Monday, October 29, 2012

Sugar Cookies (1973)

The Movie: While playing a sick power game, sleazy adult movie producer Max Pavell (George Shannon) winds up shooting and killing his star actress, Alta (Lynn Lowry of David Cronenberg’s Shivers: They Came from Within). However, he is able to get her death passed off as a suicide with the help of his business partner, Camilla (the amazing and prolific Mary Woronov of Eating Raoul and Nomads, among a great many other movies), who serves as his alibi. But Camilla isn’t helping Max out of love or kindness. She and Alta were lovers, and Camilla is determined to be the one to make Max pay.

Camilla sees her chance in Julie Kent (Lynn Lowry again); a sweet, innocent young thing looking to get ahead, who just happens to be the spitting image of the late Alta. Camilla takes Julie under her wing, seducing her and molding her into Alta’s double. Her plan is to lure Max in so that she can use Julie for her revenge…

The Review:

Of all the varied phrases in the English language, the one I have probably come to loath the most is “you have to play the game.” In short, that to get by you have to jump through all the hoops presented to you no matter how pointless, arbitrary or destructive they might be. I really hate these kinds of games; in large part because, at best, they are pointless, just there to stroke somebody’s ego in a superficial way, and at worst they are incredibly destructive. More to the point, when human interactions are already an unfathomable morass for you, they make it even more difficult to get by. The majority of the worst gamesters I’ve had to deal with will become indignant and deny that’s what they’re doing when directly confronted with their bullshit, and I’m sure quite a few of them even believe their own protestations; so it inevitably gets to the point where it’s near impossible to distinguish between somebody seriously trying to convey something important to you, and yet another set of arbitrary hoops you’re expected to jump through. And trust me, once you realize you’ve made that mistake it’s always way too late to do anything about it.

Events of this past summer have ensured that I’ve lost all tolerance for games, bullshit, and people trying to manipulate me. Among a great many other things, it’s why I’ve been mostly going out of my way to avoid coverage of the presidential election; even though normally I’d be morbidly fascinated with it. Unfortunately, if you deal with people at all it’s impossible to avoid those things; particularly when you hold a job that’s eyeballs-deep in them. However, my protestations about having to play these pointless and destructive games usually get me the same result; “that’s the way things are, you’ve got to play the game.” Well, one of my main, life-long coping mechanisms when dealing with life issues is to turn to a story; in this case Sugar Cookies, a movie all about manipulation and playing games with peoples’ lives. And, as it seems to have become my practice to inflict my current psychological and emotional traumas on my readers, I decided to write a review on it.

When I first saw Sugar Cookies, I went in only knowing two things for sure; that it was an exploitation movie, and more importantly that it stars Mary Woronov. For quite a while now Mary Woronov has been my all-time favorite actress. She started making movies sometime in the 1960s, and to my knowledge she still is. To my knowledge she’s only done B and cult movies, but in those circles she’s been a mainstay for decades. Now, Woronov is not conventionally pretty, but she is very strikingly attractive; and I’m sure that and her willingness to do nude scenes has had a very strong impact on her fanbase. However, that is not why she’s my favorite actress; I’ve run across way too many good looking ‘actresses’ whose sole talent is displaying their physical assets. No, the reason why I hold Woronov in such high regard, and why she’s been able to stay around for so long, is because she’s got far more than her looks to fall back on.

Simply put, Woronov has a talent and a presence that I have seen on few other performers. She’s easily recognizable, but at the same time she can give her all to a character to the point where you believe in said character anyway. It’s my personal opinion that Woronov is at her absolute best in villainous roles; but out of all the movies I have seen her in I can only think of one where she wasn’t an absolute delight to watch.

Going into Sugar Cookies, I was sure that Woronov would be the absolute best part of the movie. It turns out I was right, but that’s not a knock against the movie itself; the majority of Sugar Cookies'plot revolves around Camilla and her scheme for revenge. I recently discovered that Woronov’s then-husband directed the movie, and rewrote the screenplay with her in mind for the role. She wasn’t amused, to put it mildly. Nevertheless, she gives a wonderful performance as Camilla.

