Melanie Griffith: Sex at a discount

Never gave much thought to Melanie Griffith. In the height of her career, the late 1980s/early 90s, I dismissed her as a dollar-store Marilyn Monroe, with the Michelin body and the boop-a-doop voice. (See also: Jennifer Tilly.) She seemed insubstantial, especially compared to leading actresses of her time, such as Glenn Close, Meryl Streep and Sigourney Weaver.

But I’ve been forced to reassess, watching Griffith back-to-back in two films, Stormy Monday (Mike Figgis, 1987) and Something Wild (Jonathan Demme, 1986), and realizing that she has a quality, one that may have been better appreciated in the days of classic Hollywood, an ability to shift from light drama to comedy effortlessly.

That’s largely a product of the likeable simplicity she projects, where she can seem like a stalwart ally on one hand (Monday) and come off as sexually dangerous on the other (Wild).

Of course, sex and Griffith had always gone hand-and-hand. That was her rep, the curvy ingénue on display in Arthur Penn’s Night Moves (1975) but given full flower in Brian DePalma’s cult classic Body Double (1984), in which she played a porn star and came into her own as a figure who could carry the screen. But she seemed destined for B-pictures, the kind of films today that head straight for DVD.

Although she was not yet 30 by the time she made both Stormy Monday and Something Wild, Griffith had already gained a sort of shopworn quality, a wisdom gained from hard knocks, that was at odds with her sex kitten persona. Set in Newcastle, England, Stormy Monday might be called, for what of a better term, a Reagan Noir.  The plot involves a flag-waving Texas businessman (Tommy Lee Jones, natch) who seeks to strong arm his way to an economic development project, with a jazz-club owner (Sting, back when he was still trying to be a hyphenate) and his gofer (Sean Bean) in his way.

Griffith is enormously sympathetic as the chain-restaurant waitress and sometime-deal-closing prostitute who falls for Bean, but who appears unable to break Jones’ grip on her. The whole woman-caught-between-two-worlds in a noir trope, but she makes it fresh, largely through pure charisma. The movie, as detailed in a recent video essay, is more interested in noir style than substance, which probably plays to Griffith’s benefit.

Something Wild is the better-known picture, given new life because of its release by Criterion.  I’m one of those who believe Jonathan Demme was at his best early in his career, when he fused a pop aesthetic with a comic New York sensibility, making Wild and Married to the Mob. (I know, I know, Silence of the Lambs.)

The great appeal of the Wild lies in Griffith’s performance. Like poor befuddled Charlie Driggs (Jeff Daniels), we’ve never seen anything like Lulu/Audrey, as portrayed by Griffith.  For the first part of the movie, she’s a scotch-downing, handcuff-brandishing temptress, before switching gears entirely and becoming the kind of girl that can be literally brought home to mom.

Griffith transitions easily from a beguiling, dominating figure in the first half of the film to a bitter, resigned captive in the second, drained of her spark. The film is expertly constructed to have supercharged Ray Liotta come in halfway through to jump-start the story, which was in danger of drifting off into small-town tedium. Daniels is fine throughout, but as with the character he plays, he’s hard to find interesting in long stretches.

Like Stormy Monday, the film was a product of its time and has been called a “yuppie nightmare,” a pedigree it shared with Martin Scorsese’s After Hours (1985). And as in the Figgis film Monday, Griffith makes an appealing counterweight to the self-important, consumer-driven culture of 80s.

Her blue-collar, downmarket appeal is likely what made her so winning at the time. It was a persona she would soon hone to perfection in her breakout hit Working Girl (1988), an film so finely crafted that it holds its own with the best comedies ever made. As the sharpest secretary in Manhattan, Griffith became a star.

Working Girl also offers some interesting commentary on sexuality, as its director, Mike Nichols, went out of his way to show a slightly chunky Griffith in her underwear, likely in an effort to portray his heroine as attractive, but not unrealistically so. It’s hard to imagine such a scene in a modern film, where every woman is an airbrushed, flat-abed amazon. But that was part of Griffith’s charm; her seductiveness was premised in part on her accessibility; she seemed realistic, obtainable.

But whether through her own limitations as an actress or her choice of material (I’d say the latter), her star quickly faded. In the 1930s and 40s, a Griffith-type character could have made a dozen films centered around that sort of rowhouse likeability, but she quickly progressed to playing more polished characters in another Yuppie thriller, Pacific Heights (1990), and the notorious bomb, The Bonfire of the Vanities –which, Wikipedia, tells me is somehow very big in Yugoslavia.

Just like that, her time was over. She should have stayed where she was. Some people belong on the wrong side of the tracks.


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