A screwball romance about a politician and a stripper, Blaze pairs a 64-year-old Hollywood legend with a 28-year-old Canadian unknown. The movie marks a strange convergence of career paths. For Paul Newman, playing 1950s Louisiana Gov. Earl K. Long—an undignified rogue who became the target of one of America’s first political sex scandals—was a risky move. Shortly before filming began, the actor got cold feet and temporarily backed out of the movie, fearing that his fans would not accept him as an unkempt, half-crazed, lecherous buffoon. But for Lolita Davidovich, the chance to appear opposite Newman as burlesque queen Blaze Starr offered the kind of break that Hollywood dreams are made of. The London, Ont.-born actress was chosen from among more than 600 hopefuls. Despite such careful casting, however, Blaze fails to spark much combustion, spontaneous or otherwise.
As it turns out, Newman’s initial fears about starring in the movie may have been justified. With a wildly slapstick portrayal of Long, the actor labors to undercut his image of blue-eyed glamor. Yet the result is a ludicrous and baffling spectacle. Meanwhile, the camera is exceptionally kind to Davidovich, who delivers an arresting performance in a role that requires her to act sexy, wholesome and sensible all at once. The daughter of Yugoslavian immigrants, Davidovich seems remarkably at home as an American with a down-home twang. But for a movie that is billed as one of America’s great love stories, there is a puzzling absence of chemistry between the two romantic leads. Newman creates such a pathetic character that it is very difficult to imagine what Starr saw in Long, aside from the sheer attraction of power—which would make her a far more cynical character than Blaze suggests.
Based on the 1974 autobiography of Blaze Starr, the most famous burlesque queen since Gypsy Rose Lee, the movie follows her rise from the backwoods of West Virginia to the back rooms of bayou politics. Davidovich portrays her as an ingenuous
country girl who stumbles into a career as a stripper in Washington. Even as she is being thrust onstage for the first time before a nightclub packed with rowdy sailors, Starr is a vision of girl-next-door innocence. She does not realize that she is expected to strip. And when she finally complies with the club manager’s request to take off her clothes as a patriotic sacrifice to servicemen bound for the Korean War, she neatly folds each garment after removing it and sets it down beside her.
Glossing over Starr’s transformation from shy neophyte to striptease artist extraordinaire, the story skips ahead to her first 1959
encounter with Long. The governor spots her during one of his tomcat prowls through the strip clubs of Baton Rouge. And, unlike most of the strippers he consorts with, she insists on being treated like a lady. In a twinkling of a pastie, a glorious romance is suddenly bom.
The scandal of Long’s infatuation with Starr spells trouble for his political career. Meanwhile, his raucous attempts to stand up for the poor and for black voting rights enrage less tolerant colleagues in the Democratic party. And after staging a raving tantrum in the state legislature, he is committed to a psychiatric hospital—but engineers his own release by firing those reponsible. The movie documents
Long’s fall from state power and ends with his attempted comeback in national politics.
With a wig and makeup, Newman performs the remarkable feat of looking almost ugly. He chums through the script’s witticisms with an accented growl that is at times unintelligible. And in the bedroom, Newman performs his lovemaking scenes as abject farce. His character starts out by jumping into bed with his boots on—“for better traction,” he explains. As a comedy, Blaze displays sporadic flashes of brilliance. But as a political drama based on actual events, it lacks authenticity—the script fails to mention that Long was married and Starr was divorced when they met. And as a romance, the movie seems unconvincing and incomplete.
Both Newman and Davidovich act with admirable conviction. But Newman’s out-of-character performance seems oblique and inaccessible. And the problem lies in film-maker Ron Shelton’s direction and script, which both lack a compelling point of view. Shelton, who also wrote and directed Bull Durham, last year’s hit baseball comedy, seems overwhelmed by the scale of his subject in Blaze. Potentially, it is a fabulous story. But Shelton’s camera never seems to get close to Newman, who seems to be acting off in his own comer. As a result, Long’s tragicomic character remains an enigma. The director does a much better job of drawing out Davidovich.
Blaze attempts to chronicle one of the most flamboyant romances in America’s recent political history. But, in the end, it generates more smoke than fire.
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