October 3, 2012

Last year, Bull Durham introduced a talented new director-writer, Ron Shelton, to American moviemaking ranks. Shelton, it was obvious, had a gift for rich characters and offbeat observation, and he had written the sexiest repartee heard in movies in a long time.

Blaze is Shelton’s follow-up movie. It’s a loose account of a true story, the romance between Louisiana governor Earl Long and a New Orleans stripper named Blaze Starr. Their affair took place in 1959-60, just about the time Long (the brother of legendary Louisiana demagogue Huey Long) was being voted out of office and checking in and out of mental institutions.

It’s a juicy story, and Shelton clearly sees the crazy-quilt possibilities for a study in American Absurd. Long, played by Paul Newman, may have been a bit nutty, but he knew how to manipulate people, exchange favors, and cultivate voters. Whoever said insanity was detrimental to a political career, anyway?

Blaze Starr, played by newcomer Lolita Davidovich, is portrayed as a big-hearted innocent who falls into stripping almost by accident. She’s talked into it by a sleazy nightclub owner (Robert Wuhl), who has brought her onstage in a “variety-type situation,” in front of a crowd of sailors. When she balks at dancing around in her skivvies, he reminds her of the supreme sacrifice those boys are willing to give: “Will you do it for America?”

Thus her career is launched, which finally leads her to Bourbon Street and the attention of the governor. After some wonderful parrying, they eventually get together (at their first meeting, he proclaims her act “a powerful expression of basic human needs,” to which she shrugs: “I’m a storyteller”).

Shelton writes great looping dialogue and he has come up with some crackling scenes. The look at Louisiana politics is knowing and funny, although ultimately Shelton is just playing with the subject. He obviously loves his characters, and he writes generous, bright material for them.

As a result, the film, while it seems minor, has a spirit of healthy amusement. For instance, it’s fun to watch Paul Newman play comedy. When Long finds himself unable to perform during his first sexual interlude with Blaze, he apologizes on behalf of the entire state of Louisiana. Newman, full of manly concern, has a great time with the scene.

As for Lolita Davidovich…well. With a name like that, does she need to act? Let’s just say she has the right amount of innocence and sass for the role, and also the appropriate voluptuousness. The production was reportedly thrown into turmoil when she suddenly lost weight just before shooting was to begin and her curves became slightly less distinct. She regained most of the weight, although she wears padding in some of her clothed scenes. Nothing else about her performance is false, however.

First published in the Herald, December 1989

A mild, fun movie, although it didn’t catch on the way some of Shelton’s sports pictures did. Davidovich married Shelton, whose career has been less prominent than fans might have hoped at one time.