Remembering a time when actresses still had curves and eroticism could work both ways
By Armond White
I first saw Carne, a showcase for Argentinian sex symbol Isabel Sarli, at a San Sebastian Film Festival revival of that 1968 film while in the company of John Waters and his assistant Pat Moran. The duo provided expert commentary on the camp quality of Sarli’s overpowering voluptuousness. Waters took the right, knowing approach to Carne’s auteur, the late director Armando Bo. The film’s title means flesh, and Bo appreciated Sarli’s virtues and her showgirl enthusiasm similar to the way Waters celebrated his own cast of eccentrics.
In “Fuego: The Films of Isabel Coca Sarli,” a brief series at the Film Society of Lincoln Center (Aug. 6-8), five films featuring the erotic icon in various modes of compulsively-realized smutty fantasy brings back a long-lost style of eccentricity. Sarli’s bosomy heft and Latinate vigor were different from blond, American sex symbols; her image recalls Liz Taylor from her sun-tanned ’60s period—when film actresses still had curves. Though Sarli was not an actress of Taylor’s gifts, she nonetheless had a power and confidence that survived the hoops that Armando Bo, her Svengali, devised for her to jump through.
Carne—like the revived features Fuego, The Virgin Goddess, Naked on the Sand and The Female—comes from a pre-Women’s Lib 1960s period of erotica for men. There aren’t many serious documentations of this sub-genre but, curiously, its sociology is addressed in Elvis Costello’s early albums—especially the post-Falklands War lyric “Holidays are dirt-cheap in the Costa del Malvinas/ She’s Miss Buenos Aires/ In a world of lacy lingerie,” where Costello deviously trumped Eva Peron by saluting Sarli (who had been Miss Argentina in the Miss Universe pageant).
Sarli’s imports appeared outside Argentina during that fascinating twilight when porn and art movies intersected on British and American screens. Lincoln Center is also showing Flesh on Flesh, a wacky documentary about Sarli and Bo, that traces their collaboration to the erotic breakthroughs of Ingmar Bergman’s films, with their sober yet arousing flashes of nudity. The Female was actually directed by Leopoldo Torre Nilsson, the Bergman-infatuated, serious South American auteur whose vision of Sarli was no less entranced than Bo’s adoration.
That adoration was similar to Russ Meyer’s celebration of the ample female form and the intimidating female presence. When Bo depicts Sarli pursued by women as well as men (in Naked on the Sand), the proposition suits the polymorphous perversity typical in erotica but is also in some ways a statement of Sarli’s power. And these decades later, also a statement of cultural loss.
What’s lost is also apparent in the happy coincidence of Film Forum reviving Howard Hawks’ 1953 Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Aug. 6-12) in which Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe play golddiggers but also broads—in the honest, companionable sense. Russell and Monroe were Sarli’s “sisters under the mink” (to use a classic 1950s movie phrase). These big dishes strutted bosoms forward, but they also had hips. And Hawks staged them in fore-and-aft, side-to-side choreography (by Jack Cole) that was blatantly, deliriously female. The production v
alues are greater than Sarli’s musical
numbers in Naked on the Sand, but what’s invaluable is Hawks’ celebratory leering: He distilled sex down to biological math. The showcase he provides Russell and Monroe created their most lasting sexual iconography (defining both women), unlike any other Hollywood musical. It’s worth noting that Madonna’s “Material Girl” music video appropriated “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” and totally misread the context—leading eventually to the bulimic nightmare of Sex and the City that the Hawks film exists to refute.
Despite all that domineering pulchritude in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (including the beefcake-in-swimtrunks number “Ain’t There Anyone Here For Love?”), it could be argued that Hawks achieved the most heterosexual movie musical ever made. Proof that cinema eroticism, if powerful and imaginative and humane enough, can work in more than one direction.
Fuego: The Films of Isabel “Coco” Sarli
Film Society of Lincoln Center, Aug. 6-8
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
Directed by Howard Hawks
At Film Forum, Aug. 6-12
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