My Year Of Flops Case File #90: Glitter
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In his very last email to me, my late friend and Movie Club With John Ridley colleague Anderson Jones suggested that I write up Glitter for this feature. Mariah Carey held a special place in his heart. I once asked Anderson if he'd ever been recognized in public during his stint on FX's The New Movie Show With Chris Gore. He said he'd been recognized once at a Mariah Carey concert, which seemed fitting. Carey's people were his people: they understood and shared his bone-deep commitment to superficiality, to the eternal allure of glitter and tinsel, to big fluffy movies and sticky-sweet pop songs.
So today I am going to honor a dead friend's memory by making glib jokes at one of his favorite artist's expense. Call me a hero if you must (no, seriously: call he a hero), but I'm just a guy doing my job. And being a hero. Mainly being a hero.
Glitter arrived at a crucial moment in what I call the hoification of Mariah Carey. Hoification occurs when an actress or singer stops being judged on their body of work and begins getting judged by the work they've had done to their body. It's a surprisingly ubiquitous pop-culture phenomenon in which an actress or singer decides that they want to be recognized not just as a singer or songwriter but also as a sweet, sweet piece of T&A.;
For Carey, the process began with the music video for "Honey", a tour de force of cheesecake iconography. After "Honey," Carey was suddenly a woman with a message. For better or worse, that message was "Hey World: Get a load of my tits! They're really great!" Her video concepts went from "having fun at the amusement park" (the pre-hoification smash "Fantasy" http://youtube.com/watch?v=e7iyjsLlsyk) to "jiggling about as a scantily clad racetrack ho-bag" (the post-hoification track "Loverboy" http://youtube.com/watch?v=AyU6vusV9NA), which perhaps not coincidentally was also the first single from the Glitter soundtrack).
Carey is far from alone in undergoing the hoification process. Jewel, Janet Jackson, Lindsey Lohan, and Nelly Furtado all similarly made a brave decision to become one-dimensional sex objects. With Jackson and Carey, it's possible to demarcate the exact moment the hoification process began in earnest and when it officially went too far.
In the early parts of her career, a painfully insecure Janet Jackson dressed as if her outfits were chosen by Taliban. Then the Brigitte Bardot-styled video for "Love Will Never Do Without You" opened the floodgates of sexuality until the notorious breast-flashing at the Super Bowl caused a culture-wide orgy of hand-wringing and tut-tutting that these sinful vixens and their hypnotic cleavage of doom had finally gone too far.
Carey experienced a similar avalanche of censure and criticism when she handed out popsicles and indulged in an impromptu strip-tease during an infamous appearance on Total Request Live, well into what can similarly be dubbed the Crazification process. These public-relations disasters echo the scene in Nashville where Gwen Welles' painfully untalented looker dispiritedly takes off her clothes in a pathetic attempt to punish/win back a crowd by giving them exactly what she thinks they really want. Incidents like these speak to the fundamental hypocrisy at the heart of our culture's bifurcated attitude towards sex and exhibitionism: we leer and ogle with impunity, then magically turn into disapproving prudes concerned only with protecting the virtue and innocence of the Children (oh, won't someone think of the Children!) once a fuzzy, invisible line is crossed.
The enduring appeal of the hoification process is seemingly easy to understand. Sex sells, doesn't it? Yet case studies of the aforementioned artists tell a different story. The pre-hoification Lohan was a popular and respected actress who scored solid hits in Mean Girls and Manic Monday. The post-hoification Lohan? Not so much. Jackson, Jewel, and Carey similarly ranked as three of the most successful female artists of our time before they decided to air out the fun bags as often as possible. But their sexed-up image makeovers did little to boost sales. Only Furtado benefited greatly from the hoification process and that had more to do with catchy songs and Timbaland production than her sexy new look and risqué lyrics.
Glitter hit theaters at the worst possible time for Carey's previously blessed career. Her early good girl image was a faded memory, the hoification process had turned off as many fans as it created, and she was careening rapidly towards a nervous breakdown. The release of the film was postponed following Carey's hospitalization for that nebulous old standby known as "exhaustion" (celebrities sure are an easily tired lot, aren't they?), but the damage had already been done. A mega-star who could previously do no wrong commercially suddenly could do no right.
Even her recording career began to suffer: the soundtrack to Glitter was nearly as big a bomb as the film it accompanied, in no small part because it faced much higher expectations. At the time of its release, it was unclear whether Glitter would mark the beginning of the end for Carey or a bump in the road. Carey has subsequently rebounded on the strength of those terrible dog-whistle ballads they pipe into malls like stale air freshener, but Glitter had the potential to be a career-killer.
Carey's only starring vehicle to date takes a page from the pop star handbook by transforming the bare bones of Carey's history into a glossy show-business melodrama, equal parts A Star Is Born (that would be the dreadful 1976 Streisand version) and Mahogany.
In a performance that, to borrow an old Dorothy Parker line, runs the gamut of emotions from A to B, Carey stars as a biracial striver who grows up in an orphanage after being abandoned by her white father and drunken, self-destructive African-American mother. After getting discovered by a DJ/producer named "Dice" (Max Beesley), Carey becomes a back-up singer for a talentless looker played by the almost inconceivably hot Padma Lakshmi, the owner of the sexiest scar in show business.
