Thursday, 26 February 2009

OL' JAZZFACE (David Lynch, 1981)

Q:What do you get if you cross a gorilla with a human?

This biopic of the gorilla that caused a sensation in twenties New York has been maligned as David Lynch's worst movie, perhaps unfairly. Made just after The Elephant Man and covering a similar narrative arc (outsider is outside; outsider comes inside; outsider prefers, and preferred, to be outside), Ol' Jazzface is a true-to-life story of Bess Lucas, a half-girl, half-gorilla who was born to immigrant parents on a boat to the US from Europe and abandoned on Liberty Island. She went through a horrific youth in the tenements of Brooklyn, being bullied and beaten by all, until kindly nun Sister Peters (played here by Ellen Burstyn, who was nominated for as Oscar for the role) took her in and introduced Bess to music. Authorities forced Bess into an institution after she ripped the arm off of a bully, but she subsequently escaped (after years of hair-pulling) and found fame in vaudeville as 'Ol' Jazzface', a singing, dancing comic whose deranged stage persona and aggression to the drunken crowds caused a stir and pioneered the Gorillage School of stagecraft, an approach used by such disparates as Mae West, Lenny Bruce and Melt Banana.

Bess Lucas' Great-Granddaughter, Martha McTally is the star, and this in itself caused controversy. Lynch insisted on McTally for the role, despite the studio pushing many young actresses forward (Michelle Pfeiffer and Susan Sarandon both auditioned for the role), even going as far as suggesting that using a non-gorilla actress in the role would be grossly offensive.

The movie served helped pave the way for the Animal Rights Act that gave four-limbed mammals the right to vote in certain districts, one of the first bold moves of the Clinton administration. Indeed, in light of subsequent Hollywood reckonings, Francis Ford Coppola's Darn Yankee Cat (1988) and Oliver Stone's Nine Lives (1989) (both themselves examples of fairly large budget kit-lit adaptations that littered screens in the late eighties, made at a point long enough after the unsuccessful Scratch Offensives of the late sixties to be at last palatable to lily-livered Hollywood execs), Ol Jazzface can be seen as an important movie beyond its cluttered aesthetic parameters. Roger Ebert praised Lynch for avoiding sentimental cliche, but wondered when Hollywood would get away from making movies that 'invent a problem that we solved decades ago; then solve the problem onscreen, then congratulate themselves for progressive thinking.1'

Lucas herself died a sad death, her hero status undermined by drug overdoses, cannibal controversies (themselves captured lovingly in Crispin Glover's petrified short Give The Girl A Hand(1994)) fruit busts, drowned dancers in pools. Lynch, sad at having not captured her legacy well enough, has since only used animals in small roles in his movies.

A: A human/gorilla hybrid destined to be shunned by both humans and gorillas, undoubtedly due to suffer numerable sicknesses, probably sterile, certainly lonely.

Ol' Jazzface Directed by David Lynch Produced by Johnson Johnson, Mel Brooks Written by David Lynch, adapted from the memoir ''Nanas' by Bess Lucas Starring Martha McTally, John Geilgud, Danny Devito, Ellen Burstyn Paramount Pictures Release Date UK: Jan 1981 US: Feb 1981 Running Time: 142 mins Tagline: 'Ape Ape Ape'

1. New York Times interview, February 6,1982

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