‘Sweet Revenge’ recalls Stockard Channing’s first shot at stardom

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sweetrevengeAlthough she is now one of the most respected actresses in America, Stockard Channing had a rough time establishing herself in Hollywood 40 years ago.

After a series of stage roles in Boston and New York — including a run in the Tony-winning musical “Two Gentleman of Verona” — Channing was plucked from semi-obscurity by director Mike Nichols for the female lead in his 1975 film “The Fortune.”

This was a very big deal for the 32-year-old actress. In addition to working with one the hottest directors in movies, Channing would act opposite two of the era’s reigning superstars, Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson.

Sadly, the picture was a critical and box-office bomb, stalling Mike Nichols’ career for several years and leaving Channing stranded in Hollywood linked to a shocking flop.

The actress’ follow-up vehicle, “Sweet Revenge” was already in production when “The Fortune” opened, but after it too proved to be a flop in 1976, Channing was on shaky ground for many years (she did play Rizzo in “Grease” two years later, but that hit musical led her into two disastrous TV sweetrevenge1sitcoms).

“Sweet Revenge” is now available on DVD thanks to Warner Archive and it proves to be a fascinating oddity. It’s an interesting little film directed by Jerry Schatzberg on the heels of two critical successes (“The Panic in Needle Park” and “Scarecrow”) and shot by one of the greatest cameramen to emerge in the 1970s, Vilmos Zsigmond (who at this this point in his career had already shot “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” “Deliverance” and Steven Spielberg’s debut feature “The Sugarland Express”).

Channing plays a car thief, operating under multiple aliases who becomes determined to make enough money stealing cars to buy her dream vehicle, a Dino Ferrari.

The 90-minute film is a good vehicle for Channing who manages to make a rather unlikeably single-minded young woman into an appealing character. Vurrla aka Dandy aka Jennifer doesn’t have much of a life beyond stealing cars, but Channing fills in the gaps with her charm and strong screen presence.

Sam Waterston is also good in an early film appearance as the public defender who gets sucked into Vurrla’s orbit when she is — briefly — arrested and held in jail for one of her capers.

“Sweet Revenge” has a few gaps in storytelling that suggest it might have been tampered with by MGM after Schatzberg finished his work on the movie. The result was barely released and the film later appeared on TV under a series of different titles (just like Vurrla).

The movie is not a lost gem, but there is enough quality work on display to make it worth checking out, especially if you’re a fan of Stockard Channing.

Joe Meyers

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