HECTOR BABENCO FOR KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN (1985)
The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)
Sydney Pollack for Out of Africa
John Huston for Prizzi’s Honor
Akira Kurosawa for Ran
Peter Weir for Witness
NOTE: dark blue text denotes individuals who won Oscars for the film being discussed, while light blue indicates those who were nominated.
My problem with Hector Babenco’s praiseworthy adaptation of Manuel Puig’s Kiss of the Spider Woman—and this is a rare problem for me—is that I loved the book. On the increasingly rare occasion that I read fiction, I usually seek out the unfilmable or at least unfilmed: One Hundred Years of Solitude, Things Fall Apart, The Cyberiad. Nevertheless, I picked up Puig’s novel before a trip once and fell in love with the novel’s dialogue-only exploration of two prisoners’ minds, not to mention the enviable literary conceit of recounting old movies from the unreliable memory of a hopeless romantic. The opening sequence, slowly poring over the scattered decorations on Molina and Valentin’s cell walls to the offscreen narration of one such telling, captured beautifully the abstracted freedom of Puig’s style. However, the inevitable need to give actual bodies to the two prisoners, and to cutaway to the fantasies being described, robbed the movie adaptation of the purely imaginative (and unfilmable) qualities I loved about the source material. Moving past my attachment to the book, though, Babenco’s story becomes a very different film, a powerful queer romance, a more tragic and yet uplifting counterweight to the last prison film in this project.
Babenco takes great care in literalizing the suggested reality that frames Molina and Valentin’s conversations. He constantly discovers anew the unchanging walls of the prison cell, the framing of each shot forming new constellations of symbolism out of the meticulous wall decorations (Clovis Bueno’s unsung art direction). To animate the already sharply-defined dialogue, Babenco smartly (if perhaps unwittingly) casts lead actors at odds with their characters’ ideal physicality: William Hurt, tall and hulking despite his feminine aspirations; Raul Julia, slight of frame despite his gruff machismo. Hurt does most of the heavy lifting in the story, and I appreciate the unabashed daintiness of his performance, though Julia also holds his own as his character fitfully relaxes his guard around the detested homosexual. Making his English language debut, Babenco must trust in the strength of these performers, and they establish a genuine rapport, despite initially being played mostly in separate shots to express the chasm betweem them. In their final scenes together, almost completely in two-shot, they possess an intimate kinship that would serve as a model for future gay lovers onscreen (even if, with the sincerest of intentions, it wound up establishing the tragic gay male as a foolproof Oscar ploy).
Alan Parker’s Midnight Express saw mental escape as a path toward delirium and shied away from the taboo possibility of homosexual bonding (unlike the real Billy Hayes, who acknowledged having consensual relations with his cellmate). By contrast, Babenco shows both of these comforts as necessary and perhaps inevitable. Though Molina’s alluring stories turn out to be part of a (potentially dual) hidden agenda, indicating their treacherous aspect, the saturated fantasy worlds, standing in stark monochromatic contrast to the grayish green confines of the prison cell, nourish the prisoners’ minds rather than enervating them. I lament that time and budget restraints permit screenwriter Leonard Schrader to only do justice to one of Molina’s cinematic recollections. However, the glamorous pro-Nazi romance perfectly encapsulates the gap between the willful ambiguity of Molina’s queer viewpoint and Valentin’s politically charged literalism. (I also appreciate the panther sculpture in the Nazi commandant’s dining room—an allusion, intentional or not, to the memorable Cat People retelling that opens Puig’s book.) The difference in the two characters’ outlooks seems to foreshadow their fates, as Molina winds up the hapless (though perhaps not fully naïve) victim of a political intrigue. Meanwhile, bereft of Molina’s practiced imagination, Valentin’s only escape can come in the form of a drug-induced hallucination. Still, the revelation of Valentin’s lover Marta (played by Sonia Braga, also the star of Molina’s fantasies) reveals that all of the imagined sequences have come from the supposedly unromantic freedom fighter’s head all along. In the end, Kiss of the Spider Woman remains an effective cinematic rendition of the bittersweet victory of the mind over the imprisonment of the body.
After earning international attention with the vibrant and searing urban drama Pixote, the Brazilian Babenco joined an unusual multi-continental spread of Best Director nominees. Joining the relative newcomer on the international scene were two seasoned first-time nominees: the legendary Akira Kurosawa for his severe Coppola/Lucas-financed King Lear adaptation (the category’s second stealth adaptation of the play), plus Australian Peter Weir’s Oscar arrival with his eye-catching work on the detective thriller Witness. The three newcomers went up against two members of the Hollywood old guard: the victorious Sydney Pollack for his shiny epic Out of Africa and the senior John Huston for the gangster dark comedy Prizzi’s Honor, which baffled me so. My vote might one day revert to Pollack if his surprisingly adept period piece exceeds my expectations even more the second time; for now, though, it goes to the justly revered Kurosawa. Ran is far more aloof than the dynamic 1950s filmmaking that established Kurosawa as one of my few top-tier favorite filmmakers, but it is still an aesthetic pièce de résistance and a worthy champ.