Superman III 4.18: Cats

Okay, I promise, this is the last post that I’m going to write about this villain intro scene. The topic on today’s agenda is the fraught relationship between Superman III and women in general.

As you’ll recall, the movie opens with an endless slapstick slow-motion disaster sequence, which is initiated by a beautiful blonde woman in an appealingly tight skirt, just walking down the street and minding her own business, as the world careens into chaos around her. The original incident that sends downtown Calgary crumbling to the ground is the guy who doesn’t look where he’s walking, because he is looking at the admittedly spectacular ass of Lorelei Ambrosia.

That’s all it takes to bring down civilization: one good-looking woman, simply existing in the world. There is an armed bank robbery in this sequence that has fewer dramatic consequences than Lorelei, let loose on the streets in her strawberry-themed ensemble.

And then there’s the proverbial puppies. This is the way the scene is described in the script:

Coming out the front door of a building is an absolute knockout of a GIRL: voluptuous, sexy, young, and healthy. Her every step causes a series of mind-boggling ripples. She is seemingly oblivious to the effect she has on passers-by. About 25 years old, this is somebody we will be seeing much more of later. LORELEI AMBROSIA.

As she walks AWAY FROM CAMERA, her rear end reminding us of the proverbial puppies fighting in a sack, a GUY walking down the street from the opposite direction turns to ogle at her and therefore doesn’t look where he’s going.

Puppies fighting in a sack! I don’t even know what to say about that, except to note that it’s in the novelization too:

“This is a street corner with hundreds of different trajectories, one of which belonged to a Miss Lorelei Ambrosia, in whom wondrous body flow had been bestowed, enough to corkscrew the trajectory of an unemployed auto worker. Seeing Lorelei, seeing her dress rolling like a sackful of puppies, he swiveled his head and walked backwards toward…”

So there you are, two sacks of puppies, and who’s going to take care of them all? Plus, there’s the wondrous body flow and the mind-boggling ripples — mind-boggling! Honestly, both the script and the novelization appear to be written by people who have recently learned about the existence of attractive women, and haven’t gotten over the shock.

And in the other corner, there’s the equal and opposite reaction given to Vera Webster, a less attractive woman, as noted by literally everybody who looks at her.

Vera is mannish and stern, save for a splash of red lipstick, and she is the target of everyone else’s smart remarks. She storms down the stairs in her first scene, and right away her brother barks, “Vera, get ahold of yourself!… Nobody else ever will.” And then we see the other man in the room, who incidentally isn’t much of a feast for the eye himself, sniggering at this not very well-phrased putdown.

In reality, Vera is only Hollywood ugly, which means that she’s actually quite pretty, underneath all the handicaps they’ve put on her. The makeup, the hair and the outfit all conspire to make Vera look hard and masculine, plus they put her next to a woman who’s twenty years younger, carrying multiple sacks of puppies in the back seat.

The mockery of Vera’s appearance begins before she’s even on the screen, and continues relentlessly through the course of the movie. Lorelei sniffs that she’d look better if she turned blue, and when Gus meets her, he assumes that she’s Webster’s mother. And Vera is the one who gets the gruesome body-horror transformation at the end of the film, as if she needs to be brutally and specifically punished for the crime of not looking like Lorelei.

So this film includes a dizzy blonde who gets a lot of positive attention from the guys, and a dowdy Hollywood-ugly brunette who gets nothing but disdain, and the first thing that they do is have a noisy catfight. There’s not much one can do about this, except to sigh and say that in the ’70s it was even worse.

But then there’s the running gag that Lorelei is much smarter than she pretends to be, and she gets what I think is the funniest line in the film.

It happens right in the middle of the movie, with no warning or context. We see Lorelei on her own in Webster’s office, reading Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, and she reflects, “How can he say that pure categories have no objective meaning in transcendental logic? What about synthetic unity?”

Then Webster opens the door, and she stuffs the book under a pillow, picks up a tabloid, and returns to her usual high-pitched baby talk. It’s completely incidental and actually a little distracting from the very important plot exposition that’s about to ensue, and I love it.

There are a few other places in the film where Lorelei’s dizzy-blonde mask slips, and her real personality emerges. In the ski resort scene, when Vera asks how they could get at Superman, Lorelei blurts out “Kryptonite,” then backtracks and babbles, “or… Kryptonham, or Kryptonheimer? I don’t know what you’d call it, but there’s this stuff that can, like, hurt Superman!” There’s another moment where she identifies that Gus’ blueprints are for a computer, and once they’ve got the big scary computer running, she knows how to turn it on.

The thing that I like most about these moments is that none of them are in the script; as far as David and Leslie Newman were concerned, Lorelei was the dippy broad that she appears to be. It was while they were filming that Richard Lester and Pamela Stephenson found a number of places in the film to let the character’s real personality to come through.

Obviously, this doesn’t exactly strike a blow for second-wave feminism, because the whole joke is that pretty blondes are stupid, and this one is unexpectedly smart. But I like that they gave this shallow stereotype some actual depth, and that it goes unexplained, and is left entirely to the viewer’s imagination.

And I have to say, I enjoy Vera as well. It took me rewatching the scenes a bunch of times, but one way or another, I’ve developed an unconditional positive regard for her. As I said the other day, Webster’s kind of a low-energy villain, just emitting his rich-and-suave-guy purr, and taking credit for everyone else’s ideas. Vera’s the one who comes storming down the stairs, tightly-wound and ready for battle.

It doesn’t last, of course; in the end, they pull her face apart and paint her silver, and then Superman, who I’ve been informed is supposed to save people from exactly that kind of circumstance, just zaps her with her own electrical power, and then throws her downstairs and forgets about her.

