Cult Cinema: Butterfly (1982) - Reviewed

Images courtesy of Analysis Releasing
The novels of American author James M. Cain, usually working within the hardboiled crime fiction subgenre, have made their way to many a number of silver screen cinematic adaptations over the years including but not limited to The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, Serenade and Mildred Pierce.  A beloved and popular novelist, the author also contributed to a number of film screenplays including but not limited to Algiers and Stand Up and Fight.  A few years after his death, renewed interest began in the author’s work replete with a Bob Rafelson remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice in 1981 and though critically slammed it nevertheless turned a profit and proved the writings of James M. Cain were still valuable money printers and could transition to a modern day and age.

All of this led to The Witch Who Came from the Sea producer-director Matt Cimber’s near inescapable career-killer Butterfly, among Cain’s most notorious novels and one of the first truly infamous Golden Raspberry Award nominees that is remembered more for turning its newbie starlet Pia Zadora into a dartboard for critics angry over her husband Meshulam Riklis’ efforts to more or less buy her Golden Globe win for Best New Star of the Year in a Motion Picture.  Almost out of principle, Pia Zadora became the first actress to win both the Golden Globe and the Golden Raspberry for Butterfly before copping the Razzie again a year later with the infinitely shoddier and tawdrier The Lonely Lady before trying her hand at the musical comedy with Voyage of the Rock Aliens.  Either way, Butterfly while not nearly as bad as people have made it out to be is rather sleazy and just a little bit bonkers, an attempt at adapting a great author’s most controversial work and turning out more oddly funny than steamily provocative.
1937 Nevada-Arizona in the desert resides bearded miner Jess Tyler (Stacy Keach) who is the caretaker of an unused silver mine, abandoned by his wife Belle Morgan (Lois Nettleton) and two daughters Janey (Ann Dane) and Kady (Pia Zadora) who at the age of 17 reappears on Jess’ property.  Strutting about barefoot and scantily clad in a thin dress, Kady presents herself and explains her mother Belle is now running a brothel and one of her clients impregnated Kady with a son.  Kady, driven by money, has in fact returned home to try and take a crack at the silver mine which her father Jess seems to agree to help out with, but not before she herself makes more than a few overt seductive passes at daddy Jess with the awkward incestuous sexual tension thickening in the air.  From here, other former figures in Kady’s life begin showing up including but not limited to her wealthy beau Wash Gillespie (Edward Albert) and mercurial figures trying to get a piece of the silver mine begin closing in, all the while Kady continues to ramp up her seducing attempts with Jess.

Before digging into the mixed and kind of goofy tawdry sweeping epic historical romance sexing onscreen, it is important to note this project was financed in full by Pia Zadora’s husband Meshulam Riklis independently roughly around $3.5 million and subsequently flew in several members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association to Las Vegas to hear the actress sing the film’s title track It’s Wrong for Me to Love You.  Coupled with her Golden Globe win over Elizabeth McGovern as well as Kathleen Turner, the fact that the award wins were more or less bought by Zadora’s husband instantly made Butterfly a particular target of critical ire.  Despite boasting arresting cinematography by Eduard van der Enden (Lifespan) and a more than overqualified moody score by Ennio Morricone and a mostly solid ensemble cast including but not limited to Orson Welles in his final role, Butterfly for all of its technical virtues is a beautiful looking and sounding misfire.

The same year, director Matt Cimber and co-writer John Goff, reunited with Zadora for another picture called Fake-Out which also got poor reviews but nowhere near the notoriety Butterfly stirred up.  After Pia’s “win”, the Golden Globes and Foreign Press Association decided to do away with the category altogether.  While taking the credibility of the project down several notches with her sex-kitten nymphomaniac characterization and performance, one wonders whether or not a scruffy crusty picked Orson Welles appearance would’ve saved the film.  For all the skillful supporting elements and a strong performance from the always great Stacy Keach, the main reason to watch this movie isn’t for a daring Hollywood drama but for some corny and kind of crazy sleaze. 
Much of it stems from Pia in a performance that could sit comfortably within the Cannon Film catalog.  Despite the silliness and the amount of naked skin onscreen, Pia to her credit does kind of attack the role with all she has and isn’t afraid to get her feet and hands dirty.  While treated as a sex object in both this and The Lonely Lady, making one wonder what the real motives were behind her husband’s film productions, Pia holds her own and seeing her inches away from Orson Welles during her “award winning” courtroom speech is a most rare screen opportunity.  Though objectively speaking Pia in the role replete with the film’s dialogue is laughable, she makes this miscalculated and perverse dreck highly entertaining to watch unfold as she kind of bumbles from scene to scene hobnobbing with major Hollywood talents.
While understandably tarred and feathered before being burned at the stake from the ground up, Butterfly did garner some measure of attention for the behind-the-scenes shenanigans that led to Pia Zadora’s Golden Globe win followed by notoriety surrounding the curious object that is the film itself.  Just how did so many major names get involved in something like this?  Moreover, how do you take a renowned literary provocation and turn it into a camp laden hoot with more than a few perplexing if not unnerving artistic choices?  In the years since, both Pia Zadora and director Matt Cimber have long moved on with Cimber’s next big endeavor being the co-creator of Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling which was financed by Meshulam Riklis before Pia Zadora pulled the plug after too many instances of Riklis ogling the ladies. 

Looking back on Butterfly, the film is far from inept with some lovely production values and a soundtrack that, sans the Zadora track, is well worth listening to on its own.  Pia Zadora might have the stigma of being one of the “Worst Actresses of the Century” but it is hard to imagine this movie being what it is without her.  Whether she wrecked a potential masterwork is open to debate but her presence in the film is part of what makes this a misbegotten crazy camp classic.  Its most certainly not “good” per se but it is compulsively entertaining for mostly the wrong reasons.

--Andrew Kotwicki