Originally published at SpoutBlog:
The Formula One/hookers/Nazi scandal gets Lauren Wissot thinking about Michael Caton-Jones' 1989 treatment of similar themes.
Notes On A Sex “Scandal”
In celebration of my latest hero Max Mosley, son of Britain’s prewar fascist leader and head of Formula One racing, who refused to passively be set up in a “Nazi orgy” sting operation by the shameful “The News of the World,” who bravely took his invasion of privacy battle to court where he proudly invoked his inalienable S&M right to be spanked – and won! – I say, here’s to you, my fellow perv. And the next time you’re in the States the caning’s on the house (of domination. But feel free to tip a portion of that 120 grand in damages awarded).
So with that case now out of the way, let’s revisit the original British, S&M sex “Scandal.”
“She’s on the telly, isn’t she?” golden burlesque babe Christine Keeler (played by a pitch perfect Joanne Whalley) asks John Hurt’s striking, sugar daddy doctor Stephen Ward, referring to his knockout date as they swoon around the floor of a ritzy club, once he’s charmed her into a dance. “Except when she’s flat on her back,” Stephen replies, laughing uproariously at the beginning of Michael Caton-Jones’ thoroughly seductive take on Britain’s notorious Profumo affair that brought down the Conservative Party in the early 60s. The fact that the social climbing Christine has a hearty chuckle right along with the charismatic cad speaks louder than any words.
Next thing you know dominant Stephen’s insinuated himself into Christine’s life, showing up unannounced at her mum’s house (father’s absence as glaringly apparent as Stephen’s ego) – drowning in arrogance, both shamelessly forward and enthrallingly sexy with a cigarette dangling from his cocky lips, as comfortable in his dashing body as the middle-aged Cary Grant. It’s inevitable that Christine move into his cushy flat, that she’d assent submissively to dying her blonde locks to become his Jackie “O” clone. “Sir” Stephen’s the crown prince of high-class pimps, wooing his soon-to-be call girl with coos of “little baby,” tenderly holding her face in his strong hands only to slide away effortlessly when she moves in for a kiss (unthinkable to get involved with the goods!)
“The sight of silk on milk white flesh…when you come it’s like a sigh,” Stephen holds forth poetically on what “the Americans refer to as heavy petting” at his lavish dinner party, the table set with a huge clear dildo in lieu of a flower arrangement. “He’s a connoisseur of sin,” a guest remarks. And is he ever. When Christine jealously pouts about another woman who shows up Stephen merely smiles sadistically, tells her “wet your lips.” And that’s the last of the envy we will see in chastised Christine who now understands precisely the whore/slave she’s become – so why not sit back and revel in the decadent ride?
Soon Christine has taken in her own hooker-in-the-making in the form of Bridget Fonda’s ambitious vixen Mandy Rice-Davies, a platinum Marilyn to Christine’s dark Jackie O. Caton-Jones stages an erotic montage of the two readying for a night at the regal 21 Club, dressing up as a steamy fetish shoot. From the intimate CUs of stockings rolling up those “milk white” thighs (Christine’s silky black before a cut to Mandy’s pure white), the snapping garters (again Christine’s bad girl black leading the way for Mandy’s virginal white), Christine lining eyebrows, Mandy shadowing eyes, the clasping corsets dark before light, Christine painting her nails red, Mandy hers pink, the shimmying into tight white and black dresses, blood red lipstick followed by candy pink. And every sultry move set to a twanging guitar score – off to conquer the Wild West!
Or Cold War East. “I’m a curious fellow, insatiable in a way,” Stephen purrs to the doughy MI5 guy who wants him to get dirt on his fellow comrade-in-hedonism Ivanov, a probable Russian spy. Stephen is every bit as dangerously hot as the girls he procures for the upper class, an immoral, walking sex bomb – made all the more so by his ruthless lack of loyalty, by his unattainable nature (he’ll screw his so-called pals before he’ll screw his girls – power the only orgasm that matters). Both Stephen and his “friends” down their cocktails as they’re drinking in nubile curves with a ravenous intensity only the devil could muster.
