The Canon of Cannon: Bolero

THE CANON of Cannon is a feature where we take a wandering look at the backlog of world-renowned trash peddlers Menahem Golan, Yoram Globus and their Cannon Films. This time, we take on the most expensive sex tape of the 1980s.

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Bo Derek was a bit of a deal in the 80s. Not a big deal in the grand scheme of things, perhaps, but certainly one for the lad-mag-reading, tissue-chucking, spaff-hurling wunderkinds of the Madness decade. A flagrant sex symbol that was paraded as such in a time when Mae West was no longer around to take the octogenarian spotlight, Bo and her husband John pioneered all-new ways to make crap on the back of boobs and blow. (The Japanese would call it ecchi.)

There’s a reason that Tarzan, the Ape Man is – #humblebrag – the most viewed article on this website: Sex sells, especially when it comes packaged in the form of an eyelash-batting floozy in an MGM production. Bo’s obvious talentlessness did not extend to her natural beauty, and there’s something to be said for a woman who gamely channelled her physical attributes, and aura of quiescent demureness, into something that translated to box office gold, but the fact remains that she absolutely – unde-fucking-niably – was a uniquely terrible actress.

This didn’t stop her films raking in the big bucks, starting with 10, her breakout role that earned – huh – 10 times its budget upon release in 1979. Tarzan, the Ape Man did somewhat less well, both critically and commercially, but still ended up with a figure around $36 million. There was no reason to assume that her next film would buck the trend. Why would it, when the formula – get Bo Derek, get the sexy – had been on to such a winner thus far? MGM, evidently, agreed.

That’s where Cannon stepped in.

Golan and Globus – loveable cack-merchants that they were – seized this golden opportunity to capitalise on a pop-culture phenomenon, intent on cementing their emergent status as rogueish underdogs in a creaking Hollywood establishment. The narrative was perfect, the vehicle was ideal, and the pieces were all falling into place. But it had already been three years since Tarzan. It’s not difficult to see that the public craving for Bo might not have been as feverish as the Dereks and Cannon had anticipated. Though she continued to crop up on talk shows and magazine photoshoots, her box office allure had significantly waned by the time of Bolero’s 1984 release, and there were no films with her name attached in the intervening period.

Bolero, down to that self-referential pun in the title, was conceived and marketed as a Bo Derek vehicle, designed explicitly to place her in the centre of the frame: This was Bo Derek the star, not Bo Derek the sex object. (Somewhat inevitably, it would end up being both.) In 10, she was the driving force of the plot but not exactly an established character. In Tarzan, though the film undoubtedly focused on her Jane, she was still in the shadow of gorilla-raised man-meat. Bolero – “An Adventure in Ecstasy” – was intended to be a celebration of all things Bo, encapsulating everything about her cinematic persona and proving her worth as a bona fide Hollywood star.

It didn’t work out that way. Bolero is, to put it bluntly, fucking terrible. An act of unbridled egomania unfolding over 110 crawling minutes, John Derek invites us to ogle his young hot wife at length, clothed or otherwise, while Bo invests wholeheartedly in the narcissism by blinking her way through reams of plodding dialogue and heatless softcore kicks. The film is a gauntlet of unsayable things spoken by unscreenable performers, framed by lifeless shots of Moroccan sands and Mediterranean gulfs that plead to be put to better use in double-sided brochures.

We’re off to a rocky start when Dick van Dyke impersonators accost our Bo with protestations of their convincingly English love. Bo, A.K.A. heiress Ayre “Mac” McGillvary – no, really – fobs them off and leaps into a cab with her best friend, Catalina (Ana Obregón). The cab is driven by pre-Naked Gun George Kennedy, who happens to be the one actor who’s trying. Flouncing onto the grounds of her pristine university grounds, Bo strips to her pants, breasts akimbo, and moons the walls to the tune of multiple monocles popping in time. George comments that he remembers seeing Bo naked when she was three, and how much she’s changed. Creepy.

