FILMS

Party-girl Scandal

A new movie resurrects Britain’s Profumo affair

Brian D. Johnson May 22 1989
FILMS

Party-girl Scandal

A new movie resurrects Britain’s Profumo affair

Brian D. Johnson May 22 1989

It was the original sex scandal. Before Pamella Bordes became call girl to the British House of Commons, before Donna Rice blunted Gary Hart’s White House ambitions, before Jessica Hahn exposed evangelist Jim Bakker—even before Gerda Munsinger sullied the image of the Canadian Tories—there was the Profumo scandal. The Sixties were just beginning to swing. The Berlin Wall went up, the Cuban missile crisis rocked the Cold War, and then, suddenly, sex was making headlines. By revealing in 1963 that she had bedded both British War Secretary John (Jack) Profumo and alleged Soviet spy Eugene Ivanov, a London show girl named Christine Keeler created an uproar that destroyed Profumo’s promising career, landed Keeler in jail and prompted a suicide. The affair helped provoke Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s resignation. An election the following year ended a decade of Conservative rule. Now, a quarter-century later, the movie Scandal dramatizes the episode with surprising sensitivity, passion and taste.

Six years in the making, the movie was distilled from a proposal for a TV mini-series that BBC executives considered too hot to handle. Scandal breaks a long-standing taboo surrounding the Profumo affair—what the film-makers came to call “the poor old Jack syndrome.” Members of the British Establishment, hoping to spare the penitent Profumo from further embarrassment, tried to stop the production. But it went ahead. And when Scandal opened in Britain in March, it created a sensation, winning critical raves and box-office success. Meanwhile, U.S. censors gave the film’s North American release a golden kiss of controversy by slapping it with an X-rating (usually reserved for pornography), which they later reduced to “R” after the film-makers toned down an orgy scene.

Scandal has some racy moments. But the orgy scene, a nude tea party of the rich and fatuous, is not one of them. And, on the whole, the movie is remarkably unsalacious. A tale that the media once treated as grand farce acquires tragic overtones on the screen. The movie is not really about sex at all, but about the sad romance between Keeler and her voyeuristic mentor, Stephen Ward. It was an unconsummated love that ended in mutual betrayal. The scandal’s ultimate scapegoat was not Profumo—who was later named Commander of the Order of the British Empire by the Queen for his charity work—but Ward, who committed suicide after becoming the target of a police witch-hunt. On flimsy evidence, Ward was posthumously convicted of living off the earnings of prostitution.

Scandal salvages the honor of its protagonists, especially Ward, while damning the hypocrisy of the society that condemned them. For Keeler, now 47, it marks a belated vindication. Still trying to set the record straight—and generate some income from her inadvertent role in history—she served as a consultant for the film-makers. And she has published her own version of events in a new book, titled after the movie and timed to its release. Since fading from the limelight, Keeler has weathered two failed marriages and mothered two children, aged 23 and 17. She now lives in a London public housing unit. “I’m not sorry for anything,” she told Maclean’s in a recent interview. “And I don’t have time to be bitter. I’d just like to live an ordinary life now.” Her voice has the dry, detached quality of a woman who seems grimly blasé about her past. Asked how she liked the movie, Keeler replied: “I didn’t mind it—it’s a good period piece. After being battered by the tabloids for 20 years,” she added, “it’s finally brought me up the social ladder a rung or two.”

With Scandal, the Keeler legend acquires some class. English actress Joanne Whalley-Kilmer is mesmerizing as the young Christine. She portrays her not as a prostitute but as a beguiling party girl—a working-class innocent who was adopted by the upper class and who adapted to its decadent customs. John Hurt projects wit and vulnerability as Ward, the playboy osteopath who became Keeler’s pygmalion, introducing her to both Profumo and Ivanov. Ian McKellen, a veteran of the Shakespearean stage, invests Profumo’s character with quiet dignity. And American actress Bridget Fonda (Peter’s daughter, Jane’s niece) is suitably crass as Mandy Rice-Davies, Keeler’s saucy sidekick.

Without getting tangled in the complex allegations of espionage surrounding the Profumo Affair, Scandal steps briskly through the main events. Ward, who collects girls the way some men collect paintings, picks Keeler out of a chorus line at a raunchy cabaret. He introduces her to the sybaritic fringe of the aristocracy. She meets Profumo while being chased naked around a pool at Lord Astor’s estate. Later, she has casual affairs with the minister and the spy. Her dangerous liaisons delight Ward, who cultivates a contact in British intelligence and fancies himself a James Bond figure.

