Becoming a cult film often means you have found passionate admirers by some method other than the traditional “make a good film” technique. Usually this involves making a pretty terrible film that is nonetheless fascinating in its awfulness. There is little question that Roger Vadim’s 1968 cult camp mess/masterpiece Barbarella falls into this category.
Sorry to say I most definitely do not claim membership in this particular cult. Which is not to rain on the parade of those who do. I can easily imagine sitting around with some good friends and a stable flow of intoxicating beverages and having an absolute blast watching this Austin Powers fever dream play out. Unfortunately that was not my situation, and to simply view Barbarella devoid of ironic context is pretty damn painful.
The thing that kept me from turning it off all together (and I was this close) and telling Nathaniel that I respectfully bow out of this week’s edition of Hit Me With Your Best Shot was that I was fasinated by Jane Fonda’s star turn in the title role. My favorite actresses have always possessed a brightness on screen that signaled alertness and intelligence to the audience no matter what they were playing. Annette Bening has it. Barbara Stanwyck had it to burn. Recently I found that quality in Mila Kunis in films like Sarah Marshall and Black Swan (which is why it was so painful to watch her lobotomized work in Oz).
Barbarella is one of the clearest cases of this phenomenon I’ve ever witnessed. It is flat out amazing how intelligent Fonda comes across here despite the movie around her having an intelligence quotient that makes The Monkee’s Head look like 2001: A Space Odyssey. There is, it would seem, no making Jane Fonda appear unintelligent on screen, even when she’s playing a hero whose main superpower is to have her clothes fall off. Actually, viewed through that lens, which is to say as a covert documentary experiment on how much idiocy can Jane Fonda’s sharp onscreen presence withstand, I actually found the movie pretty entertaining.
|Best Shot - Fonda, shooting off IQ sparks despite everything|
Come to think of it, if you stand by the principle that performances should be considered apart from the weaknesses of the film in which they appeared then Fonda deserved all manner of awards attention for Barbarella. It is a genuine challenge to think of any other actresses who could deliver the line, “Oh, Pygar!” over and over with enthusiasm Fonda musters here and somehow not come off as a world class ditz.
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