The trio haul arse to Morocco in the span of a single cut. No establishing shot, no stereotypical musical sting to indicate a location. Nothing. We’re in stuffy England one second and balls deep in a Moroccan palace the next. We learn that Bo is on a quest: To find the perfect man to take her virginity in the best way possible. What, did you expect her travels to be predicated by a desire to learn about the world, grow as a human being and not have the core of her character’s desires be carnal in nature? Nah, mate, this is Bo fucking Derek and she’s gonna boogaloo the sexiest bloke she sees, mate.

That’s the plot. Bo Derek is trying to get laid.

The association with Bo characters and childlike naiveté is a constant and off-putting facet of her films. I’m uncertain whether it’s an issue of direction or the simple fact that Bo can’t act, but her glassy-eyed lack of comprehension to her most basic of surroundings, and thraldom to the superior worldliness of the male characters, is supremely disconcerting. Her demeanour is forever that of a debutante; given that we’re meant to be either in awe of her beauty or furiously masturbating to it, it’s not a little awkward. The erotic scenes have less eroticism than Tommy Wiseau’s reptilian member humping a woman’s navel, so that doesn’t help either, but it’s more that Bo Derek conveys the sensual nous of a lamppost underwater.

She compensates for her lack of versatility by staring blankly at whichever off-screen doorknob is currently speaking, swivelling her head like a cat chasing a laser and whipping her breasts out. There is no middle ground. She huffs occasionally, flips her hair around and, in one particularly bizarre decision, weakly flails her arms like she’s dreaming of having a stroke while having honey licked off her stomach. This scene is comically framed like a silent movie, complete with intertitles, and it’s one of the few instances where John Derek tried something and succeeded. It’s reminiscent of a similar moment in Lisztomania, a much more successful attempt of fusing conceptual whimsy with high, humorous melodrama.

The only problem is Bo’s wandering limbs and plastered grin, which goes for the rest of Bolero. Granted, Amy Adams couldn’t make this albatross fly, given the absolute state of the script and the nonplussed direction, but in Bo’s hands it becomes a drinking game of finding fresh, inventive ways to suck at her job. I don’t know how you’re meant to convincingly say, “Today’s the day I’m an excessively rich little bitch,” but… Christ. In Bo’s defence, each performer – with the exception of George Kennedy – tries their damndest to occupy the same, screechingly terrible plateau.

Obregón, who figures into the narrative as Bo’s hapless, giggling sidekick, cackles like a schoolgirl and accomplishes nothing. Andrea Occhipinti plays bullfighter Angel with obligatory smoulder but little else, his smirks making him look a bit like a sexual predator. This impression is confirmed by the presence of Olivia d’Abo’s 13 year-old Paloma, Angel’s young ward, who also gets gratuitously naked and vows, “Soon, he’s going to take me.” Like she’s being groomed.

It’s also a creepily meta take on Bo’s real-life meeting and subsequent elopement with John. Ew.

d’Abo was 14 going on 15 at the time of the film’s release. No doubt John Derek was aiming for youthful joie d’vivre and carefree innocence, but it’s actually just hideously voyeuristic and creepy. To John’s credit, d’Abo is never portrayed in an erotic manner; the problem comes when we consider that her surroundings paint everything else that way, in sweeping broad strokes. The association becomes impossible to avoid. If Bo’s childishness is off-putting, d’Abo’s nudity is rather queasy. She’s also a horrendous actress. That’s a given.

But Bo’s perfect counterpart comes in the form of The Sheikh (Greg Bensen). Oh, boy, Greg Bensen as The Sheikh. Checking his IMDB page, Bolero is Bensen’s only credit. Bensen is also, presumably, English. He is playing an Arab sheikh. Now, granted, this is an overt and sustained reference to Rudolph Valentino’s The Sheikh, but the sight of Bensen trying – and miserably failing – to channel Valentino is both hilarious and sobering. To watch him opposite Bo is like the Bizarro version of de Niro vs Pacino in Heat: A meeting of uniquely terrible performers in a uniquely terrible setting, mangling uniquely terrible lines. Their first encounter in particular is a cataclysm of bad, etched into the flawless smoothness of their catalogue-ready faces.

