March 4, 2011

Cat People: The Filmex Ultimatum

In 1982, Filmex was in full bloom in Los Angeles after three very successful years behind them. The Pitt Century Plaza was the headquarters for the festival, as well as, where all the films were presented. At this particular Filmex, the most anticipated film was Paul Schrader's remake of CAT PEOPLE, the Jacques Tourneur classic of 1942 (with it's star defining performance by Simone Simon as the ultimate European woman of mystery). At this moment in time Paul Schrader was hot hot hot....he had already written TAXI DRIVER, as well as, RAGING BULL, so why a Horror film? The answer might have been Nastassja Kinski, equally hot from her iconic photo shoot lying nude with a giant snake wrapped lovingly around her body. Schrader fell hard for Kinski, resulting in her being photographed like the goddess she was, in the first three reels of his version of the RKO classic.

It has taken a few years for me to warm up to his vision which I now can enjoy for it's magnificent design by Ferdinando Scarfiotti, the provocative score by Giorgio Moroder and most importantly, that prologue set in some otherworldly red desert where panthers mate with young virgins allowing a race of cat people to come into our world.

Now at the time I was writing for Films and Filming UK and was very much a part of the Filmex in-house crew, doing interviews for the Gary's (which is what we called Essert and his partner Gary Abrams), organizing events for the many screenings and tributes created for the festival which had taken it's leave from The American Film Institute a few years earlier and then would later morph into The American Cinemateque that we know today.

It was Gary Essert's idea that we contact Dewitt Bodeen, who, of course, wrote the original screenplay for the 1942 CAT PEOPLE and extend an invitation to have him at the screening of the remake. I had met with Dewitt on a couple of occasions with John Kobal out at the Woodland Hills Motion Picture home where Bodeen now resided. His initial reaction was rather non-committal as he was wary of remakes and not without good reason but he did admire some of Schrader's work, as did most of Hollywood at that time and eventually said yes to all that was asked of him.

I had already fallen in love with the poster art for the film with Nastassja standing in the rain in dayglow colors looking, well, like a cat person. As we came closer to the night of the event, Dewitt became ill and the result of this caused concern that he might not be up to it after all. He was a trooper and right up until the very night of the premiere he was trying to rally enough strength to come out, however, as I was on standby to drive out and get him, it became clear he was not going to make it.

I now had three tickets (with Dewitt's being free) to give to someone else, as the event was sold out. There was, as I recall, a pre-screening cocktail party where all the Foreign Press was getting righteously bombed, as was I since now my duties were not so pressing as they would have been if I had the responsibility of getting Mr. Bodeen to and from Filmex. The after-screening conversation was moderated by a wonderful woman with a great voice who fielded the Q&A with Paul Schrader.  The film unfolded to a standing room only crowd who were spellbound by the opening sequence, as well as, the David Bowie theme song, which, of course, went on to a hit single for the film. It was during the course of the film that things went a bit south for the audience and by the time the film was down to running credits, we had a somewhat disrespectful group of fans who fell into two camps; those that somehow expected a respectful homage to the Tourneur film and those who had hoped Schrader would come through with a balls-to-the-wall perverse masterpiece. However, nobody was fully prepared what Schrader gave them, a somewhat cheesy monster movie with bondage overtones. Of course it is always a mistake to try and make sense of a horror film that requires we take for granted a race of cat people that can only safely have sex with each other, committing some weird form of incest in the process.

The one thing I will never forget is after the lights went up and those that remained, which was still nearly a full house, waited for some comments from the director. It seemed nobody told Schrader that Mr. Bodeen was not in attendance, so when the subject of the original CAT PEOPLE was brought up, Schrader asked from the stage if Dewitt Bodeen could please stand and give his opinion. At that moment I realized they were coming down the aisle with a microphone for Bodeen, so when it arrived, I stood for what seemed like an eternity and told the crowd that Dewitt Bodeen had wanted to attend but illness prevented him doing so and it was then that the film critic whose name I have long forgotten and whom I had given Dewitt's ticket to at the reception, stood up, taking the mike from me, asking in a voice heard by all: “At what point, Mr. Schrader, did you lose control of your film?" The woman moderating all this then repeated the question just in case the whole room might have missed it. “MR SCHRADER, WHEN DID YOU LOSE CONTROL OF YOUR FILM?” After a long pause, Paul Schrader responded by saying very softly, "I wasn't aware I had.”

Dewitt Bodeen may not have physically been in the audience that night, but he was represented none the less....

We were putting out fire with gasoline.....


  1. In spite of its flaws I've always loved Schrader's "Cat People", and I still have that poster in my living room! The film is as much a reflection of the love affair between a director and his star as was "Tess", and both are probably best appreciated in that light.