Camilla is a truly fascinating character, as all good villains are. It’s pretty clear what she is, but every so often we are shown another aspect of her character that makes us wonder if we may have misjudged her. Woronov plays her as manipulative, imperious, charming and ruthless; although there is also something touching about her love for Alta, even though it seems more like obsession at times. My favorite part of this movie, in what should probably come as a surprise to none of my regular readers, is a particular line of dialogue. The scene where she is being questioned by a policeman about the night of Alta’s murder; where he’s trying to be delicate about it but she in turn is just blunt and obviously trying to keep him on his toes, is a wonderful exchange. “Were you on intimate terms with this guy?” “You mean, did we fuck.” “(weary, exasperated voice) Oh, my god.” I’m not going to repeat the whole dialogue to you, but I just love it, particularly the concluding line of it. Partly it’s very cleverly written, but a large amount of what I enjoy so much about it is Woronov’s delivery.

Another strong aspect of the film and its cast is that Woronov and Lowry have such great chemistry together. Lynn Lowery is obviously in her 20s; but she has the kind of face that, judging by it alone, you could easily believe she was someone a lot younger. Lowery is as utterly convincing as the innocent as Woronov is as the predator. Watching the two of them together is, in many ways, like watching a complicated dance. Observing the steps Camilla takes to seduce and manipulate the girl is utterly fascinating; albeit the warped fascination one gets at an oncoming accident.

A word should probably be said at this point about the exploitation elements, and particularly the lesbianism element. In the commentary Lloyd Kaufman (who produced the movie and wrote the original screenplay) makes a big deal about the lesbianism, but I actually found it to be a very minor part of the film, and actually rather classily done. Right up front, lesbianism in and of itself has never done anything for me; ever since a certain double date in high school my attitude toward other people’s sex lives can be summed up “if it doesn’t involve me, really not interested.” However, I found the romance and sex scenes both convincing and personally effective. They are framed much the way a typical romantic scene would be framed and, while they are rather graphic, there’s none of the leering and zooming in on certain parts of the anatomy one would come to expect. In fact, at times I was almost convinced that Camilla was serious about her feelings; I definitely was about Julie.

And honestly, I never thought about Camilla as “a lesbian, who happens to be named Camilla,” but as “Camilla, who happens to be a lesbian.” The way the character comes across, both in the script and in Woronov’s delivery, I’m sure that Camilla wouldn’t be any different if she was straight. Obviously Sugar Cookies was conceived and presented as an exploitation movie, but there’s quite a bit of character development as well.

The parts of the movie that don’t directly involve Camilla generally vary from good to not so good. There’s a sub-plot involving Max, his ex-wife (Monique van Vooren) and her younger brother, Gus (Daniel Sador), who calls Max “Uncle Max” and has an unhealthy attraction to him; that probably could have been written out. The only two reasons I can think of for the sub-plot is to provide odious comedy relief, and to further establish Max as a manipulative slimebag. In the latter the movie succeeds; I actually felt rather sympathetic toward Gus. In the former, as is expected, it fails majorly.

Ultimately though, Sugar Cookies is about Max and Camilla; two predatory individuals who play sick games using other people as pieces. As I said at the beginning of this review, I really hate these kinds of games. However, unlike so many other movies that romanticize, cutsify and outright excuse them (for one prime example, see my review for How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days), Sugar Cookies is direct and honest about how destructive this kind of behavior is. Our introduction to this story is Alta’s death, and that sets the tone for what’s going on. Since the only way to get ahead in this environment is to “Play the Game,” individuals like Max and Camilla, who hold the advantages positions, have a ready source of victims.

But though we, the viewers, are drawn into these sick power games; we are never asked to emulate or glorify them. In fact, I think that the greatest mark in Sugar Cookies'favor is that nobody wins in the end. Alta is sacrificed on the altar of Max’s ego and sadism, and Julie on the altar of Camilla’s revenge. Max is destroyed by Camilla. Camilla gets her revenge, but even she doesn’t ‘win.’ The film ends on an ambiguous note that strongly suggests that “Playing the Game” is going to catch up with Camilla very soon, if it hasn’t already.

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