When erotic cinema falls flat, it usually has the opposite effect to what it sets out to achieve. Mark Fraser looks back at an American work from the late 1980s which helped give erotica a bad name.
For those wondering why Mickey Rourke almost killed his acting career to briefly become a professional boxer, they need look no further than the 1989 turkey Wild Orchid to find something of an explanation. The movie, which did surprisingly well at the box office in Europe during its initial run, must arguably be one of the most embarrassing moments in Rourke’s innings as a thespian.
He’s far worse in this film than he is in either Michael Cimino’s remake of Desperate Hours or Simon Wincer’s Harley Davidson and the Marlborough Man – a couple of stinkers which came out quickly on the heels of this dog. Even Rourke’s miscast efforts as the wayward New York detective in Cimino’s Year of the Dragon look reasonably good when compared to his role in this trash – and that’s saying something!
Directed by Zalman King, it seems Wild Orchid was made to cash in on the actor’s success in Adrian Lyne’s erotic melodrama 9 1/2 Weeks, in which he was able to bounce off (so to speak) a very sexy Kim Basinger. Unfortunately for all concerned, Rourke’s follow-up leading lady, Carre Otis, is no match for Ms Basinger – regardless of whether she’s got her gear off or not.
To make matters worse, the actor – who had such a great screen presence in movies like Francis Coppola’s Rumble Fish and Alan Parker’s Angel Heart – looks a bit off in this movie, his appearance reeking of fake tan and what might be the early signs of Botox. Indeed, it’s quite difficult to ascertain which of Wild Orchid’s leads gives the better performance, so completely lacklustre is this pair of destined-to-be lovers as they are dragged through one of the most mind-numbingly idiotic scripts (by King and Patricia Louisiana Knopp) imaginable.
Otis plays Emily Reed, a bilingual country lawyer who – upon agreeing to join a New York legal outfit – is immediately sent to Rio de Janeiro with her superior Claudia Dennis (Jacqueline Bisset) to help broker a big real estate (read marina and hotel development) deal. Unfortunately for the poor girl, her hitherto unleashed primal instincts are inadvertently aroused when, while exploring a nearby dilapidated building, she stumbles across a local couple carnally engaging under some leaky plumbing.
After fleeing this scene of unbridled passion (depicted in a series of jump cuts that suggest an attempted homage to Jean-Luc Godard, but would look more at home in a Monty Python sketch), Emily has to fill in for Claudia on a date with the super slick James Wheeler (Rourke), an uber-rich businessman who purportedly has intimacy issues, but leads the field when it comes to blatantly leering at attractive women.
Not surprisingly, once she comes under Wheeler’s creepy spell it’s only a matter of time before her sense of virtue (not to mention self-respect) completely goes to pot. In fact there’s so much drinking, dancing and copulation going on around her in Rio that Emily finds it difficult not to make the transition from voyeur to whore.
During their first meeting at a former slave quarters that has been converted into a restaurant (and in which Wheeler helpfully tells the young lawyer “We all have to lose ourselves sometimes in order to find ourselves”), the pair first encounter the uptight Mr and Mrs Munch (Otto Vidov and Assumpta Serna), a German couple they later watch having sex in the back seat of the suave businessman’s limousine.
Shortly thereafter, in an upscale bar where the clientele wear masks, Emily gets goaded by her sensitive beau into accepting money from an American lawyer (Bruce Greenwood) so she can get it on with him in his upstairs room.
“I can’t begin to tell you what I’m feeling right now,” she sadly tells Wheeler in her consistently flat monotone before going off to meet her horny John.
“Show me – show me,” he whispers back.
Later in the movie – just when it looks as if Emily is going to be seduced by a hunky male beach goer (Jens Peter) that Claudia has lured to her hotel room and become part of a ménage a trois (which would have provided the movie with its only true erotic moment) – Wheeler inexplicably barges into the room and breaks the party up, more or less accusing the young woman of having the morals of an alley cat in the process.