Still, at least that’s some kind of career advancement, which is better than a lot of women got in 1983. But who’s going to take care of all of those puppies?

Tomorrow:
Probably the bowling scene again
4.19: Still About Bowling


Footnotes:

Vera is played by Annie Ross, who has such a fascinating Wikipedia page that I’m not even going to try to summarize it very much; you should go and read it, and be amazed. It includes the sentence “At the end of 10th grade, she left school, changed her name to Annie Ross, and went to Europe, where she established her singing career,” with guest appearances by Count Basie and Lenny Bruce.

In the 1950s, Ross was a popular jazz singer, and formed an internationally famous vocal group called Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, who recorded seven albums. Here’s a video of one of their filmed performances. She is fantastic in it.

Lorelei is played by Pamela Stephenson, who is also fascinating and unsummarizable. She was a British comedian who became famous in the UK on the sketch show Not the Nine O’Clock News, and right after that she was in Superman III, and then she joined Saturday Night Live for a minute. She’s also a licensed psychologist with a specialty in Human Sexuality and Sex Therapy, she wrote a best-selling biography about her husband Billy Connolly, she did a travel show about backpacking through Papua New Guinea, she campaigned against food coloring in children’s confectionery, and here’s a video of her making fun of Kate Bush, very effectively.

I would also like to draw your attention to a thread on the askphilosophy subreddit about whether Lorelei’s line about Kant and synthetic unity actually means anything. The answer, as far as I can tell, is probably yes.

Tomorrow:
Probably the bowling scene again
4.19: Still About Bowling

Chapters

— Danny Horn

13 thoughts on “Superman III 4.18: Cats

  1. Lorelei Ambrosia letting her bimbo mask slip were some of the better parts of this movie. That said, I didn’t realize she had such an interesting past.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. I’ve never heard “puppies fighting in a sack” before but Benny Hill’s standard description of that anatomical phenomenon was similar: “Two kids fighting under a blanket.”

    Liked by 2 people

    1. A similar phrase was used, cattily and insultingly, in Steel Magnolias, where Olympia Dukakis describes another woman’s ungirdled rear region as “two hippos fightin’ under a blanket.” Because we wimmins, we just hate other wimmins! All the time! For no reason!

      Liked by 3 people

  3. That Kate Bush parody is one of the all-time great parodies in my book. And I say that as a huge Kate fan.

    I too found that Reddit thread after seeing the movie and wanting to know if Lorelei was saying something real there. I don’t have any idea how they came up with that dialogue, especially if it wasn’t in the script, but it’s definitely a coherent philosophical question, though perhaps awkwardly phrased/spoken.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. I’m a great fan of Annie Ross, and am in fact listening to Lambert, Hendricks and Ross sing “Mon Petit Bijou” even as I type this. But even I am not going to watch this movie again.

    Liked by 5 people

  5. “That’s all it takes to bring down civilization: one good-looking woman, simply existing in the world.”
    It happened to Troy. At least according to Homer.
    For some reason I can like comments but not posts so I want Danny to know I liked his post, particularly the footnotes. I had looked up Pamela Stephenson after the movie because I had never heard of her. Her character’s namesake, Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes notes, ” I can be smart when it’s important but most men don’t like it.” Maybe that was the inspiration.
    I think it was Superman’s “That wasn’t me” to her that truly did in this movie for me.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Which brings to mind a favorite quote from 1941’s Ball Of Fire, when Miss Bragg (the dowdy housekeeper) is trying to oust Sugarpuss O’Shea (the titular BOF);
      “That is the kind of woman that makes whole civilizations topple!”

      Liked by 3 people

  6. Unfortunately, this was considered feminism, or at least recognition of the concept, in the early eighties: a pastiche of Butch Lesbian and Blonde Bimbo, both of whom have had to learn to use the world’s perception of them to sneakily get what they can, while indulging their actual strengths and interests like guilty pleasures.

    The film tells women you’ve got to choose: a Lorelei gets the attention, the minks, the diamonds and the men, but the clock is ticking every second, and she must hide her actual assets–brains, insight, perception–like the boner killers they supposedly are while amassing as much lucre as possible in the rapidly closing window of youth and sexual allure. (Lorelei, by the way, is a name from myth that belonged to a seductive siren/mermaid that lured men to their doom.)

    If you’re a Vera, well, that sucks, but at least you don’t have to wear girdles and heels and dresses that slice you every which way and pretend to find boring, idiotic men fascinating. They already hate you, think you don’t deserve their lust, so you don’t have to focus on attracting it. You can just display your smarts and wear comfortable shoes and openly know about computers. The downside of course is that you can never be loved or found attractive and anyone who acts like they are taken in by you is a liar who is trying to trick you, which is a terrible way to go through life, but hey, next time get some tits, will ya?

    Liked by 5 people

  7. As far as I’m concerned, fan service (as anime fans call it) is a show bidness ploy to bring in teenage boys, who have always been the biggest movie audience. What’s concerning is bad writing that makes a woman’s appearance her only significant trait. It’s not hard to give a female character a personality, even an attractive one, so it’s pure laziness and misogyny to reduce her to her looks.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. I still shake my head sometimes at how downright regressive so much late 1970s/early 80s media was. In the thirties and forties, women who didn’t look like Barbies or Disney princesses, with strong features and even stronger presences like Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, and Lauren Bacall, were recognized as sexy, played strong women who held their own with men and usually bested them, and unless the plot called for it (Davis in NOW VOYAGER, where she starts out as a timid mother-dominated near spinster, but the story is all about her self discovery and progression from that), weren’t made Hollywood ugly.

    Liked by 1 person

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