Much to the surprise of the Hollywood studios that snubbed it in its infancy, Leaving Las Vegas has emerged as one of the most lucrative movies of 1995. The art-house film made for $3.5 million has earned nearly ten times that amount at the box office. Larry Gleason, president of theatrical distribution for MGM/United Artists, says Leaving Las Vegas is "one of the most successful specialized films of all time."
Before the film received four Oscar nominations, the National Society of Film Critics and the Los Angeles and New York film critics associations all showered it with top honors. Nicolas Cage won a Golden Globe for his performance in the starring role, and the national media positively oozed over it. Rolling Stone calls Leaving Las Vegas "a uniquely hypnotic and haunting love story...a tragedy that unspools with astonishing buoyancy and sneaky wit." Such raves catapulted the film from 5 theaters last fall to more than 1,300 the week the Academy Award nominations were announced.
But the film's success should not come as such a surprise. Director Mike Figgis is cashing in on a time-tested formula: Leaving Las Vegas is a classic heterosexual male fantasy. In fact, Figgis's greatest accomplishment with this film might be in improving on an old formula. He's shown that the country's largely male, largely straight, highbrow critical establishment is as capable of thinking with the proverbial wrong head as any uneducated prole. By equating Vegas's cinematic window dressing, an unhappy ending, and a nice set of tequila-bathed tits with high art, those critics have given millions of thoughtful male filmgoers permission to indulge.
Shot in low-rent but luscious Super 16-millimeter, Leaving Las Vegas is about Ben (Cage), a loser who goes to Las Vegas to drink himself to death. There, amid the neon glitz and $2.99 prime rib specials, he is befriended by Sera, the angelic prostitute played by Elisabeth Shue.
According to most reviewers, Leaving Las Vegas is a gritty film about acceptance, a love story without a Pygmalion project. The New Yorker's Terrence Rafferty writes, "The core of the relationship--its strength--is the lovers' willingness to let each other be. They take one another for better or worse, knowing that their losers' marriage of convenience can't go anywhere, and understanding, as profoundly damaged people do, that it doesn't have to."
Male reviewers in particular have been amazingly selective in their analysis, because Leaving Las Vegas is not about unconditional love and mutual acceptance. It's about Sera's acceptance of Ben. Figgis has merely updated the hooker-as-angel-of-mercy fantasy to appeal to the 90s man weary of the demands of American feminism. Even when Ben wants to do something totally self-destructive--self-destruction itself being the stuff of male fantasy--Sera will be there to hold his hand. After promising that she will never, never ask him to stop drinking, Sera presents Ben with proof--a gift of a silver flask--at which point he says, "I must be with the right girl."
Not only is Sera compliant, she cooks, she reads, she nurses hangovers, and she tells Ben when he moves in, "You should know that included with the rent around here is a complimentary blowjob." Sera is both madonna and whore. But far from being accepting, Ben is utterly contemptuous of Sera the prostitute. One evening, out of spite, Ben picks up another hooker. Sera responds by throwing him out; her acceptance, it seems, has limits. However, she is soon punished for her defiance by being brutally gang-raped and sodomized by a bunch of adolescent football players who document the crime on video. Somehow, not a single major reviewer who acclaimed the movie mentioned this scene. But it didn't escape the notice of two middle-aged women sitting in front of me in the theater who exclaimed, "Why doesn't she get a real job?"
These women were undoubtedly just the kind of viewer that critics would dismiss as lowbrow peasants, unable to distinguish Warhol from Wal-Mart. Yet they immediately recognized the hollowness of Shue's hooker. (Indeed, why doesn't she get a real job?) In one of the few critical reviews of the film (by a woman, no less), the LA Weekly's Ella Taylor concurs, writing, "By the end you have no idea what would induce this woman, however degraded her circumstances, to spend a lost weekend with this man."
Nonetheless, after Sera is evicted from her apartment--shortly after the gang rape--she dons her stilettos and goes out in search of Ben, without success. Days later, as she's packing her bags, he finally calls, and she finds him in some fleabag hotel on his deathbed. After a few perfunctory words, Sera fucks him for the first time and then he dies. And in case it wasn't clear in the first two hours of the film, Sera reminds us, "I loved him. I really loved him."
Publications from Newsweek to Artforum have hailed Figgis for his refusal to succumb to Hollywood's requisite happily-ever-after. Rolling Stone's Peter Travers says, "All the signs point to another 12-step clichefest complete with agonizing therapy and gut wrenching rehab before the final fade to redemption....To its everlasting credit, Leaving Las Vegas refuses to conform."
