“A [gay] and a commie in a jail cell, what a marketing nightmare.” Producer David Weisman made that quotable quote in a documentary about a film that became his obsession and the obsession of all involved. The feature, “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” went on to screen in competition at the 1985 Cannes Film Festival where it received a fifteen-minute standing ovation. The film went on to garner multiple Oscar nominations, including a Best Actor win for star William Hurt, in what many credit as a trailblazing model that ushered in the rise of the independent film movement that reached its crescendo the following decade. “It was a labor of love, a work of passion,” said Wiseman.
Babenco, Wiseman, Hurt and fellow cast members Raul Julia and Sonia Braga probably could not imagine the impact of “Kiss of the Spider Woman” as the production played out over a quarter century ago. Indeed, it was a film that shouldn’t have happened, but did through sheer force of will and what Wiseman told indieWIRE in Cannes Wednesday afternoon was its “zeitgeist” – or luck – that managed to carry the film despite a long series of breakdowns, drama and mishaps that threatened to destroy the film.
But prevail it did, and the film, about two cell mates in a South American prison, went on to garner critical acclaim and box office largesse (around $17 million). Twenty-five years later, “Kiss of the Spider Woman” is opening the Cannes Classic sidebar tonight (Thursday) with Babenco, Wiseman, Hurt and Braga together again on the Croisette.
Weisman maintains his passion for the film that nearly ruined him financially. Weisman first met writer Manuel Puig, the author of the novel, “Kiss of the Spider Woman” in Brazil where they bonded. The book, which received much acclaim and attention in both Latin America and Europe, did not enjoy the same level of attention in the United States. Puig encouraged Weisman to read the book, which later proved fateful after meeting Argentine-born Hector Babenco.
“It was a project designed to ruin everyone’s career,” said Weisman. “Hector told me that he wanted to do a film on this book, ‘Kiss of the Spider Woman,’ but that the author wouldn’t give him the time of day. Hector and I hit it off and he was so passionate about it, and then I told him I knew the writer. We then went to ICM and I introduced him.”
What happened afterward is a long and series of false starts, anguish and even rejection that nevertheless created one of the seminal independent films of the ’80s.
Puig only grudgingly gave the rights after Burt Lancaster, a closet cross-dresser, attached himself. “It was a 14 month obsession – he was absolutely obsessed,” said Weisman of Lancaster who was originally slated to play Luis Molina, a flamboyant cross-dresser who is locked up for his “perversion” in a Brazilian prison along with a left-wing activist, played by Raul Julia.
“We would do whatever to please him. We were like slaves pleasing the master,” Weisman recalled of the year-plus Lancaster was attached to the project. Lancaster convinced Babenco and the producer to allow him to bring in a scriptwriter from Europe to help him with re-writes. “It was all wrong,” Weisman told indieWIRE. “He was obsessed with the nylons in the clothes [his character would wear] – so fucking gay! And the [re-writes] resembled something out of a 1950s gay piano bar. When he sent over the script and we didn’t profusely thank him, it was the end. But had we done so, he would have taken over.”
Weisman said Lancaster’s scheme was to take over the production. When that failed, Lancaster walked off the project. The official line was for “health reasons.”
Weisman, though, had another leading man in mind. While Lancaster was still attached, an agent who was partnered with Raul Julia’s agent had suggested William Hurt, then a fast rising star that had recently finished “Gorky Park.” “His agent told him, ‘It will either destroy your career or get you an Oscar.'”
Hurt too adopted the obsession of Weisman and Babenco after picking up Lancaster’s mantle on “Spider Woman.” “He was phenomenal. He trusted the material. He’s all about the written word,” recalled Weisman. “He understood that he had to find something in himself to make it work and he went through an enormous process [during the shoot] in Brazil to find it. He had to find the woman in himself. He wasn’t playing a gay man. He was playing a woman trapped inside a man’s body.” Weisman said that Hurt’s performance was pivotal if “Spider Woman” was going to work. “If he and the film had not been able to pull it off to gay audiences, then it would have certainly died.”
Creative obstacles were certainly not the only challenges to “Spider Woman.” Weisman, who produced the Edie Sedgwick bio-drama, “Ciao Manhattan,” used his connections through his time with the Warhol Factory crowd to raise money for the project. “It was like that mountain in ‘Close Encounters,’ you just had to go there,” said Weisman. “The investors said, ‘I don’t know why I’m doing this, but where do I sign?’ Nobody thought they’d get their money back, it was just a charitable contribution to art. None [of the investors] were gay or political. It was just this unspeakable thing that [drove everyone].”
Originally, the film had a $300,000 budget, but when it was all said and done, it topped out at about $1 million. “Expensive for a Brazilian film at the time,” said Weisman.
While the shoot generally went fine, Hurt and Babenco fought. Miscommunication was their main problem augmented by the fact that at that time Babenco barely spoke English. Hurt would only communicate with the director through an A.D. The run-time came in at just under three hours, a full hour longer than the version that eventually screened in Cannes. Weisman had submitted the film to the New York Film Festival, but it had been promptly rejected. “I delivered 17 reels, but the projectionist told me the [programming committee] walked out laughing after the fourth reel,” Weisman said.
Later, both Hurt and Raul Julia saw the film and Julia reacted, “What happened to all of our great performances?” Weisman was horrified. “I didn’t want to destroy their careers.”
What followed was a series of re-edits and re-dubbing while in New York while both Hurt and Julia were doing stage plays. “There was a delicate balance and it just needed fine tuning. That was the difference between a walk-out and a standing ovation in Cannes,” Weisman said matter of factly.
“We came here [in Cannes] and we wanted to play and enjoy the glamour,” said Brazilian actress Sonia Braga who played the Spider Woman. “When Babenco came here, he wanted to enjoy himself and the glamour. He was relieved.”
Braga was brought on board by a chance meeting between Babenco and the actress who had had a thriving career back home. A moment of “transcendentalism,” as Weisman called it, came when Braga had the idea of combining the female leads in the film into one character, another stroke of good luck for the production. Weisman and Babenco credited the change with solidifying the overall story and ultimately, the film’s success.
“We put our minds and our souls into this movie,” said Braga, who two-and-a-half decades on is still a striking and charming tour de force. “I remember a journalist asked me at the Carlton [Hotel in Cannes], ‘What if people don’t like it?’ And I said, “Well not everybody has good taste.’ I just thought, ‘What is there not to like about the film…'” Continuing she added, “In the end, we’re human beings talking about emotions. We want to all fall in love – in the jail cell, in Cannes. No matter what!”
Still, Weisman who had dealt with the wild highs and lows of “Spider Woman” wasn’t so confident when he arrived in Cannes. He had nearly lost his house, maxed out his credit cards and feared he had ruined his own career not to mention everybody else’s. “Even in Cannes, I could never see this film as anything but a total disaster,” he recalled. “It was just about minimalizing the disaster. I was also a major coke-head at the time. I was spaced out.”
But succeed it did and Hurt went on to win Best Actor at the festival days after its premiere screening where it received a fifteen minute standing ovation. A successful theatrical release and the Oscars were to follow. “For me it was emotionally a great experience but I didn’t think anything would come of it,” said Weisman.
“It is a special movie…It is a classic and what Cannes has done confirms this,” said Braga about the film’s opening slot in the Cannes Classics section this year. “It’s a young classic. It’s special to us and our generation.”