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'Scandal' (R)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 28, 1989

"Scandal" scolds the principals in the Profumo affair, says shame on you to the fat (and flabby) cats who succumbed to the allure of teen tarts Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies. As a reenactment of the tabloid tempest that derailed Britain's Conservative Party in the '60s, it is a cotton candy docu-melodrama desperately seeking social significance.

"Scandal," seen through the eyes of Keeler and Stephen Ward, the social-climbing osteopath who played pimp to the upper crust, exposes an overbred, disdainful society of hasty-pudding pashas dallying with cockney dancing girls. It's the "White Mischief" crowd revisited, though not so perversely imaginative or so pretty. Who has ever wanted to see Ian McKellen (as John Profumo) naked as a jaybird?

Sloe-eyed actress Joanne Whalley-Kilmer is another matter as the enigmatic 17-year-old Keeler, a shapely chorine who meets her Henry Higgins in Ward. This society bone doctor, played by the rueful John Hurt, makes a place for himself among the gin-and-bitters bunch by fixing them up with easy conquests. A sexually ambiguous bachelor, he tutors Keeler and Rice-Davies in social graces and good grooming.

Keeler, a bottle-blond working-class naif, gives up the Lady Clairol, buys a new wardrobe and enters the inner circle. "Lick your lips, little baby," says Ward, launching his fledgling at an after-dinner orgy. The pieces of the peccadillo fall into place as Keeler becomes mistress to both Profumo, the secretary of state for war, and Eugene Ivanov (Jeroen Krabbe), a Soviet diplomat and suspected spy.

Keeler and her 16-year-old friend Rice-Davies (Bridget Fonda) enjoy the heady ambience and their mayfly's moment.

Ward, obsessed with rubbing elbows with the rich and famous, throws regular bacchanals at his country cottage. Everybody skips dessert, no doubt excited by the four-foot ice sculpture. But the notorious orgy that had earned an X rating, now nipped and tucked for an R, is about as erotic as opening day at a fat farm -- all hairy rumps, sallow love handles, cellulite and sagging bosoms.

Michael Caton-Jones, who directed from Michael Thomas' screenplay, obviously relishes this peep show of the peers. If his film feels like a TV miniseries, that's because it was conceived for the boob tube. Definitely a shallow business, it is nevertheless stylishly rendered, with the cheesy beauty of such fabulous '50s weepers as "Imitation of Life." And as it happens, the filmmakers do want us to get out our handkerchiefs for Ward, who is tried for procuring. Never really an insider, the pathetic playboy becomes the fall guy at a highly publicized trial. Only Keeler still loves him in the end.

Hurt is suitably ravaged as the pimping Pygmalion, squiring the gals and smoking heavily. In fact, he and Whalley-Kilmer, whose cheekbones make up for the character's shortcomings, seem to mistake smoking for acting. As the screenwriter has it, these scoundrels are all tabloid paper dolls, though Fonda, the daughter of Peter, makes a virtue of this. She's the happiest hooker as the sensible Rice-Davies, who quipped for the jury and waved merrily at the press corps.

Played as an earnest fool by McKellen, Profumo is no John Kennedy. And that's the real problem with "Scandal": It seems tame given the doin's on these teeming shores. It has nothing to say about the heartbreak of satyriasis in higher office, nothing about the press as peeping Tom. Its best use, its highest purpose, is as instruction manual for politicians, the monkey-businessmen.

"Scandal" is rated R for nudity and explicit sex.

Copyright The Washington Post

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