilly catches them making out and they’re once again dragged in front of Welles on charges of incest. On the witness stand, the nosy redneck gives a play-by-play of just what he witnessed. When Welles asks exactly where Keach’s hands traveled, he replies, “Up on her back. Down to her butt. Even put his hand down her shirt and rubbed. Tits, too. Three or four minutes, then they went back into the mine.” Aw, yeah. Sexytime always ends with a return to the mine.

Just when it seems that all is lost, Keach climactically announces that he isn’t Zadora’s father after all. That dubious honor belongs to a creepy miner Keach killed earlier in the film. In a heartwarming conclusion, Zadora heads off for her new life with the father of her child, but not before tenderly telling Keach that he’ll always be both the love of her life and her father. In her mind, at least, the two don’t need to be mutually exclusive. 

Is it any wonder Zadora joined Henry Fonda, Meryl Streep, and John Gielgud in winning acting awards at the 1982 Golden Globes? Butterfly is ultimately too sleepy to succeed even as camp. It fatally lacks the courage of its sleazy convictions. The filmmakers seem torn between making the world’s most taboo Harlequin romance, and limply attempting to follow in the footsteps of classic Cain adaptations like The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, and Mildred Pierce. 

Riklis could buy Zadora her own starring vehicle and even a shiny Golden Globe, but he couldn’t buy her longevity. Zadora’s career as a leading woman was over not long after it began: She subsequently starred in 1983’s The Lonely Lady, a notorious flop that’s supposed to be even worse than Butterfly, and a little-seen 1985 science-fiction comedy called Voyage Of The Rock Aliens. Zadora’s pyrrhic “victory” is a permanent black mark on the Golden Globes. It’d be tempting to argue that the moment Zadora was announced as New Star Of The Year, the Golden Globes lost their integrity, but you can’t lose something you never possessed.

Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success: Failure