In 1984, one of the most daring motion pictures to date about human sexuality, Crimes of Passion, was released. Kathleen Turner stars as call girl China Blue, who by day is a talented fashion designer. Her already conflicted life becomes even more complicated once she crosses paths with both a repressed husband (played by a full-frontal, totally hot John Laughlin) and an insane street preacher intent on “saving” her (the late Anthony Perkins, giving his most out there performance among many).
The film’s screenwriter, Barry Sandler, will be appearing at a special 30th anniversary screening sponsored by Outfest tonight in West Hollywood. He currently lives in central Florida and teaches filmmaking at a local university. I was privileged to speak with Sandler at length recently about Crimes of Passion and several of his other memorable — and memorably gay-aware — works.
Sandler: (Laugh) You know, I started writing it in the late 1970’s, during the sexual revolution and pre-AIDS. It was clear to me that people were substituting sex for intimacy, as a substitute for any kind of romance. I was trying to convey that using a dramatic hook, how sexuality is sometimes used as a shield or a barrier to real connection. I used a heterosexual context but I thought gay viewers could relate to it. I knew I succeeded when I went out on Halloween that year and saw how many men were dressed as China Blue (laughs)!
Rev: How was the film received upon its initial release?
Sandler: I never had or even seen a movie that had such polarized reactions. I have a list of critics who loved it and thought it was brilliant, and then there were a lot of critics who said it was depraved and disgusting. The other thing is that it got a lot of publicity because the ratings board gave it an X rating, so there were two versions of it ultimately released on home video: R and Unrated. Richard Heffner, the head of the ratings board at the time, encouraged me as a producer on the film to release it as an X and restore the legitimacy of the X rating. Midnight Cowboy, which won the Oscar, had been rated X before it became synonymous with pornography. Heffner defended Crimes of Passion as a serious treatment of human sexuality. The studio (New World), though, would only release it as an R. It had disappointing box office since everyone had naturally been looking forward to the X-rated version but it became something of a cult movie and was big on home video, especially the unrated version.
Rev: I think Kathleen Turner gives one of her best performances as China Blue. What was she like on set?
Sandler: She is great in it. She won the Los Angeles Film Critics award and is on the record as saying it’s her best performance. It was a difficult, intense shoot because her fiancée didn’t want her to do it. She was just coming off Romancing the Stone and was a big star. She was a little bit nervous doing this subversive, transgressive role but the actress in her really wanted to do it.
Rev: As screenwriter, how was working with the one and only director Ken Russell (The Devils, Tommy, Women in Love and nearly 70 other films, many of them controversial)?
Sandler: I loved it, it was just great. He had just done Altered States, written by Paddy Chayefsky, and they did not get along. Paddy had it in his contract that not a word of his script could be changed without his permission. They fought a lot, so (Russell) was very skeptical and suspect of the idea of working with me, since I had it in my contract that I had to write any changes in the script. I wasn’t opposed to changes but I had to make them. The first time I met with Ken, he was a little bit standoffish and aloof. I really wanted to work with him, and had such respect and admiration for him as a filmmaker. It took a couple of meetings but he eventually warmed up to me. We also didn’t really make any changes. We were going to make another movie after Crimes of Passion but the financing never came together.
Rev: Making Love (which Sandler wrote and produced) also got a mixed reaction when it was released in 1982. Would you say its reputation has improved?
Sandler: I would say so, yeah. Critics were divided on it but not as polarized as Crimes of Passion. It was warmly embraced by the gay community. My generation grew up with all these negative stereotypes of gay people. I still have a lot of the nice clippings in the gay press and letters I received at the time. Some people were confused by it because it was sold in two different ways: to the straight audience and the gay audience. I remember seeing it in a theater full of mostly straight people. When the two men kissed, some people groaned and some even got up and left the theater. I don’t think that would happen today. There really aren’t these two different audiences anymore, which is great.
Rev: And you wrote what most of my friends and I consider two of the best Agatha Christie movies, The Mirror Crack’d (1980) and Evil Under the Sun (1982). How were those experiences?
Sandler: (Laugh) I had the most fun because I got to live in England for months and meeting and working with all these big stars on The Mirror Crack’d: Elizabeth Taylor and Kim Novak, Rock Hudson, Angela Lansbury, Tony Curtis. It was Kim Novak’s first movie in a while and I remember her being pretty nervous. Liz Taylor was great. I would quote lines from her movies to her and ask her to guess which movie each was from. She got about half of them right. (Laughs) Unfortunately, I wasn’t on set when they filmed Evil Under the Sun because they were shooting Making Love at the same time.
Rev: What are you working on now?
Sandler: I just finished a movie, Knock ‘em Dead, that is a lot like the Agatha Christie movies. It comes out in February. It has an all-black cast and is very low budget but it’s a lot of fun. (The film is directed by David DeCoteau, the out mastermind behind The Brotherhood and 1313 series.)
Rev: Any thoughts on how far cinema has come from an LGBT perspective?
Sandler: I tell you, we’ve come along an enormous amount, mainly thanks to television. Once you have gay people, gay characters coming into your home, it really de-stigmatizes us. The more that image of gay people as non-threatening is out there, the more accepted we are. We have really come a long, long way.
Interview by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.