Friday, April 25, 2014



It has been an exhausting few weeks around Chateau Maine. I simply haven't had time to tell Mrs. Jerry, my housekeeper, what to prepare for dinner, much less attend to my fans through this column. American Idyll has been a much more overwhelming process than I ever dreamed. We have selected our ten finalists and moved them into Chateau Maine for their lessons in true star quality. I just hadn't quite realized that this would also entail ten stage mothers moving onto the premises as well. I suppose that if one is to work with four to eight year olds, parents are a necessary difficulty, but the group that have taken up residence in the sundry guest rooms of the west wing make Madame Rose, my publicist and a former stage mother herself, look like Rebecca of Sunnybrook farm.

We filmed the grand arrival of the contestants this past weekend. Three dozen spotlights in rose pink flooded the terrace as our ten little wunderkinder sang 'Quiet Please, There's A Lady On Stage' and I made my initial entrance, descending from the back of a specially trained Bactrian camel. It was a stunning moment and will set the tone of the series perfectly - glamorous star imparts her mystique to future starlets competing to be the Shirley Temple of the new millennium. We finished the master shot when all of a sudden this cloud of shrieking harpies, known as the stage mothers, descended upon the technical crew demanding better lighting and close-ups for their darling daughters. They completely forgot that I am the star and their little girls are only supporting players at this stage of the game. Several of them, both dressed in rather hideous shades of Wal-Mart polyester, started into a cat fight amongst the potted hibiscuses. Normy attempted to break it up and was knocked over the balustrade for his pains. We ended up having to run him to Cedars Sinai for an emergency laminectomy.

While Normy was being operated upon, I fired up my new DVD compatible laptop and looked for a film that might better explain the psychology of little girls and their relationship with their mothers. There were a dearth of such titles in my bag so I settled for the 1996 film Freeway with Reese Witherspoon and Keifer Sutherland, a sly adaptation of the traditional Little Red Riding Hood story in modern dress.

The Little Red Riding Hood figure is fifteen year old Vanessa Lutz (Witherspoon), an illiterate little piece of white trash from a horrific Southern California family background. Mama Ramona (Amanda Plummer) turns tricks in front of the family mobile home while step daddy Larry (Michael T. Weiss) pimps mom out and interferes with little Vanessa when mama isn't home. After both parental figures are carted off to jail, Vanessa decides to go in search of grandma (her real father's mother whom she has never met) and who lives in Stockton, five hundred miles north on I-5. Little Vanessa locks up the child protective services caseworker (Conchata Ferrell), steals her car, and is soon heading north for her new life, wearing her red leather jacket and carrying her few possessions in a lovely little basket.

On the way up the freeway, however, her stolen car breaks down. Bob Wolverton (Keifer Sutherland), a psychologist specializing in troubled youth, finds her at the side of the road, befriends her and then, in a truly creepy scene reveals himself as a monster serial rapist killer. Vanessa has the pluck and innate instincts to escape, but is arrested for attempted murder and placed in a juvenile facility. She ultimately escapes with the aid of Mesquita (Alanna Ubach), a Latina homie while being pursued by Bob and the police (represented by Dan Hedaya) who aren't sure who to believe, her or the mild mannered public face of counselor Bob. She eventually gets to grandma's, but guess who's waiting for her...

Writer director Matthew Bright, who has had no other good projects since, has made a perfect little B movie with an A+ cast. Freeway begins with a burst of energy with Crumb inspired cartoon titles and immediately launches into the profane world of the Lutz ménage with its references to lewd sex acts, drugs, and girls forced to grow up way before their time. It never lets up, moving from one ghastly funny situation to the next. The film would be almost unwatchable given the subject matter were it not for the central performances from Witherspoon and Sutherland. Reese Witherspoon, who has gone on to be one of the best young actresses currently working, had an early triumph with Vanessa. She captures the combination of hard shell exterior over scared little girl exquisitely. She's also uninhibited and unafraid to work with some of the crassest language in major motion picture history. (The film was originally rated NC-17 but reduced to R after some language was softened.) Sutherland, who has always been capable of good performances, even if he has been avoiding them of late, gives a great twisted psycho behind the benevolent mask and the central sequence where Vanessa is psychologically bullied and terrified is a minor masterpiece. Bright has also assembled a cast of extremely competent character actors in the lesser parts who help keep everything zooming along (his only mistake being Brooke Shields in the small part of Mrs. Wolverton - she's funny, but for all the wrong reasons.)

The parallels between the traditional legend and the film are great fun to pick out and help highlight the themes of danger for women in a man's world and how resourcefulness is necessary for a woman to survive. The implicitness of male and female sexuality, couched in metaphor in the fairy tale, are given free rein here, and there are a couple of over the top moments of violence that are not necessarily for the faint of heart, although they are staged in such a way that the viewer feels separate from, rather than complicit in them.

The DVD is a bare bones affair. There's little in the way of extras, but both sound and picture transfer are good with little artifact. John Thomas's cinematography of the arid central valley of California comes across quite well. It won't be everyone's cup of tea but it's worth a look and has given me some lovely ideas for a Red Riding Hood Ballet for my little girls. I'll have Ania, my dramaturg, get to work on it.

Multiple tattoos. Oral sex references. Interracial couples. Psychological counseling techniques. Overheated car. Multiple shootings. Multiple stabbings. Multiple stompings. Wolf sculpture. Porn in tool shed. Hair net. Police rescues. Suicidal Shields.

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