Legends run rampant through Hollywood history -- and what seems to be another one is opening Friday in Washington-area theaters.
It's the extra-sensory "9 1/2 Weeks," a film that dwells almost exclusively on a relationship that is almost exclusively centered on sexual pleasures. It has made an arduous journey through Hollywood -- involving four studios (Tri-Star Pictures pulled out just three days before filming was to begin; MGM/UA ended up with it), a veritable army of producers, at least 10 screenplay drafts and an 18-month editing/reediting process. Along the way, it's undergone a metamorphosis -- the desexing of the original story line, which dealt with a sadomasochistic relationship.
The movie is based on the 1978 novella "9 1/2 Weeks" (subtitled "A Memoir of a Love Affair"), about a woman who becomes sexually dependent on a man who asks her to wear a blindfold and handcuffs and who likes to hit her in the face and watch the bruises form. Written under a pseudonym (Elizabeth McNeill -- and nobody's telling her real name), the book begins with the words:
"The first time we were in bed together he held my hands pinned down above my head. I liked it . . ."
The 9 1/2-week affair of passion is played out by Kim Basinger and Mickey Rourke and directed by Adrian Lyne, his first film since the flashy "Flashdance." Lyne readily acknowledges that the provocative sexual content "goes right to the edge."
As such it was once rumored that the $13 million R-rated film would receive an X rating. But an X-rated film is not an "accessible" film -- the "9 1/2 Weeks" filmmakers wanted a movie that would be hot and commercial. So steamier scenes were reedited (and defogged).
Not all of the controversial elements from the book have made it to the screen. The handcuffs are gone -- except for a pair that is seen briefly during a striptease routine. The blindfolds are gone -- except for a pair that Basinger wears when Rourke teasingly feeds her a variety of foods (the sequence gives her taste buds a workout).
A scene that finds Basinger and Rourke committing a stickup in an elevator (Basinger is urged on by Rourke) was removed -- because test audiences found it unsavory. (After holding a swtichblade to a terrified businessman's throat, Basinger seductively kisses him.)
Also, where the book had a dark ending, with the heroine suffering an apparent breakdown (" . . . my sensation thermostat has been thrown out of whack . . . sometimes I wonder whether my body will ever again register above lukewarm," she says), the film ends more upbeat, with the woman resolving to leave her lover.
As is sometimes the case with such provocative content, European audiences will see more than we do. Thus, a kinky love scene in an alley will play longer for Europeans. They will also see a sequence that we won't -- a bizarre sort of playacting scene in which Basinger crawls on the floor, picking up money to bring to Rourke, who seems to be trying to see how much he can humiliate her. That sequence caused such a furor at an MGM test screening that Lyne, by his own admission, "just about had to run for my life."
Lyne is philosophical about the travails of "9 1/2 Weeks." "It's been a long haul, but I guess that nothing's easy. And with this film, well, for God's sake it is a bizarre story."
The film has been widely compared (in the media and the industry) to "Last Tango in Paris" (1973), in which middle-aged Marlon Brando and baby-faced Maria Schneider are lovers who enjoy sex without love -- or identities.
With its story of obsessive love and a woman who becomes a prisoner of her sexual curiosity, "9 1/2 Weeks" also seems distant kin to those sometime uneasy movies about love between a woman and a determined suitor/captor.
Some of these films -- such as "The Collector" (1965), in which butterfly collector Terence Stamp cruelly makes a specimen of Samantha Eggar -- have been critically admired. Others have been critically clobbered: "Tattoo" (1981) finds mad tattoo artist Bruce Dern kidnaping Maud Adams and using her body as a canvas. Some are relegated to obscurity: "Something Wild" (1961) explores the trauma of rape and loneliness, with suicidal Carroll Baker rescued by lonely Ralph Meeker, who then makes her a prisoner. (Unlike the previous titles, this story leads to love between the principals.)
Most have a disturbing quality brought about by the idea that one person can force another to "fall in love" . . . or else.
It was the concept of "people pushing to the edge" that captivated Zalman King, coproducer and, with wife Patricia Louisiana Knop, coscreenwriter of "9 1/2 Weeks."
Perhaps best known as an actor, King starred opposite Lee J. Cobb in the 1971 TV series "The Young Lawyers" and appeared in the 1976 cult movie "Blue Sunshine" and "The Passover Plot." The latter generated headlines in 1976, with its revisionist depiction of Jesus Christ as a young revolutionary who was not the son of God (but a participant in a well-orchestrated fraud). King has since executive-produced "Roadie" and "Endangered Species." Knop scripted the Ellen Burstyn film "Silence of the North."
It was the idea of a woman who had put aside the romantic ideals of her girlhood to concentrate on her career that captivated King. "Romance was secondary in her life. But, she was still vulnerable to those ideals," says King. "And then, along came this man who was just the opposite. He never discussed his career. What he wanted was a woman who could be his equal in every way. She became his focal point."