It's a testament to the film's sadly realistic take on '80s fashion that it manages to make even the sight of Lakshmi in a catsuit look more creepy than erotic while the outfits Carey and her cohorts sport while backing up Lakshmi look they were purchased at Apollonia's garage sale.
Lakshmi reportedly started dating Salman Rushdie while filming Glitter, a courtship I imagine was frustrated by Rushdie constantly badgering his new girlfriend for gossip about Carey. I can imagine a candlelit dinner where Lakshmi rolls her eyes as Rushdie urgently inquires "What's she like? I bet she's nice. Does she have an entourage? Do you think she's read The Satanic Verses? Cause that would be way cool if she has".
I also like to imagine that Rushdie ghost-wrote the film's screenplay. The following lines of dialogue could clearly only have come from a writer of Rushdie's stature: "Sylk, I had no idea you could blow like that." "Is this how you like, soup girls up to try to get what you want?" "I know you're a fly DJ and everything and I should feel honored that you want to work with me." "You must be smoking dust, T." "I want to take you away from this street urchin sassy, sexy, slutty thing." "That's good. She looks amazing." "Yeah, if you like Titsy the Porn Star (and who doesn't like Titsy the Porn Star? If not for her films, than at least for her humanitarian endeavor)" "Flames don't walk. They flicker." "Don't mouth off again, Roach Bag."
Beesley eventually buys Carey's contract from Lakshmi's boyfriend (a slightly overqualified Terrence Howard) and instantly transforms her into a huge star. In its busy first hour, Glitter hops deliriously from one music-melodrama cliché to another, finding time to include my all-time favorite show-business movie trope: Carey and The Diceman are riding in a taxi when they hear Carey's song on the radio. She's made it! They like her! They really, really like her! Baby, she's a star! Dice orders the cabbie to crank up the volume while Carey orders, "Gimme a dime! Gimme a dime!" so she can call up her best home girls and orders them to crank up the radio so they can hear her. Much jumping up and down, irrational exuberance, and girlish, high-pitched shrieking ensues, topped off with some not-at-all ridiculous slow motion (subtle!). Man, I hope they never retire this oldie but goody.
But Beesley isn't too keen on sharing Carey with the world. As Carey's star rises his descends. The busy rocket-ride-to-super-stardom arc gives way to somber piano tinkling and Carey's acting goes from strained smiles and perky head nods to frowny faces and forehead crinkling as she reflects on how sad it is that, like, her mom and dad totally abandoned her and stuff and her boyfriend is kinda going crazy.
Carey's performance here suggests she had long since forgotten how non-famous people behave. With her default deer-in-the-headlights expression, she perennially seems to be on the lookout for personal assistants or bodyguards or some other functionary who could intervene to keep her from communicating with people who aren't paid to do her bidding.
In a delicious bit of irony, Carey's character here deeply resents being forced to vamp her way through a music video whose concept seems to be "Orgy at Plato's Retreat." Glitter consequently has it both ways. It gets to show off Carey's assets in countless skimpy yet strangely unflattering outfits and it gets to insist that Carey is at heart a deep, soulful artist uncomfortable with cynical attempts to exploit her sexuality.
Shameless to the bitter end, Glitter has Howard–who oozes malevolent charm as an oily music-biz hustler–kill Beesley right before Carey can go onstage at a sold-out show at Madison Square Garden and sing a big number about him. As if that weren't enough to satisfy the ten-year-old girl in everyone, Carey then takes a limo to the country for a joyous reunion with her now clean and sober mom.
It's easy and fun to lampoon the film's lazy reliance on time-tested show-biz movie conventions, but Carey really seems to believe in them, just as she really seems to feel the sentimental horseshit she screeches at deafening volumes in her ballads. There's something strangely poignant about the scene where Carey explains her fantasy that she'll someday become successful enough that her mother will feel a surge of pride and deeply regret having abandoned her. I think everyone who grew up without a parent has felt that same maudlin sentiment, that sad little desire to become big and successful and accomplished enough to make the sins of the past fade away into nothingness. In moments like this, it's possible to see the woman behind the glistening pop facade, to get a sense of who Carey is as person. There's a fragility in this scene that's sorely lacking from the rest of her performance, a turn that feels like an extension of her music-video vamping, not an evolutionary leap forward.
When Carey learns of Beesley's violent death at the hands of an Oscar nominee, her expression suggests less heartbreak and shock than a bewildered, shell-shocked desire to appear shattered. She seems to be thinking "Oh shit, I'm supposed to be sad. What's sad? I know: a puppy being killed. No! That poor puppy. It never hurt anybody! Poor, poor little puppy."
""The Glitter can't overpower the artist" argues a philosophical music video director early on while engaging in a free-form stream-of-consciousness rant about the enigma that is Mariah Carey. "Okay, we ask ourselves. Is she white? Is she black? We don't know. She's exotic. I wanna see more of her breasts." He asks himself and the audience as much as his crew. Here, the glitter overpowers Carey's fatally wan presence completely. It's not even close. Also, I wanna see more of her breasts.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Failure