And there’s a lot of faces in Bolero, mostly because John couldn’t be bothered to photograph wide shots. He’s usually content to stick to close-ups, presumably to remind us how superhot his wife is. The only alternate interpretation to laziness is that he trusted the natural chemistry between his performers enough to compensate for the lack of clever or interesting visuals, but this is impossible to believe. The language of cinema is beyond John’s grasp. A camera, don’t you know, solely exists to capture a woman’s teeth, apparently.

In fairness, Bolero is not Lawrence of Arabia, so I shouldn’t expect sweeping vistas or extended single-shot long takes, but it’s stunning to me that he secured locations as exotic and exciting as Morocco and Spain and confined the film to the actors’ faces. Shot, reverse-shot is the formula for almost every exchange of dialogue. There’s no imagination on display whatsoever, which is especially misleading considering the film’s promise of erotic adventures and visual stimulation.

Unsurprisingly, Bolero is tame by QVC standards, never mind Cinemax. The “love” scenes are soft-focus fluff – Emannuelle-lite – designed specifically to accentuate Bo’s loveliness, yet they become hysterical when we consider their domino effect on the fortunes of Cannon itself. Prior to Bolero, Cannon and MGM had a mutually beneficial agreement – Cannon would produce, MGM would distribute, ensuring that the former’s cheap-and-cheerful approach to film-making would reap the greatest dividends from the widest possible audience. This fruitful partnership enabled the first Breakin’ film to achieve the success that it did, and also gave the world the incredible sight of Lou Ferrigno hurling a grizzly bear into outer space in Hercules.

But MGM, understandably, aspired to greater things than that which Golan-Globus could provide. Frank Yablans, then-CEO of the company, detested the schlock that Cannon was sending them month after month. Faced with the untenable prospect of releasing an X-rated softcore porn flick, with or without Bo Derek as its star, MGM refused to distribute Bolero, citing their standards policy, essentially calling the film what it was: Retrograde garbage. The decision was the catalyst for the Cannon-MGM deal’s dissolution, effectively terminating the partnership.

Golan & Globus never even submitted the film to the MPAA for certification, knowing it would receive the X-rating. It ultimately released without a rating at all, only to find that many cinemas refused to screen it regardless.

It was also the death knell for the Dereks’ careers. Needing a $20 million return to break even, Bolero bombed with an estimated gross of $9 million. It’s unclear whether public exhaustion of Bo’s escapades or the lack of certification scared audiences off, but the damage was done. It ended up being nominated for a then-record nine Razzies, scooping (among others) Worst Picture, Worst Actress and Worst Screenplay in the process. It would go on to ‘lose’ Worst Picture of the 80s to Mommie Dearest, which is a disgusting miscarriage of justice that I swear to Christ I will eventually address.

In any case, Bo’s graduation from cornrowed centre-fold to all-time sex symbol had irretrievably stalled and would never recover. Far from propelling her into the stratosphere of cinematic icons, Bo joined the likes of Pia Zadora on the rungs of stars that failed, in catastrophic fashion, to deliver after their breakout. Golan and Globus, mortified by the film’s certification issues and personal struggles with the Dereks, would hunker back into other avenues of exploitation and never pursued an overtly erotic project again.

It marked a turning point for the two men in many ways. With the MGM deal scuppered, Cannon and Golan-Globus were forced into near-total independence, rarely relying on bigger studios to distribute their product. Despite Bolero being one of the company’s greatest mis-steps, it unintentionally heralded the beginning of Cannon’s peak. It also, in their Us Against the World mentality, foretold their inevitable demise. In the Cannon tradition, their sword was forever double-edged.

Next time: Jean-Luc Godard’s King Lear. No, really.

 

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