Though the devil is not without a sense of fun. Between the swimming pool cavorting, a naked Christine peek-a-boo dancing with a pair of palm leaves, the flirting eyes, the pouting lips, sex becomes an outsized Playboy mansion affair, just another manifestation of the good life to be had at the expense of others (for the sexually ambiguous Stephen walks that delicate line between dominant and submissive, is a kept man of sorts himself, an osteopath living beyond his means by discreetly procuring flesh for his power broker patrons). A grand orgy has the requisite comely bodies screwing like bunnies, but it also has light comedy in the form of a masked slave serving drinks on a silver platter, a “Beat Me If I Fail To Satisfy” sign hanging about his neck (prompting Mandy to deliver a pleasing smack with a thorny white rose upon finding her cocktail a tad warm). In fact, the only major character that isn’t dripping sex is the impeccable Ian McKellen’s shy, nerdy Minister of War John Profumo who mistakes this world of lush fantasy for a sumptuous reality.
Though Christine enjoys the hairpin curve thrills of fucking both a politician and a likely spy (within seconds of Profumo driving away Ivanov inevitably pulls up to the flat), it’s Stephen who lives for the intrigue. “Thinks he’s James Bond or something,” Christine sniffs to Mandy. For both Stephen and Christine sex is nothing more than grownups indulging in children’s games, role-playing for fun and profit. When Christine does sound a serious note inquiring, “Is Ivanov a spy?” Stephen shrugs her off with, “Why not? Sounds like fun.” Yet deep down Christine knows that she and Stephen are two rare birds of a feather, whore and pimp as yin-and-yang, which is why she refuses when Profumo asks her to leave her mentor. (Not surprisingly, her cold and calculating daddy thinks her moving out a splendid idea – “he could be prime minister someday,” after all.)
But perhaps the most telling scene occurs after Christine finally leaves Stephen to “have some fun” – at her control – with Johnny (a very Fine Young Cannibal Roland Gift). Returning in tears to Stephen once the fling turns to bodily harm she finds that none other than her own protégé Mandy has taken her place. The weeping in Stephen’s arms transforms into ridiculous laughter – an echo of the opening when they had a chuckle at the expense of Stephen’s date – his mantra of “it’s all flesh,” sex as meaningless pastime their secretly shared understanding. When Stephen eventually admits to caring for Christine “more than I can say,” it’s this crucial scene that gives the line its weight.
But that bittersweet love is not enough to overcome what the decadent doctor has wrought. Wherein Profumo mistakes fantasy for reality Christine does the opposite, confusing mortal danger for a game, even erupting in a fit of giggles after Johnny fails to shoot his way through the front door. Stephen’s only complaint is that the press arrived before the police – bad publicity the most lethal of weapons. ”You pulled the strings. I’m what you made me,” Christine accuses Stephen in her own defense, offering that she’s his (i.e., you break it, you buy it) for better or worse. “It’s over, little baby. It’s over,” he simply sighs the term of endearment cutting her out with the skill of his surgeon’s knife. She’d gone too far (alas, if only he’d known how far she’d yet to go!)
And then the fateful domino drops when a devastated Christine pours out her aching heart to the first wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing reporter (from “The News of The World” naturally!) to approach. Unperturbed, miscalculating Stephen tells the paranoid Profumo, “I dreamt her up – I can make her vanish.” When Profumo demurs that the letter he sent Christine wasn’t incriminating, that he never even laid a finger on her Stephen quickly slices through the bullshit with, “Come off it, Jack, we all have something to hide.” Stephen may be ruthless and power hungry but he’s also the only honest bloke in the room, always wearing his immorality proudly on his sleeve like a warped talisman.
But to no avail – as the law closes in, it’s Stephen and Christine who end up pariahs, sitting alone together in the semi-dark of Stephen’s flat, highlife junkies whose addiction to the hedonistic lifestyle has left them with no one to turn to but each other. When Christine is asked on the stand why she kept returning to Stephen after leaving him “eight or nine times” she knowingly admits, “He’s a very dominating personality,” who had “full control over her mind” – the very definition of the sadomasochistic pimp/whore relationship entered into court evidence. But then, tragically, in the final moments of Caton-Jones’ gripping drama, those heartbreaking words appear on the screen, disclosing that the real Christine served jail time, that the real Stephen’s fatal overdose was followed by a burial no one attended. And I couldn’t help but think of today’s “The News of the World” scandal, of Max Mosley as an avenging angel 45 years in the making, his tabloid-ready S&M play a pale imitation of life.