Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Reel Thoughts: Red Hot Cookie

Melissa Leo wasn’t always a tough older woman with years of experience showing on her face, like her roles in The Fighter and Frozen River. Back in the mid-eighties, Leo was a fresh-faced redhead whose first starring role was as innocent teen hooker Cookie in the Roger Corman exploitation film Streetwalkin’, available on DVD today. The film’s director, Joan Freeman, intended the film as a serious examination of prostitutes in New York’s Times Square, which was a hotbed of sex clubs and adult movie houses in 1985. As she explains in the commentary, however, she understood that she was making a Roger Corman film, which meant that every ten minutes or so, there needed to be nudity, violence or both.

Like an R-rated version of Pat Benatar’s “Love is a Battlefield” video, Streetwalkin’ tells the story of a girl who’s been kicked out by her alcoholic mother and flees to New York City with her little brother. She’s at the Port Authority Bus Terminal for all of five minutes before handsome but unhinged Duke (hunky Dale Midkiff in full Elvis impersonator mode) picks Cookie up, compliments her and turns her into a streetwalker. Her fellow working girls include the statuesque “Queen Bee”, played by the luminous Julie Newmar with an unidentifiable accent, Heather (Deborah Offner), Phoebe (Annie Golden) and Star (Khandi Alexander). When Duke beats roommate Heather savagely, Cookie realizes that he is a certified psycho, so she looks for help from another pimp named Jason (Leon). Duke’s “lesson” doesn’t go as planned, and soon Cookie, Queen Bee and Star are fighting for their lives on the mean streets of New York.

Streetwalkin’ also stars Antonio Fargas, a.k.a. Huggy Bear from Starsky & Hutch. The film is a fascinating time capsule of pre-Disney Times Square and Leo does show the depth and complexity she’d later exhibit in Frozen River and her Oscar-winning work in The Fighter. She also shows a bit of skin, although it’s doubtful that many lesbians will enjoy it due to its violence and abuse towards women.

Since Streetwalkin’ is a Roger Corman production, it does have a bit of grindhouse and camp appeal, but you’ll be surprised at how real its seedy setting feels. The commentary by Freeman and producer Robert Alden (who were married when the film was made) gives an intriguing look behind the scenes of a low budget movie.

Review by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.

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