Bobby Grady is a self-described Boy Scout, a guy who’s been married for twelve years and has never looked at another woman in all that time. He’s good-looking in a bland Tom Cruise-ish sort of way, naïve but well-meaning. With two kids he has some financial pressures, so he takes on a night job doing surveillance. Joanna Crane (Kathleen Turner) is a sportswear designer suspected by her boss of selling the film’s designs to a competitor. It turns out that she isn’t doing that at all, but she does have a secret life. At night the hard-working and slightly aloof businesswoman becomes China Blue, a very expensive and rather exotic prostitute. China Blue will play out any man’s fantasy. As she says, to be an expensive hooker you have to be a good actress, and she’s a very good actress. In fact both her day-time and night-time lives involve acting a part.
Bobby soon discovers that China Blue isn’t the only person acting a part. In fact his whole marriage has been nothing but play-acting. He and Amy have played at Happy Families, acting the roles of perfect husband and perfect wife, but it’s been nothing but lies. She’s not only been faking orgasms for the whole of their married life, she’s been faking everything else. She’s never told Bobby the truth about any of her feelings about him, and indeed it appears she’s never told herself the truth about any of these things either.
Inevitably Bobby ends up in China Blue’s bed, and discovers that sex is something that doesn’t have to involve anxiety and emotional manipulation. It can actually be fun, and it can be honest. You pay your fifty bucks, and you get your money’s worth, and she gets her fifty bucks. The sex might be sensational, but things are about to get complicated. Bobby has left Amy, and turns up on China Blue’s doorstep. He looks so sad and bedraggled, like a lost puppy, and he also looks so damned cute, that she just can’t turn him away. But there’s yet another complication - a crazed street preacher (Anthony Perkins) who wants to save China Blue’s soul, and is prepared to use the most extreme measures to do so.
The weakness of the film is in the plotting of screenwriter Barry Sandler. He’s created some fascinating and complex characters, and he’s done some interesting things with them, but the plot just doesn’t hang together. The crazed preacher sub-plot seems to belong to another film. As an erotic thriller it doesn’t really work. However the characters and the acting, aided by some nicely moody cinematography by Dick Bush, are more than enough to compensate for the weaknesses in plotting. Even Tony Perkins, while going outrageously over-the-top, manages to give the sex-obsessed preacher some complexity. He’s a man who honestly doesn’t know whether he hates women for being desirable, or hates men for desiring them, and he honestly doesn’t know if it’s sex or death he wants most.
The key character is Joanna/China Blue. Kathleen Turner doesn’t play her as a Whore With a Heart of Gold, but neither does she play her as the Cynical Hardbitten Whore, or as the Whore as Victim. China Blue is all these things and more. She’s a complicated person with complicated problems. She’s turned to prostitution as a way of avoiding emotional entanglements, of staying in control, of not getting hurt emotionally. At the same time, she has the emotional needs that we all have. Her involvement with Bobby, which could easily have come across as an unlikely and contrived plot development, instead comes across as believable. Joanna’s life as a prostitute is neither demonised nor glamorised - it’s simply her way of dealing with things. There are obvious similarities to the character of Bree in Klute, and there’s a rather nice homage to that film that really is a homage, not a rip-off.
Bobby is the character who could easily have wrecked the movie. If for one moment we’d started to regard him with contempt or pity the film would have fallen apart, but John Laughlin gives him enough dignity and enough charm to avoid those pitfalls. Annie Potts also succeeds in making Amy a tragic character rather than a villain. Amy has made disastrous mistakes, but her lies were motivated not by malice but by her own inability to face the truth and her inability to face any genuine emotion. She really thought that play-acting the part of the perfect happy wife was the right thing to do. And Bobby isn’t blameless - the warning signs have been there for years, but he’s also chosen to embrace the fantasy of the perfect marriage rather than face the reality. So everyone is acting a part, and everybody is afraid of being honest.
It’s also nice to see a US movie that is at least technically in the erotic thriller genre that isn’t misogynistic and doesn’t hand us a moral message about the emptiness and futility of sex. If anything the message of the film isn’t that sex without love is empty, but that love without sex is empty. Perhaps that’s the real reason it was controversial - it’s essentially positive about sex and it’s not exactly positive about the nuclear family of the American Dream. It’s a flawed movie but still an exceptionally interesting one, and as always even a Ken Russell movie that doesn’t succeed completely is still infinitely more interesting than the entire output of a hack like Spielberg. And as
Oddly enough, the Region 4 release (judging by the running time) appears to be uncut. Of course being a Region 4 release it includes none of the extras that are featured on overseas releases.