September 3, 1943 – Valerie Perrine:
“Most of my male friends are gay, and that seems perfectly natural to me. I mean, who doesn’t love cock?”
Valerie Perrine has Parkinson’s disease and is now retired, but for a while there in the 1970s and 1980s, she had nice long line of good work in film.
Perrine remains one of the most underrated talents of the 1970s. She gave authentic, raspy performances opposite some of the decade’s biggest leading men, including Dustin Hoffman, Jack Nicholson, and Robert Redford, and worked with acclaimed actor-driven directors George Roy Hill, Sydney Pollack, and Tony Richardson. An exquisite beauty with wide-set sea-green eyes defining her cherubic face, and body made for sin.
For her role as Lenny Bruce‘s stripper wife Honey Bruce in the Bob Fosse film Lenny (1974) she won a BAFTA Award and the Cannes Film Festival Award and was nominated for the Academy Award.
Perrine was born in Galveston in 1943 to a British mother and a father who was an Army officer. She spent time as a child in a convent in Japan, and her army-brat teenage years in Paris and Rome. She majored in psychology in college, but dropped out because school bored her; instead, she headed to Las Vegas to become a showgirl. Her ambition, moves, looks, and magnificent breasts got her work as the headlining dancer in the Lido de Paris Revue at the Stardust.
Her big break came at a dinner party in Los Angeles, where a casting director spotted her and asked if she’d ever acted before.
In her audition for the role of Montana Wildhack in Slaughterhouse Five (1972), Perrine came in with no headshots, but she wore one of her showgirl outfits, a G-string and skimpy bra. She got the part, naturally.
In the film, Perrine is a naked siren who seduces Michael Sacks by floating in a tub, her bare breasts on display. The nudity might not have been essential to the plot of either film, but the way she shows herself is both performative and pioneering. Perrine:
“I was the only actress on the lot that could care less.”
That attitude helped land her the role of Honey Harlowe in Lenny. It’s a complicated role: Honey is a stripper, then a wife, then a junkie, then a mother, then a relapsed junkie. Her nuanced performance and the way she holds the glances with Hoffman give her performance a lived-in quality. The only problem with her perfroamce was that Perrine was too good a dancer. Fosse choreographed Honey’s moves to be off the beat but Perrine wrote that: “I kept getting it right every time.”
She gave a great performance in W.C. Fields And Me (1976) opposite Rod Steiger. But the biopic of the 1920s-1930s-era actor and comedian was a flop, and Perrine never again got the acclaim she did for Lenny, though she did appear in two box-office hits, Superman (1978) and Superman II (1980), as villain Lex Luthor’s girl Friday. Her other movies include The Electric Horseman (1979), a film about a rodeo star gone corporate starring Redford and Jane Fonda; and The Border (1982), an overlooked film about corruption on the California-Mexico border starring Nicholson and Harvey Keitel. By the 1990s, she more or less disappeared, though she did resurface for a small role in Nancy Meyer‘s What Women Want in 2000.
She posed nude for a 1972 issue of Playboy, and then again on the cover in 1981. She then became the first female actor to bare her breasts on television; it was for the PBS broadcast of Bruce Jay Friedman‘s underrated play Steambath in 1973. Only a few PBS stations nationwide carried the program.
It’s kind of unfair, but when I think of Perrine, I think of the Allan Carr camp classic Can’t Stop The Music (1980), for which she was nominated for a Razzie Award for Worst Actress. Can’t Stop The Music is supposed to be sort of a biopic about The Village People with only a vague resemblance to the actual story of the group’s formation.
The film is directed by diminutive powerhouse Nancy Walker. Walker was a Broadway veteran that you may know was Ida Morgenstern on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and the spinoff series Rhoda with the late Valerie Harper. Walker was nominated for two Tony Awards, four Golden Globes and eight Emmys. Can’t Stop The Music was her only film as director.
The film’s supporting cast includes two two-time Tony Award winners, Tammy Grimes and Russell Nype, actor-director June Havoc (sister of Gypsy Rose Lee), dancer Altovise Davis (wife of Sammy Davis, Jr.), character actor Jack Weston, and Emmy-winning actor Leigh Taylor-Young.
Can’t Stop the Music is also this guy named Bruce Jenner‘s film debut after becoming famous for three world record-setting performances at the 1976 Olympic Games. What ever happened to him? He was so hot.
Shooting of Can’t Stop The Music took place at MGM Studios in Culver City, but also on location in New York City. Nearby, gay activists were protesting the filming of William Friedkin’s Cruising, starring Al Pacino. The two productions were mistaken for each, with protesters disrupting the Can’t Stop The Music location shoots. Right before the release of the movie, Jenner and Perrine hosted a television special, Allan Carr’s Magic Night, to promote the film.
Tensions between Walker and Perrine were so bad that Walker would not be present for scenes featuring Perrine, leaving direction to Bill Butler, the cinematographer.
Two of The Village People’s biggest hits, In The Navy and Macho Man, were not in the film, but Perrine wears a tee-shirt with the words “Macho Woman” as she jogs through the men’s locker room at the YMCA.
By the time of the film’s release in the summer of 1980, the disco genre had not only peaked but also was experiencing a backlash. The film received scathing reviews from critics and was a dud at the box office. At a cost estimated at $20 million, the film was a costly colossal failure financially. But, the soundtrack album was a hit, and although it only reached only Number 49 in America (the first Village People album not to go Gold), it reached Number One in the UK and Australia.
Check out this clip of of her performance as Lillian Lorriane in the television spectacular Ziegfeld: The Man And His Women (1978). As a former Vegas showgirl, Perrine had to have known many women like Lorraine: beautiful creatures without that special “thing” to truly make it. Yet, she plays her with grace and poise.