Written by: Carroll Jenkins on January 17th, 2009
Theatrical Release Date: USA, 1982
Director: Matt Cimber
Writers: Matt Cimber, John F. Goff
Cast: Stacy Keach, Pia Zadora, Orson Welles, Lois Nettleton, Edward Albert, James Franciscus, Stuart Whitman, June Lockhart, Ed McMahon
DVD released: September 30th, 2008
Approximate running time: 107 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Sound: Dolby Digital Stereo English
DVD Release: Industrial Entertainment
Region Coding: Region 0 NTSC
Retail Price: $29.95
James M. Cain is most famous for the steamy potboilers The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, and Mildred Pierce – or perhaps as the author of the source material for those films. The first two are classic noir, and the third a glossy soap opera. Butterfly is based on a Cain novel, though relocated from a coal mine in the mountains to a silver mine in the desert. The Hayes office vowed never to permit a theatrical release due to the themes of greed, lust, and incest, so the rights gathered dust for 35 years.
Butterfly is first and foremost a starring vehicle for Pia Zadora, whose husband financed the film. Discussion of the film has to include the surrounding controversy which centered on her winning the Golden Globe Award as “New Star of the Year in a Motion Picture”. The premiere had been a smash at Cannes, but there were distribution problems and the movie was not in general release, so few had seen it. When her husband was accused of buying the award and didn’t challenge that assertion, it was presumed true. Pia became the butt of jokes throughout the media, including recipient of numerous Razzies including “Worst Actress of the Century”. One reason the ridicule was so incessant was the brief cameo by Ed McMahon, with which Johnny Carson (and his writers) never tired of beating him over the head.
Just as Ed Wood hardly deserves the “Worst Director Of All Time” title, Pia’s performance is certainly not the worst of the century, or even of that year. She had considerable experience on Broadway, so she wasn’t exactly a novice to show biz. And she does exude considerable sex appeal and charisma, and even a sense of humor in her first role (not counting her appearance in Santa Claus Conquers The Martians at age 10). Certainly she seems mature for her 15 year old character, but after all, she was 28 at the time.
Not only did Pia’s career go straight into the dumper, but Stacy Keach seemed doomed to follow her example. As his movie career halted, he found refuge in television and attained some measure of success with the first Mike Hammer show, up until his fateful cocaine bust and prison term. Orson Welles appears as a judge in his last film appearance and is reasonably effective while obviously on his ‘last leg’. Other appearances include James Francis, Stuart Whitman, and George ‘Buck’ Flower (Delinquent Schoolgirls).
Butterfly does address sensitive themes including religious intolerance, and the first half is rather steamy. The showstopper is the infamous bathtub scene, which reveals far less than your mind tells you it does. After the bar fight and the subsequent court appearance, a whole roster of secondary characters appear out of the blue, and the subsequent melodramatics grind the film to a halt. Nevertheless, there are considerable twists and turns, and the final conclusion is reasonably satisfactory and not entirely expected.
The anamorphic presentation is good, but does experience minor problems during pans. The image composition is much more effective in widescreen aspect, including the mine location and the desert scenery. The biggest shortcoming is the lack of subtitles or close captioning, most desirable in this very dialog heavy film. The extras are substantial, including a featurette that examines the history of the film and the Golden Globes fiasco. Pia and Stacey appear along with the writer/director and then-husband/financier. Stacey says he “had his hands full” in the bathtub scene, and indeed he did.
Butterfly is a sleazy melodrama that suffers from a mediocre script. It still could have been a springboard for Pia Zadora’s film career, much as Niagara and Don’t Bother To Knock were for Marilyn Monroe. Too bad someone drained the pool.