Bad movies we love: ‘The Fan’

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From Dec. 31, 2009 – Novelist and Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Lisa Scottoline wrote a funny piece for the paper last week on deciding to forget about New Year’s resolutions in favor of making a list of personal quirks she plans to hold to in 2010.

Lisa calls them UnResolutions and the one that really caught my eye was Number Two: “I resolve to keep watching the same movies over and over, because I love them…I have seen ‘The Godfather’ probably 145 times, yet I watch it every time cable shows a marathon. Bottom line, one of the great things about living alone is that no one is around to say, ‘You’re not going to watch ‘The Godfather’ again, are you?’”

I think I’ve seen “The Godfather” even more times than Lisa — and there have probably been hundreds more occasions where I’ve only been able to watch 15 or 20 minutes of the gangster classic on cable before I had to do something else.

I don’t have a problem with committing “The Godfather” to memory — it has to be among the half dozen or so greatest American movies — but what worries me is the way I often cannot resist another viewing of an indefensibly bad movie.

If “Road House” or “Valley of the Dolls” or “The Sandpiper” turns up on TV, nine times out of ten I can’t resist watching. The over-the-top dialogue, the bad acting, the crazy world view presented in a terrible movie can be just as compelling as another visit with the Corleone clan.

A few nights ago I used up another 90 minutes of my limited time on this orb marveling at the sheer awfulness of a little-known 1981 thriller, “The Fan,” in which Lauren Bacall (above) plays Broadway star Sally Ross, whose life is threatened by a deranged fan played by Michael Biehn (below).

Between the shooting of the film in 1980 and its release in the fall of 1981, “The Fan” became an embarrassment to the studio that made it — Paramount — when John Lennon was killed by one of his stalker fans and then President Reagan was shot by a crazed fan of Jodie Foster.

With the passage of time, the scandal surrounding the movie was forgotten, and “The Fan” drifted into obscurity (suffering the indignity of having its title lifted for a terrible 1996 Robert De Niro vehicle).

Now, the picture can be savored as a bizarre time capsule of a long-vanished era on Broadway (the first scene takes place outside the Morosco Theatre, which was razed a few years later to make way for a Marriott hotel) and as a behind-the-scenes view of a type of musical that doesn’t exist anymore — the “star vehicle” crafted around a star who can’t really sing or dance.

In the 1960s and ’70s, a host of movie ladies — ranging from Katharine Hepburn to Melina Mercouri — decided to star in Broadway musicals, with mostly disastrous results.

Bacall was luckier than her peers to find two shows that were very cleverly constructed to hide her musical deficits — “Applause” and “Woman of the Year.” The pickings were so slim on Broadway during those theater seasons that Bacall won two Tonys for best actress in a musical.

So, in “The Fan” ex-Hollywood film star Sally Ross’s preparations to make a musical comedy debut in a show called “Never Say Never” become true to Bacall’s real life in a hilariously unintentional way.

The film was shot entirely on location — so the early 1980s theater district street scenes are fascinating to look at now — but the plot is risible in the extreme.

Michael Biehn plays a handsome 20something guy with a heterosexual passion for the 50-year-old Broadway star — he doesn’t want to become her pal and hang out in a theater district piano bar discussing the fine points of Stephen Sondheim’s work, he wants to have sex with her.

The premise is so bizarre that you wonder how the script could have been shot as written and Biehn cast in the role.

The craziness of the plot is one of the things that makes the movie irresistible, however. Neither Sally’s long-suffering secretary (Maureen Stapleton) nor her movie producer ex-husband (James Garner) ever asks the most obvious question, “This unhinged show queen is straight?”

“The Fan” takes us through the rehearsals and opening night of a Broadway show that is every bit as weird as the one John Travolta works on in “Staying Alive.” There doesn’t seem to be any story in the musical and Bacall struts around belting out one godawful song after another (“Hearts, Not Diamonds” brings the audience to its feet, cheering).

“The Fan” doesn’t get any better with repeat viewings, but it does get funnier.

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Joe Meyers

One Response

  1. Ken Anderson says:

    Neither my partner, nor any of my friends can stand this film, and I can’t understand why. It’s a visual delight, an aural hoot, and a late in life Bacall in a major role is such a treat. I love the NY locations, the cast of actors, and even the terrible/brilliant musical they’re mounting (alas, as you say, it recalls the painful to sit through musical in “Staying Alive”). I just wish they had kept the body count down.the victims are very sympathetic and their attacks are a real buzz killer for all the camp fun I’m having.
    I absolutely love your observations on this movie and thank you for bringing this post to my attention.