Hollywood, the Thirties: a washed-up former movie director, referred to as the Boy Wonder (Richard Dreyfuss), is reduced to making pornographic short films in his about-to-be-condemned rented mansion. His stars are Harlene, a wisecracking flapper par excellence who supports herself by waitressing and her habit by actressing, and Rex, a stupid and egotistical no-talent whose sideline is grave-digging. In the midst of the day’s shooting, producer Big Mac arrives; since he is paying the bills he can’t be thrown off the set. With Mac is a woman he introduces as his “fiancée – maybe”, Miss Cathy Cake. Mac, as usual, has brought Harlene’s paycheck in the form of a packet of white powder. This time, she overdoses, and while Mac (Bob Hoskins) and Rex (Stephen Davies) are away disposing of the body, Cathy Cake undertakes to seduce the supposedly impotent (owing to the failure of his career, and his massive intake of alcohol) Boy Wonder.
This intricately structured film, written and directed by John Byrum, is both an allegorical representation of the film industry and an extended metaphor in which each character is an archetype, portraying the various ways in which individuals relate to Art with a capital A.
Harlene (Veronica Cartwright) represents the artist of real but abused talent. Despite her junk habit she is a professional – out of her dress and ready to start work the minute she arrives; listening intently as the Boy Wonder explains the purpose of a shot; getting it on the first take – even Big Mac recognizes that she is a “good little worker.”
Harlene’s affair with the Boy Wonder is part of their shared past. Refusing to believe that he can’t or won’t resume it, she gently tries to arouse him, which he tolerates up to a point but finally, patience exhausted, dumps her from his lap onto the floor. Her expression at that moment is worth the price of admission.
She is also a clown. When the wind-up camera grinds to a halt, destroying an intense scene, she rips her slip open and makes a ridiculous face to distract the director from his exasperation at having to rewind. Of the two women Harlene is by far the more sympathetic character: loving, generous, supportive, naïve, spontaneous, a little dumb. Her honesty, her humor and openness, her already anachronistic flapper attire and giddy ways, are all endearing. Although worldly-wise on the surface, she is essentially an innocent with the fabled heart of gold.
Cathy Cake (Jessica Harper), on the other hand, is dangerous and weird, a pasty-faced caricature of innocence, a bisque doll who plays the lady while casting sidelong glances at Rex’s crotch.
Cathy’s coy ways disguise her twisted motivations and insidious intent. Although she aspires to be an actress, she realizes her total lack of talent and creativity, admitting that her liaison with Big Mac is a stratagem designed to bring her the opportunities that her own efforts cannot. But this ambition to be in the movies can be furthered at the same time as her new goal: once she learns that the Boy Wonder is theoretically incapable of sexual relations, she sets out to get him into bed. She proposes to meet the challenge of reawakening his desire if he, in exchange, will put her in front of the camera and take on the much more daunting challenge of teaching her “to be great.” The longest sequence of the film consists of her amazing relentless campaign to this end.
Cathy has already demonstrated plenty of what may be termed psychic vampirism: she wanted to go watch Harlene shoot up; when the director was arguing with Big Mac she watched them as if a spectator at a tennis match. She breaks the Boy Wonder down by digging at his feelings for Harlene, his doubts about himself as a creative artist, his agoraphobia, and every other weak spot she can detect in him. Just when all this psychological probing gets to be too much, Cathy switches tactics and displays a dazzling array of manipulative and exploitive ploys. The ultimate irony of Cathy Cake is that she is indeed a superb and inspired actress – everywhere but in front of the camera.
Eventually Cathy succeeds in gaining the Boy Wonder’s confidence, and his body, along with causing a painful misunderstanding, and a lot of trouble for them both on Big Mac’s return. Even in the heat of passion she is true to her vampire nature – when the Boy Wonder wants to nuzzle and kiss, she pushes his head back in order to observe his face in the flushed and vulnerable erotic state. Her quintessential line, repeated several times throughout the film, is, “I want to see it all.” Her zombie-like appearance during the first scene was exactly right: she is an example of intelligence and curiosity with no ruling consciousness; out of control, like some monstrous child. Cathy’s outstanding trait is this half-voyeuristic, half-vampiristic need to feed on the pain of others. Archetypally, she is the Fan: this quality of being an emotion junkie is what going to the movies is all about.
the Inserts poster