The Sunday Times - 23rd March 1980
When Deborah Harry made her first film, Union City, early last year she was already famous in the U.K. as lead singer of the pop group Blondie, but still comparatively obscure in her native America. Then, before the film was finished, her number Heart of Glass made her equally celebrated in the USA. But her film role turned out to be at odds with her Blondie image. Francis Wyndham reports.
When Deborah Harry sang "Oh oh oh oh what are we going to do? Union Union Union City Blue" on the best track of a recent Blondie album, it is possible that even those of her fans who could make out the words were at a loss to understand what they meant. In fact she was referring to the experience, early last year, of making a film on location in Union City - a small town on the outskirts of New York with the same depressing atmosphere as the place in New Jersey where she herself grew up and from which she hoped she had escaped for ever.
The song was written long after the film was finished. It duly became another Blondie hit, but the film mysteriously failed to appear. When Deborah Harry accepted her role as Lillian Harlan in Union City she was already familiar to British viewers of Top of the Pops, but the Blondie group was not yet taken seriously in America. By the time that shooting had finished, its number Heart of Glass had taken off in the USA as well. The sudden success of the Blondie act, with its deadpan style, its suggestion of prettified punk and its ironic visual references to Marilyn Monroe, established Deborah Harry as the pop pin-up of 1979. It would seem that Mark Reichert - author and director of Union City, the movie containing Deborah Harry's first dramatic performance - had unexpectedly found himself the owner of a valuable property. But it proved even harder to secure distribution for his film than it would have done if nobody had ever heard of its female star. What had gone wrong?
Reichert's personality is attractively earnest, innocently bewildered, mildly obsessive. Born in 1948, he was brought up in the Pennsylvania coalfields and has been both a musician (playing drums with his own band as a teenager) and a painter (showing collages at the Gotham Book Mart, New York, when he was 21). His first film was an experimental short called Silent Sonata, mimed by his wife Sally to a John Cage score. He professes a great admiration for Jean Cocteau, and although he lacks the latter's light touch he is saved from pretentiousness by a Candide-like quality and a certain knockabout charm.
A central obsession for Reichert is a script he himself wrote called Wings of Ash, based on the life of Antonin Artaud, founder of the Theatre of Cruelty. This was shown to Dennis Hopper, who expressed some early interest in it, but later changed his mind. Then, while wandering about Paris, Reichert came across his friend Peter Beard sitting at a cafe table with Francis Bacon and Mick Jagger. Jagger liked the idea of playing Artaud, and allowed Reichert to film one scene from the script: a conversation between Artaud (Jagger) and a Freudian analyst (Dennis Lipscomb) in a bedroom at the house of Anais Nin. This cryptic exchange, short as a trailer and sandwiched between two sets of voluminous credits, was shown to various potential patrons.
An admirer of Reichert's painting, Monty Montgomery, formed a production company named Kinesis Ltd to make the rest of Wings of Ash, but Jagger's concert commitments frustrated his availability at the crucial moment. Reichert and Montgomery decided that, having got so far, they might just as well go ahead and make a film of some kind, so Reichert dashed off a script adapted from a short story by Cornell Woolrich called The Corpse Next Door. (Woolrich also wrote the stories on which Hitchcock's Rear Window and Truffaut's The Bride Wore Black and Mississippi Mermaid were based.) Reichert renamed it The Victim's Tuxedo, changed the period from the 1930s to the 1950s and grafted some atmospheric subtleties onto the original rather bald anecdote. The outcome is a macabre psychological comedy-thriller set in a block of claustrophobic apartments in a seedy suburb. The central character is a neurotic accountant, pathetically lacking in confidence but with an unpleasantly bullying streak, who cannot satisfy his "ravishingly dreary" wife. He is driven by irritation into an act of violence; the story charts his mental and moral collapse.
Dennis Lipscomb was cast in the male lead. Reichert wanted his own wife to play the sluttish, sexy Lillian, but she wasn't considered sufficiently bankable. By chance he went to a pop concert in New York where one of the supporting groups - far below the headliners - turned out to be Blondie. He thought the lead singer had dormant star quality, and tested her for the part. The test was excellent, and soon Deborah Harry was making the daily journey to Union City, the location which eventually gave the film its new title. Chris Stein, of the Blondie group, wrote the background music.
"The atmosphere was so tense on the set! It was just great. Except that, when it was all over, none of the actors would speak to me." When he says this, Mark Reichert sounds both proud and surprised. He supervised a first cut of the film, and was satisfied with the result. Then, control over his movie began to slip out of his grasp. The film was cut again, this time in order to give greater prominence to the secondary role of Lillian. Could any of her scenes be re-edited so as to appear not totally at variance with the cool, glamorous Blondie image which filmgoers would now expect to see? In one, alone in her room and wearing only her underclothes, she touchingly decks herself with gladioli, lost in an erotic fantasy drawn from Hollywood B pictures. In another, she dyes her mousy hair platinum blonde, hoping that by altering her appearance she may change the circumstances of her life. Later revisions, by reducing the importance of the central figure of the husband, made the story-line (which was full of ambiguities from the start) almost incomprehensible. At the same time, the character of Lillian remained stubbornly drab, disastrously different from the glossy inaccessible idol projected by the Blondie act.
Reichert was allowed to participate in a third cut, a kind of compromise in which some of the original balance was restored; but inevitably a certain lack of clarity lingers on as regards the motivation of the leading characters. Meanwhile, Deborah Harry has made another film, Roadie, with a three million pound budget (as opposed to the half million which Union City cost), in which she appears with the other members of Blondie as a pop group. And Mark Reichert has a new obsession. He wants to make a film written by the poet George Macbeth about Harry Crosby, a patron of literature and the arts in the Twenties and Thirties, who committed suicide. He thinks it could be done on a budget of two million pounds.