The scandal may never have surfaced were it not for a fateful excursion to the other side of the tracks, into the marijuana night of London’s West Indian ghetto. In a bizarre subplot, Keeler is drawn into a violent triangle with two black suitors, Lucky Gordon and Johnnie Edgecombe. A shooting incident involving Edgecombe—played by singer Ronald Gift of the British pop group Fine Young Cannibals—brings Keeler to the attention of the police and the media. Ward drops Keeler; Keeler sells her story to the tabloids. Lives unravel in a storm of publicity.

Scottish-born director Michael Caton-Jones, making his first feature for the big screen at 31, captures the bracing mood of the early 1960s without making a fetish of nostalgia. With Frank Sinatra crooning Witchcraft over the opening credits, and The Beatles singing Do You Want to Know a Secret near the end, the director parodies the pop charade of sexual intrigue. And by forgoing any torrid scenes of Keeler making love with either Profumo or Ivanov, he reinforces the idea that both affairs were trivial escapades blown out of all proportion. On the other hand, Caton-Jones gives Scandal a highly sensual lustre with the use of luxurious images: extreme close-ups of lipstick-anointed mouths, legs sliding into stockings, a pen nib scrawling a suicide note.

The director seems to adopt Ward’s voyeurism as his cinematic viewpoint. Ward, who waxes rhapsodic about “tiny nibbling kisses and the sigh of silk on milk-white flesh,” loves beauty for beauty’s sake. And he comes closest to defining the film’s moral: “The trouble with this world,” he declares, “is everybody’s too afraid to enjoy themselves or they’re too ashamed to admit it.” Comparing him to Oscar Wilde, Caton-Jones says: “Stephen was made to suffer for his sexual attitudes. We’re getting back to that now, which is the frightening thing.”

Ward’s character presented an unusual challenge to Hurt, who says that he has never had a tougher role. “Stephen is a very complicated chap, full of unattractive characteristics,” he said, sipping a Heineken in a hotel bar during a recent Toronto interview. “He’s a social climber, he’s a snob and he puts young girls in impossible positions. I wondered how on earth I was going to keep the audience interested in me when he’s such a sleaze bag.” Added Hurt: “Of course, the more you get into it, the more it ceases to feel like sleaze. And then suddenly all these characteristics seem to be rather affecting.”

Hurt’s creased face and poached eyes make him look wonderfully dissolute. Like Ward, he is the son of a vicar. And he admits that he can identify with his character’s final despair with humanity. The movie “is a tragedy in a minor key,” he said. “It deals with the frailty of people, with sinners, not saints. What saves it from being sentimental,” he added, “is that Stephen seemed to know that the dogs were going to get to him some time—even if this hadn’t happened, somehow he would have almost engineered it.”

Ward had a long way to fall. As an osteopath, he put the profession on the map, with patients ranging from Elizabeth Taylor to Winston Churchill. As a portrait artist, he sketched the Royal Family. But Ward played both sides of the class barrier. The film shows him blithely cruising across class lines in his white Jaguar with delusions of diplomatic immunity. Discovering Keeler, he calls her “a wild, untutored, elemental beauty.” But, as Hurt points out, “she was too wild—and refused to be tamed.”

Whalley-Kilmer strikes an uncanny resemblance to the young Keeler onscreen. The 25-year-old actress, who played a comely nurse in last year’s acclaimed BBC serial The Singing Detective, spent time with Keeler to prepare her Scandal role. “There’s a mysteriousness about her,” Whalley-Kilmer said in a recent phone interview from the Nevada set of a new movie called Kill Me Again, in which she plays a thief. “The main question I asked myself was ‘What caused men to become obsessed with Christine?’ She always seemed so different from the other ‘party girls.’ ” Added the actress: “Everybody else had high hair and was a lot harder—she didn’t have a motive.”

Keeler’s motive remains an enigma. In her book, whether she is describing her self-induced teenage abortion or her rape at knifepoint by Lucky Gordon—events left out of the movie—she seems eerily resigned to her fate. According to Whalley-Kilmer, “She never really came to terms with what happened to her. Hopefully, with this film and the book, she will be able to get it out of her system once and for all. She feels, and rightly so, wronged by the past.”

Pure drama, Scandal never lets documentary duties slow the pace. And Keeler has some quibbles with the movie, which she says “romanticizes” her relationship with Ward. Although the film treats his espionage career as a joke, she maintains that he was a spy. “Stephen was a dangerous man and had to be got,” said Keeler, who has yet to forgive him. “He wasn’t my friend; he wanted me dead in the end.” Having spent so much more time telling her story than living it, Keeler is a weary custodian of her own legend. “To talk about what happened 25 years ago makes me feel ridiculous,” she sighed. “But it has to be done. That’s the way it is, isn’t it?”