"It's such a romantic concept," adds Knop. Seated across from her husband in their Santa Monica home, she says that when she first read the book she did not share her husband's enthusiasm: "I found it frightening -- what that woman went through. But we kept talking about it, and I became more fascinated. Also, I couldn't believe all the excitement the book was causing. There was so much anger about it."
At one time, King hoped to direct the picture. But coproducer Antony Rufus Isaacs (whose credits include BBC dramas and commercials) talked him into moving "sideways." Explains Isaacs: "I felt we needed a 'name.' "
Isaacs approached the director he believed was tailor-made for the project: Bob Rafelson. "To me, he was what '9 1/2 Weeks' was all about. He is definitely an American director -- with a capital A. I saw this as a distinctly American story."
According to Isaacs, Rafelson (who last directed the 1981 remake of "The Postman Always Rings Twice") agreed to do this one. But Isaacs couldn't get a studio to agree to Rafelson. The studios were interested in Lyne -- then flushed with "Flashdance" fame. (It was coexecutive producer Keith Barish who suggested the British Lyne.)
By this time, Jacqueline Bisset and Sam Shepard were the hoped-for stars. That is, Isaacs and Rafelson wanted them. (Bisset agreed to do the film; her likeness was on posters that helped to sell the film to foreign territories at the Cannes Film Festival in 1983. Shepard hadn't yet been approached.) But Lyne had casting ideas of his own. Enter Basinger and Rourke. (Lyne also brought coscreenwriter Sarah Kernochan aboard.)
With Lyne in, the film got the green light at Tri-Star. (The film had earlier been considered by 20th Century-Fox, where it was imperiled by a change of management, and by a then-fledgling Orion Pictures.) But just three days before shooting was to begin, "creative differences" between Lyne and the studio brought the project to a grinding halt.
What Tri-Star wanted, Isaacs says, was for Lyne to "soften" the material. That included trimming several scenes -- an encounter between Rourke, Basinger and a prostitute in a seedy hotel and a surrealistic sequence in a Times Square porno theater. (Both are in the completed version.)
About 48 hours after Tri-Star exited the project, PSO (Producers Sales Organization), which had been handling the sale of "9 1/2 Weeks" to foreign territories, became the film's new "studio." MGM/UA would later enter as the domestic distributor.
Production began in New York on April 30, 1984. By this time, says one crew member (who asked not to be identified), the mood was "slightly harried." The reason? "I think everyone was a little skeptical of the subject matter. They didn't know if Adrian could pull it off."
Meanwhile, there was more than a touch of trouble between the two stars. (PSO Chairman and President Mark Damon told Daily Variety the shoot was "a highly charged, emotional situation.")
"It got so stupid, they wouldn't even get into the lift together," recalls Isaacs. (As a result, one star would ride the elevator while the other waited for its return.)
Asked if anything particular had happened to sour the working relationship, Isaacs says, "There was nothing that brought it about, really. They just never really liked each other, period. She Kim said that kissing him was like kissing an ashtray. He said he wanted someone sexier. It was crazy."
(Both Basinger and Rourke declined to be interviewed for this article.)
Shooting had wrapped by August 1984. A year later, Hollywood was rife with rumors that the film might never be released. In fact, MGM/UA took it off its 1985 release schedule.
A visitor to Century City offices of PSO in the summer of 1985 was assured that the movie would see the light of the projection booth. Flanked by PSO's Mark Damon and Eddie Kalish, senior vice president of worldwide marketing, director Lyne was candid ("Yes, we're still editing. This isn't the easiest movie to make or to cut").
But he was also defensive about reports that the movie had tested poorly. "Look," said Lyne, "sexuality is a real tough thing to deal with. People's public posture can be very different from what they do in private.
"This film has exacted some fear and embarrassment from test audiences because people are afraid to come to terms. They don't want to face themselves."
The interview was conducted just as "Rambo: First Blood Part II" was busting records. The irony was not lost on Lyne. "Can you believe it? You can't see the act of procreation on the screen -- but you can see the termination of life. Endlessly and endlessly."
He sighed. "The thing is, you're making it sound as if all the editing means the movie is in trouble -- as if it's covered in Band-Aids. But this is just the normal process of making a movie. You show it to people -- again and again -- until you get it right."
"You're not going to paint a sinister picture of all this, are you?" Lyne was at his farmhouse in the south of France when reached him by phone, just weeks before "9 1/2 Weeks" was set to open. He conceded that the film had undergone a considerable change.
"This is the story of a downward spiraling, self-destructive nightmare that the girl has to escape in order to save herself. But if I'd been totally true to the original script, then in the course of the movie audiences would have lost sympathy for the character . . . If you have an audience turn off to your central character in the end, then you lose your whole movie. And you are dead and buried."
He laughed when asked if he felt relieved at having finally completed the film. "Somebody said about me, 'Adrian, the funny thing about you is that if there are two ways to go somewhere, you will choose the path with the brambles.' I think he was right."