“We’re not talking circumstantial evidence,” he yells at her indignantly.
“We’re talking about getting caught with a smoking gun in your hand.”
Goodness knows if King and Knopp meant this dialogue to be funny given the euphemistic metaphor is quite apt. Nevertheless, such exchanges are a little confusing considering it was Wheeler who steadfastly insisted that Emily pick up the gun in the first place.
After all, having effectively pimped her off, he should have been very happy with the situation. It’s during moments like these – which are littered throughout Wild Orchid – when one wonders what happened to the promised erotica.
On top of this there are several other annoying lapses in logic which are just too difficult to ignore. For instance, when Emily and Wheeler first meet, he is accompanied by two hefty bodyguards. “I was kidnapped once,” he explains, “and I don’t want to go through the experience again.” But later in the movie all of this is forgotten when he spends time alone on the beach and taking solitary rides on his Harley Davidson (what else?!) along deserted stretches of coastal roads.
Another funny moment is when Claudia conducts the signing of the planned multi-million dollar hotel-marina project in an aircraft hangar, which is kind of odd given the deal is a real estate one – it does not involve aviation whatsoever.
It’s fair to say that in making Wild Orchid the director and his writer did not come up with something erotic. Rather, they made exploitation – and rather vanilla exploitation at that.
Aside from the fact the film’s dubious practice of objectifying women is not particularly original, the performances of its two leads are just way too unconvincing – in essence they lack the kind of chemistry needed to carry moments that are meant to be dripping with wanton lust or sexual frustration. Additionally, neither Rourke nor Otis is particularly interesting to watch when they appear in separate scenes.
Back in 1981, English writer/television producer Martyn Auty made this interesting observation about erotic cinema which can be applied to Wild Orchid: “It is important to emphasise that nudity of itself is not always erotic on the screen. The context – lovemaking or the prelude to it – dramatises the naked human body and consequently arouses some of the audience. Not all spectators, of course, are necessarily susceptible to the erotic appeal of given scenes and responses will clearly vary … as to what can be considered erotic”.
Although Wild Orchid does contain its fair share of nudity, none of it – or the build up to it – is particularly appealing. And aside from the inadequate acting, another part of the film’s problem is the fact the story itself is quite dire, with a good chunk of the dialogue being teeth-grittingly banal.
The movie is, however, beautifully lit and framed by English cinematographer Gale Tattersall, his efforts representing what is arguably the film’s only true redeeming value (the aerial shot of the Christ the Redeemer statue on the Corcovado Mountain overlooking Rio is nothing short of spectacular).
Within three years of making Wild Orchid Rourke had dropped out of acting to become a professional boxer. By 1994, when he hung up his gloves, he remained undefeated in eight fights, with six wins (four by knockout) and two draws. According to information gleaned from the Internet, part of the reason he did this was the fact he wasn’t happy with the direction his screen career was going in. And who could blame him for being a bit disappointed given the calibre of the films he was being paid handsomely to appear in.
Nevertheless Rourke ended up paying a price for his boxing success, that being the stymying of his acting career’s trajectory. Out of all of the silly movies he made in the late 1980s/early 1990s, Wild Orchid could well be his cinematic nadir – the film that arguably did the most to help bury his reputation. After all, vanity productions are sometimes pretty hard to endure, and this one has Rourke’s oversized 1989 ego stamped all over it.
In this regard, while it might be convenient to attribute a good portion of the blame for this movie’s blandness to Otis’ totally one dimensional performance, it’s important to note that even the presence of Ms Basinger would – in all likeliness – probably not have saved Wild Orchid from being anything more than a noxious weed.
Words by Mark Fraser
Directed by: Zalman King
Written by: Patricia Louisiana Knopp, Zalman King
Starring: Mickey Rourke, Jacqueline Bisset, Carré Otis, Assumpta Serna
Top 10 Films reviewed Wild Orchid courtesy of Eureka Entertainment’s 2016 Blu-ray which is available to order from Amazon.co.uk: http://amzn.to/29KTeJr