Television and movies have gone a strange and counterintuitive inversion over the past twenty years. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, movies were home to the extreme edges of human behavior, from graphic violence to inventive sex. People even said “fuck” more than once, and in the context of human reproduction (and recreation)! TV was the comforting home of family values, of chaste couples sleeping in separate beds, of nothing more violent than gunfire that couldn’t hit anything, of a place where “darn” was a four-letter word.
Then the MPAA happened. These guardians of moral purity, in their finite wisdom, decided to inform their own bizarre morality — a cross between a medieval monk’s code of behavior, and Peter MacNicol’s character in Addams Family Values — upon the world at large. Blood, but not the act of murder, could get you an R rating, as could showing breasts, saying “fuck” more than once (or only once, if it referred to the act of fucking, a.k.a. how humans happen), let alone showing people having and enjoying sex.
Weird corners of their morality poisoned many a movie. It’s common knowledge that a woman shown enjoying sex will net a worse rating than a man doing the same. Bloodless murders are preferable to the ratings board for some reason, as if the horrible consequences of violent action somehow make it more palatable. The scolds had taken over.
And yet, none of this would be a problem, had not the studios realized the most important thing: PG-13 movies make significantly more than R-rated movies. Just like that, the R rating, let alone the NC-17, became something to flee from, like a clown with an erection. Now this bizarre morality would rule what happened in movies, ensconcing a truly strange moral code — that a woman enjoying oral sex, or someone making with the salty talk, was more offensive than hundreds of people being killed in a consequence-free environment.
This is when the free market had our backs. As movies decided to exist in a world as imagined by the Mayor in season three of Buffy, TV decided that it was game on. You can no longer even sell a show to a premium cable network without sex in it, the stranger the better. Cable happily shows women, and gay guys, bisexuals, and even the occasional straight dude, that it’s okay to go to Pound Town with someone you love. Or even someone you just think is kinda hot. They’ll spill buckets of gore and profanity at the drop of a hat. While this can veer into the puerile, it’s also no coincidence that TV is not only better than movies, it’s not even a debate.
This brings me to this week’s Lifetime Theater, Beautiful & Twisted. It is emphatically not better than the movies, but it sure does have a weird attitude toward censorship. The villain of the piece, the sociopathic gold-digger Narcy (Paz Vega) starts the film as a stripper. Sorry, “dancer.” While Lifetime isn’t going to show an actual strip club, it doesn’t quite go for one of those places that only exist on TV where men go to watch women dance listlessly in bathing suits. Narcy’s costume is a little more complex, looking a bit like she should be one of Oliver Reed’s henchmen in Gor. Some of the dancing is a bit more risque than I expected coming from Lifetime, too. Literally the only reason I could think they would do this would be to get what they imagine is their standard viewer to hate or be suspicious of Narcy right off the bat. Or to get guys like me to stare at half-naked Paz Vega for a little while.
In addition, there are a couple scenes of nudity here. In both cases — nipples and butt crack — they’re blurred out like this is an episode of Survivor and she lost half her suit in an immunity challenge. (And now I’m hearing Probst hollering, “You’ve gotta pick it up, Narcy!”) There are several curses as well, two “bullshit”s and a “fuck” and in all three cases, the soundtrack abruptly mutes. Breaking Bad pulled a similar trick when they said “fuck” (on two different occasions, I think), and I believe the justification was that a softer word would have felt dishonest, and it could be restored on streaming and DVD, which is how most people watch it anyway. No one is buying this thing on DVD, so I have zero idea what’s going on here.
The movie is based on the true case of Ben Novack, Jr. (Rob Lowe, in an unfortunately subdued performance), a hotel heir in Florida, who married the aforementioned stripper and got his ass murdered. It takes a little while to get there. At first, Novack is portrayed as a big kid, obsessed with Batman to the point that I think it’s a little extreme, and on the hunt for his Catwoman, a role Narcy happily plays. While Novack’s mother Bernice (Candice Bergen) doesn’t like Narcy, this can easily be dismissed as class condescension or a little light racism.
The relationship is initially depicted as a class-busting romance. Novack charms Narcy’s daughter May, and their relationship is the one thing the movie treats with near reverence. According to the film, Novack, even in the depths of his drug abuse, doted on the girl in a decidedly non-creepy (with stepfathers, sadly, it has to be said) way. Even Bernice thawed when it came to May. Narcy was the only black sheep.
So when the abuse comes into play, it seems to out of nowhere. Narcy splits Novack’s head open with a billiard ball, and everyone is like, “Oh, she’s crazy again? You gotta get out of there.” And I’m wondering if I missed something. Things rapidly spiral out of control as Narcy pretty much goes straight Chaotic Evil. When she discovers Bernice is Novack’s heir, she has her killed in an unsettlingly gory scene. The same fate awaits Novack himself, and this is the kind of violence you would never see on the big screen. Nope, it’s only available on basic cable these days. The gore effects are top notch, mixing digital for the acts of violence, then makeup for the aftermath, for an effective combination.
Narcy really goes off the deep end when she learns that Novack’s money is going to May. While attacking her own daughter with a crowbar, she utters the immortal line, “You messed with the wrong bitch, bitch!” I wish I could have seen the screenwriter push his chair back from the computer and nod smugly to himself, content with a job well done. May runs to the cops and manages to put together some evidence for them, leading to Narcy’s arrest.
So what did we learn this week? “Don’t marry strippers” seems like me being needlessly judgmental. “Don’t marry sociopaths” sounds too difficult. How are you supposed to know? That stuff can sneak right up on you. Here we go: Don’t marry a woman who reminds you of a comic book villain, even a relatively harmless one like Catwoman.