Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #631
Number of Views: Three
Release Date: November 7, 1986
Country of Origin: United States
Box Office: $8,400,000
Running Time: 113 minutes
Director: Jonathan Demme
Producers: Jonathan Demme, Kenneth Utt
Screenplay: E. Max Frye
Cinematography: Tak Fujimoto
Score: Laurie Anderson, John Cale
Editing: Craig McKay
Studio: Religioso Primitiva
Distributor: Orion Pictures
Stars: Melanie Griffith, Jeff Daniels, Ray Liotta, Margaret Colin, Jack Gilpin, Su Tissue, Charles Napier, John Sayles, Tracey Walter, Gary Goetzman, Robert Ridgely, Buzz Kilman, Adelle Lutz, John Waters, Sister Carol, Dana Preu
Suggested Audio Jukebox ♫
 David Bowie “Fame”
 The Troggs “Wild Thing”
 Fine Young Cannibals “Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)”
I was saddened to hear about the passing of Jonathan Demme. The New York-born filmmaker was perhaps best known for The Silence of the Lambs, which became only the third film in history to win the big five Academy Awards – Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Director and Screenplay – in a career that spanned over forty years. However, the movie that I will always have special recollections of actually came out half a decade prior, back when Demme was still making a name for himself. I’m speaking of Something Wild, which enjoyed only minor theatrical success but proved a starmaking vehicle for a trio of actors who went on to enjoy hugely successful careers.
First up was Melanie Griffith, daughter of the great Tippi Hedren and household name by around the turn of the nineties thanks to her Oscar nominated turn as resourceful go-getter, Tess McGill, in Mike Nichols’ glorious Working Girl. My primary introduction to Griffith came in 1984, when she appeared in both Abel Ferrara’s Fear City and my personal favorite Brian De Palma film, Body Double. Soft spoken and terrified of performing for the camera, she nevertheless turned many a head with her performance in the latter, so much so, that Demme actually cast her for the leading role in Something Wild without auditioning her. Indeed it was this performance that opened doors wide for the young actress and it’s not a great stretch to see why.
Next was Jeff Daniels and, like Griffith, he was already on the upsurge prior to being cast as lovable plank, Charles Driggs. Roles in James L. Brooks’ Terms of Endearment, where he played the wonderfully named Flap Horton, and Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo placed him squarely on Hollywood radars and, once more, Demme’s film acted as an ideal platform to showcase his talents as an actor. When Daniels’ name is banded about, the go-to role appears to be harebrained Harry from The Farrelly Brothers’ rib-tickling knockabout comedy, Dumb & Dumber, but he has proved his versatility time and again and here he was on typically winsome form.
However, perhaps the greatest revelation was relative unknown New Jersey-born actor, Ray Liotta, who had over half a decade’s experience under his belt before Something Wild but nothing that had made use of his effortless intensity. His turn as violent ex-con, Ray Sinclair pretty much single-handedly bagged him the leading role of wise guy Henry Hill in Martin Scorsese’s seminal mob flick, Goodfellas and he has gone on to amass over a hundred credits since. Demme clearly had a knack for spotting diamonds in the rough and this was one of those rare examples of all the stars aligning at once. While not what you would call a widespread success, critics were almost unanimous in their praise for Demme’s adorable action/comedy and quite rightly to.
We start out in a New York café during the lunch rush, where buttoned-up banker Charlie (Daniels) is preparing to indulge his inner rebel and split without settling his tab. However, while staff are oblivious to his antics, mysterious brunette Lulu (Griffith) is onto his deception and cannot resist making the closet firestarter squirm.
After sufficiently teasing poor Charlie, the pair depart in a battered Ford that Lulu says, she acquired from a recent divorce and head off for the obligatory motel room sexcapades. Charlie knows precisely how this kind of no strings brief encounter works, or at least, he thinks he does. You see, where feisty free spirit Lulu is concerned, all is not necessarily how it appears on face value and he’s about to receive one helluva wake up call.
Here’s the thing. While Lulu is keeping a lid on her true intentions, Charlie is also withholding some potentially crucial information. Despite clocking in day after day for his esteemed 9-5 and doing a fairly decent job of climbing the career ladder, he’s desperately unhappy in his personal life and secretly craves a dash of impromptu adventure.
Lulu reciprocates in kind by producing a pair of furry handcuffs, making him her bitch and fucking his brains out. Warning signs are flashing in Charlie’s head but the baby batter convinces him to play along for the time being. However, while it appears that he is being taken for a ride, quite literally, there’s a great deal more to this good time gal beneath that helmet of jet black hair.
Even an insubordinate eccentric like Lulu has a past, and one quick change later, platinum blonde bombshell Audrey Henkel emerges and knocks Charlie sideways. Now resembling the kind of girl next door one would gladly take home to mother, her game plan entails precisely that in reverse as the pair pay a visit to her own mammy, Peaches. But the intrigue doesn’t end there as her true intentions are about to be made crystal clear.
You see, tonight is the night of her high school reunion and she could really do with an everyday douche to prove a point that this one-time wild thing has finally come good. Needless to say, Charlie is all in before the flop, as against his better judgment, he’s starting to fall head over heels for her.
Enter blue-eyed bad boy Ray Sinclair (Liotta), one ghost from Audrey’s past who she’d prefer not to be reminded of. Naturally an unassuming sap like Charlie falls for his ruse hook, line and sinker and believes them to be bonding as males do. Little does he know, that Ray has recently been released from prison and will do anything, and I do mean anything, to get the girl.
Something Wild now takes a far darker turn as things bypass bad, skim past worse, and high-tail directly into FUBAR territory. That said, something long dormant inside Charlie has reawakened and, after thirtysomething years of playing doormat, he has finally located his testicles. Game on.
Demme’s geniality as a director comes through as he affords his trio of leads the space they need to flourish, while E. Max Frye’s whip-smart screenplay ensures that they gain our full and undivided. For as much as Audrey/Lulu is occasionally maddening, we are powerless to resist her undeniable charms and the manner in which she unbuttons Charlie is anything but predictable.
Daniels is no less endearing, cordial to the point of sickening, he displays the kind of belly fire that undercover anarchists the world over will effortlessly identify with. As for Liotta, well his unflinching gaze is as quietly unnerving as it is totally disarming and he eats up every second of his screen time like a man with a monumental mission.
Something Wild manages to strike that fine balance between comedy and thriller and is aided in no small part by cameos from the likes of John Waters, Tracey Walter and Charles Napier as additional sweeteners. However, it is the three-pronged assault of newcomers Griffith, Daniels and Liotta at the tip-top of their A-game and the non-patronizing way that Demme views his heartland that elevates this wonderful little movie to compulsive viewing. Never anything less than utterly compelling, it is a film for the pent-up rebel in all of us and one of the wildest rides in eighties cinema. Demme may ultimately be remembered for more high-profile offerings, but I left my heart way back in Pennsylvania. In the words of rascally rogue Ray Sinclair – “Always keep ’em guessing, Charlie!”
Dedicated To Jonathan Demme (February 22, 1944-April 26, 2017)
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 9/10
Richard Charles Stevens
Keeper of The Crimson Quill
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