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'Shame' (R)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 12, 1988

"Shame" is to "Shane" as the XX chromosome is to the XY. It's a Western with a sex change, an Australian update of the classic structure that simply substitutes heroine for hero. This clever twist turns an otherwise simplistic drama into a provocative curiosity. The question is, should we give the lady a cigar?

Like Shane, the Lone Ranger and Billy Jack, Asta Cadell (Deborra-Lee Furness) will restore order, instill courage and rout the bullies. Mounted on a motorcycle, she rides into the town of Ginborak, the proverbial lonesome stranger. Asta is billed as "a fighter with a burning sense of justice that no redneck cop can stop." When her bike breaks down, Asta is obliged to stay over. Reluctantly, the mechanic agrees to give her his spare room for the night.

Ginborak seems normal, but Asta can't help but notice the cowering women and the abnormally aggressive men. That night when the mechanic's daughter Lizzie (Simone Buchanan) returns home in hysterics, Asta learns the town secret. Women are regularly raped, but the rapists are never prosecuted because the women "were asking for it."

By day, packs of teen-age boys roam the streets, leering and jeering like construction workers from Hell. By night, they gang-rape wives, grandmothers and virgin girls. The men make the mistake of taking Asta on -- and end up with busted faces, black eyes and stitches where their brains used to be. She is a two-fisted, tall-walking, hard-riding, wheelie kind of woman. It takes a lot to get this cool head mad -- about as much as it takes with Clint Eastwood -- but do it and she'll punch your lights out. And by gosh, Furness makes you believe she could do it. She looks the part, James Dean lean, hard, with eyes that become ball bearings when you get her riled. A cocky swagger, good grimace, stern face and quite a pair of tailpipes.

Lizzie idolizes Asta, the most courageous, intelligent and mechanically skilled woman she has ever known. Inspired by the older woman, the shy, traumatized girl decides to press charges against the boys, though the townspeople deride her. The boys are arrested, but soon bailed out by the town pillars.

It's an outrageously manipulative movie that plays on your own worst instincts. Director Steve Jodrell has done his job well when it comes to raising the heart rate for the final showdown. And you'll be wanting justice, by damn. Asta is so miffed when she finds the boys have taken Lizzie off again that she grabs the worst of the baby barbarians by the throat and threatens to break his neck. She almost does it, too, till suddenly she comes to her senses and glares down at him with that "You ain't worth spit" look in her eyes.

The screenplay, written by Beverly Blankeship and Michael Brindley, is careful to include scenes that show women do like sex, noting, however, that they prefer to have a choice in the process. It is the movie's only nod to femininity. Otherwise, "Shame" is about a woman being a man.

In "Tootsie," Dustin Hoffman actually walked a mile in high heels and learned what femininity felt like. Asta puts on the boots, but they walk her around. We see a woman repair engines and deal manfully with societal wrongs. We don't learn much from that, except that women can respond to complex social problems the way Rambo does if they want to.

Ultimately what "Shame" is saying goes back to "My Fair Lady," in which Professor Higgins asked, "Why can't a woman be more like a man?"

You've come a long way, baby -- go ahead and make his day.

Copyright The Washington Post

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