In the annals of cult films, few had a more tumultuous journey to the screen than 1984’s Crimes of Passion. It’s remarkable to consider Ken Russell, the mad genius director of other queer faves such as Women in Love and Tommy, was able to get this wonderfully lurid erotic thriller, which depicts a fashion designer by day/sex worker named China Blue at night (Kathleen Turner in an incredible performance) and the demented street preacher obsessed (Anthony Perkins, deliriously unhinged for reasons revealed below) with her, made at all during the height of the conservative Reagan era. To avoid the dreaded X-rating, Russell was forced to submit his film to the ratings board six times and each time the film was further compromised by cuts until critics had become exhausted reading about it and many panned it unfairly upon its release. Russell’s vision was eventually fully restored for the film’s release to home video and cable television and over the years has garnered a devoted audience. To commemorate three decades of this bold thriller, Outfest will host a screening tonight in West Hollywood with screenwriter Barry Sandler and the film’s costar John Laughlin in attendance for a Q&A. Sandler, whose next film is the fun-looking horror-comedy Knock ‘Em Dead, chatted with Queerty about the complicated making of Crimes, Tony Perkins’ decision to do real poppers on screen and how Cher nearly starred in the cult classic.
I started writing it at the tail end of the ‘70s and we were living in an age of rampant sex, particularly in the gay community. This was before AIDS so everybody was fucking around and having sex everywhere you looked. You’d stop at a red light to cruise the guy next to you and you’d end up back at his place. Yet I was thinking there was a story there about how people use sex to avoid intimacy and replace having to work at a relationship. It was so out there and so accessible. I thought that if I could take that theme and concept and weave it into a story — not a gay story, because I’d just done Making Love. I wanted to do something that would speak to gay people but would speak beyond that as well. I used whatever utensils I had as a writer to come up with the story, as twisted as it may be. It wasn’t based on any one person. It sort of evolved in a strange way. It was initially a two-character piece with China Blue and the reverend, who was originally a shrink. It’s probably the script of mine that took the longest to evolve. A lot of that had to do with studios who were afraid to touch it. Beyond that I just kept going back to it and add certain layers.
Cher was actually interested in doing it. This was before Silkwood. I remember going out to her house when she was dating Gene Simmons from Kiss and spending the afternoon by her pool talking about the characyer. She was a little nervous because she hadn’t really done a movie yet. She had done the Robert Altman film (Come Back the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean). She was reluctant but Gene Simmons kept pushing her, saying “You have to go the limit.” Then John Carpenter came aboard but then that fell apart. Once Ken came aboard we looked at different actresses. I showed him Debra Winger in Officer and a Gentleman. We watched Frances with Jessica Lange. He loved all of these people. Kathleen Turner was just starting to emerge. I showed him Body Heat and he wasn’t that keen on it. He asked if there was anything else with her. I showed him The Man with Two Brains, the Steve Martin comedy and he loved her. She’s funny in it. He knew that to make this part work you needed someone who could be funny.
Did she express concerns about playing such a provocative character?
Oh, she didn’t so much, but her fiancé at time didn’t want her to do it. Her agent didn’t want her to do it. Her manager didn’t want her to do it. All the people around her said, “Don’t do it!” Romancing the Stone was just about to come out. They were screening it and it was getting getting a great reaction. They knew it was going to be a hit and she was going tobe America’s sweetheart. They thought she couldn’t go from that to shoving a nightstick up some guy’s ass. [Laughs] To her credit she said I really want to do this part and I really want to work with Ken Russell. She was bold and daring and fearless in her choices, so she did it against the will of everyone. She was under a lot of stress while making it and it was causing tension. To her credit, she made the movie and gave it her all. She never said, “No I won’t do that” and she could have. Romancing the Stone opened while we were shooting and she became a big star, but she did everything and just went for it.
We first went to Anthony Hopkins, but he was unavailable. Sting was also considered. Then Tony Perkins’ name came up. I loved him. I thought, Wow, he’s Norman Bates and he’ll certainly bring something to it. Tony read the script and wanted to do it. The part was originally a shrink. He wanted to exert power over women under the façade of being a shrink. At the first meeting Tony said he had one big request to make. He’d just finished Equus on Broadway playing Dysart, the shrink. He wanted to change the character from a shrink because he was afraid he’d bring too much of that character to this. This was around the time when all those phoney evangelicals were getting exposed, like Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart. They were preaching family values crap and then getting caught with tramps in their hotels. We jumped at the idea of highlighting religious hipocrasy and people who spout the Bible, but have other things on their mind. That’s how the character came about. I remember spending the day at Tony’s and he was an ordained minister, it’s funny, he had all these Bibles and we went through them looking for scripture for the character to say.
Tony very much asked if it was OK if he came up with things for the character. I said, “Is it OK? Please do. You’re Tony Perkins!” He designed this whole room, this shrine in the movie where he spies on her and his costume… He conceived that character. The poppers were all him. It got on Kathleen’s nerves a little. She was a little perturbed that he was doing this. They were real poppers.
I can’t imagine doing poppers and acting on camera. It’s a big performance though, so I guess they helped.
It’s a big performance. It certainly is. It wasn’t as if he was doing them to play an ordinary character. At that point it could throw another actor off balance, but here it was very much in character. To be doing this. For that reason alone I think it was justified. I do recall that Kathleen had a problem with it, but not to the extent that she made a formal complaint or anything.
He was great. I loved working with him. He was an encyclopedia of movies and he worked with Hitchcock and all those great directors. I wanted to know about filming the shower scene in Psycho. That was a thrill for me. I remember when we looped the film in New York, I would hang out with him and get to know a little about him. He was fascinating and so worldly and well-informed about everything and he had a brilliant mind.
The film received a mixed response when it was released. Critics either really got it or they hated it, but it’s grown in stature over the years. How do you think it holds up today?
I show it in my classes [Sandler teaches film studies at UCF] and it freaks the shit out of them. They haven’t seen anything like it because you don’t see too much sex on the screen these days. They appreciate it. It scores points for me. They respond to it. If you’re a film student, you appreciate any kind of audacity.
Speaking of audacious, Harry Hamlin was recently on Andy Cohen’s show and when asked about Making Love [the groundbreaking 1982 gay romance written by Sandler] he said that it kept him from getting other feature film roles. I know he’s been very supportive of the film over the years. What’s your take on that comment?
It’s so funny. He likes to say that. Listen, I love Harry and he’s been a real supporter of the film. It may be true. It might have hurt his career. You kiss another man on screen in 1982 but Harry became a huge TV star with L.A. Law. For years it was the biggest show on TV. He did every fucking TV movie. To say it hurt his film career, he had a huge career in television. Would he have ever been a movie star? Who knows? I don’t, but to complain it hurt his career… I would never say a bad word about him. He’s a great guy and I applaud him for doing the movie and supporting it but I have to laugh when he says it hurt his career. I want to slap him and say, “Harry, you’re one of the biggest TV stars in history.”
Watch the Crimes of Passion trailer below.