Yet this final act is the ultimate self-destructive redemption fantasy. After freeing himself of all the trappings of adulthood--wife, kid, job, car payments--Ben goes out with a bang; virtually his last breath onscreen is taken with the angel Sera astride him. It's the harried white-collar dad's wet dream, not to mention a tremendous display of virility for a guy who's had a bad case of whiskey dick for the first two hours of the movie. Of course, the critics have bought into the image wholeheartedly, since what man doesn't think that even on his deathbed he could still get it up?
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that Figgis knew exactly what he was doing when he structured his film to appeal to his target audience's baser instincts. Figgis adapted the screenplay himself, and the New Yorker's Rafferty writes, "Figgis' screenplay is faithful to the bracingly objective tone of its source, a 1990 novel that was the first and last book by a talented young writer named John O'Brien (who killed himself in 1994 at the age of 33)."
The book, which sold only 2,000 copies in its first edition, was not published in paperback until December 1995. Reading it is a laughable experience. I was left wondering if Rafferty had really read the whole thing, not only because he failed to note that O'Brien is a woefully inept crafter of dialogue, but because Figgis was not entirely true to the original story. The gang-rape scene happens on page 14 as just another day in the desolate life of a Vegas tart. In the movie, it's transposed as punishment for Sera's refusal to accept Ben and all his faults, even if one of them happens to be sleeping with--well, attempting to sleep with--another woman.
Until the gang rape, Sera's life as a hooker (postpimp) doesn't look so bad. She makes good money; she sets her own hours. She tells us that her life is good. "It is as I want it to be." What the book at least hints at is that there's a reason Sera is a hooker, and that there's a reason she likes Ben besides his snappy one-liners. She explains that Ben doesn't ask her any questions about her work. "None of the usual, 'What's it like'...none of the would-be social researcher scene." And most of all, she says, Ben does not want to save her, for she, like him, doesn't want to be saved.
The book also develops Sera's loneliness, something that the film neglects completely. At one point in the movie Sera plops down on the toilet and declares while she pees, "I'm just tired of being alone." O'Brien at least gives Sera some pathos. In the book, Sera is actually evicted from her apartment--before she meets Ben--after befriending the woman next door. Sera's relationship with her neighbor is necessarily contrived because Sera cannot reveal what she does for a living. But one night, after coming home with a black eye, she confesses her real work to her friend. The next day, the landlord gives her the boot.
The truth is, the screen Sera is not supposed to be anything more than a two-dimensional figure. The opportunity for her to emerge as a full-bodied character was present in the book, and the model for her was also available in the film Figgis obviously cribbed heavily from: Klute. Jane Fonda won an Oscar in 1972 for her portrayal of a similar character. Unlike Shue's bubblegum hooker routine, Fonda's prostitute is neurotic, hard-edged, and richly developed.
Figgis has stolen Fonda's outline, as well as Klute's therapy-session framing device, but not the substance. And for good reason: a more complicated and flawed character would ruin the fantasy. Any more depth and Sera would have to ditch Ben early on. With any less she would no longer be desirable to the intelligent, male art-film audience. As it is, men love Sera, especially the critics who have contributed to the film's surprising and remarkably cheap success. Travers says, "Shue is a revelation in the role....Shue shuns the usual whore bromides to create a woman who holds to her emotions even as the ground shifts under her tottering high heels."
The New Yorker is still glowing about Shue in its March 11 edition, where Roger Angell lauds her exceptional ability to pour tequila on her breasts. Of this scene he writes, "Credit for its nerve and style belongs to Mike Figgis, but Shue has won our trust, and we don't laugh or pull back." He ends by saying, "If we are left troubled as well as moved by a performance from an actress we hadn't noticed before, it's a reminder that even a glimpsed experience of life and grief, up there on the silver screen, can still take us by surprise."
Backlash is starting to ensue, however, as the film has reached a wider audience. But it's not coming from any pedantic art-film critics. Instead, the criticism is coming mostly from less mandarin publications like Premiere, where Libby Gelman-Waxner (a pseudonym for gay writer Paul Rudnick) recently offered his/her explanation of why critics have called Leaving Las Vegas a "searing masterpiece."
He/she writes: "The way that you can really tell that this movie is a grad-student fantasy is the Elisabeth Shue character, who's the first hooker I've ever seen who looks like she's a field-hockey champion....She's my husband Josh's idea of a hooker, which is a gorgeous blond who listens attentively to everything you say, brings you snacks, worships you and then kisses you on your forehead and tucks you in....She's like a more perfect Snow White, because she'll even have anal sex."
What Figgis has proved is that even without the gentle touch of soft porn, male fantasy sells. The four nominations and one Oscar suggest the Academy was buying.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Jeff Heller.