Melanie Griffith: Dark Side of the Moon
In the town where I live there are two video stores. One is the kind that carries Melanie Griffith movies and one is the kind that doesn't. Oh, all right, they both carry Griffith's mainstream flicks Working Girl and Something Wild. But if you want to see vintage Griffith, prime Griffith, the Ur-Griffith that made Melanie the actress she is today--movies like Cherry 2000, Fear City, Joyride-- you have to visit the video store in the rundown part of town. The other video store doesn't cater to that kind of clientele.
This kind of hoity-toity attitude is unfair to Melanie, of course, but more to the point, it's unfair to her legions of fans, to those of us who have been with her since the beginning. Unlike those Johnny-come-lately aficionados who try to parse and pare the Griffith oeuvre--to act as if her career begins with Jonathan Demme's quirky 1986 hit Something Wild and Mike Nichols's 1988 let's-bash-Sigourney number Working Girl-- those of us who have been keeping an eye on Griffith, or at least an eye on certain parts of Griffith (the part with the tattoo) for a long time, see her films as a continuous, seamless body of work.
What we see is a Melanie Griffith who, from her very earliest days, from her first electrifying performance as a horny nymphet in Night Moves, to her riveting performance as a horny nymphet in The Drowning Pool, to her stunning performance as a horny stripper in Fear City, to her showstopping performance as a horny stripper in Body Double, to her mesmerizing role as a call girl who is not especially horny in Stormy Monday, has given shape and voice and body and soul to that quintessential American archetype: the culturally and politically disenfranchised bimbo. The type of girl who, as Griffith puts it in Working Girl, has "a mind for business and a bod for sin." Not necessarily in that order.
From the middle 1970s until the present, no American actress has shaken her bootie with as much verve, passion, and regularity as Melanie Griffith. Yet, unlike more vulgar, opportunistic performers, Griffith has injected these roles with pathos and compassion, even drawing crocodile tears from enthusiastic audiences filled with men and women who have known, or have themselves been, bimbos, and who recognize a performance that rings true. In the kingdom of the bimbo, Melanie Griffith reigns supreme, making ersatz bimbos like Valerie Perrine seem like pikers or, for that matter, ersatz bimbos As she once told a journalist, "There's a bit of a stripper in every woman." Well, maybe not my wife.
I don't know how much of the stripper in Melanie will come into play in her new one, John Schlesinger's Pacific Heights. It's a psycho-thriller in which she plays yuppie Matthew Modine's girlfriend. But the stripper in her did manage to find expression in Mike Nichols's Working Girl, in which she played yuppie Harrison Ford's girlfriend. And we're likely to see at least a hint of the stripper in her with Brian (Body Double) De Palma's Bonfire of the Vanities, in which she plays the prevaricating, hit-and-run mistress of ultra-yuppie Tom Hanks. That "bit of a stripper" in Melanie Griffith has genuine survival instincts.
But then, Melanie Griffith is, and has always been, a survivor. The daughter of actress Tippi Hedren and a socially prominent film producer/real estate developer named Peter Griffith, Melanie has had to overcome wealth, celebrity, Catholic boarding school, being in Robby Benson movies, receiving a small pine coffin with a tiny replica of her mother inside as a gift from the ever-thoughtful Alfred Hitchcock, a friendship with Warren Beatty, and the staggering pressures of growing up on an 180-acre ranch with a bunch of wild animals on it, as opposed to, say, East Los Angeles. Well maybe that's not such a good example. Anyway, among living Americans, only George Herbert Walker Bush--who had to deal with the stigma of being born into a wealthy family, named captain of the Yale baseball team, and being the grandson of a president of the U.S. Golf Association--has had to rise above more prejudice. It is a credit to Griffith that she has been as successful as she has in overcoming what must have seemed at times truly insurmountable odds.
Griffith did not want to grow up to be a famous actress whose sexual charge, in the words of the English magazine Time Out, "could pick up confetti on a comb, and turn a man's saliva to gravy." In a 1975 interview with Seventeen magazine, she explained that she wished to attend the Sorbonne and study philosophy. But then at age 18 she got married to Don Johnson, a good-looking actor eight years her senior who had never told Seventeen or anyone else that he wanted to study at the Sorbonne. At the time, Johnson was a virtually unknown vegetarian who could not get any good parts in movies, probably because directors and producers alike thought he would lose them a lot of money. Now, of course, Johnson is very well known.
With the Sorbonne and philosophy on the back burner, Griffith devoted herself to her craft. The road would not be easy. There would be bouts with drugs and alcohol, estrangement from Johnson, more bouts with drugs and alcohol, another marriage, motherhood, reunion with Johnson, many, many leg waxings, and articles in People magazine unfairly dwelling on those bouts with drugs and alcohol. Griffith, who, in addition to being married to Johnson twice has been mauled by a lion once, has clearly seen the dark side of the moon--as have those who have watched her movies.
But all through the dark times, Griffith never allowed personal misfortune to interfere
with her art. Throughout her hegira in the artistic wilderness, when she could not get parts in films like Working Girl or The Milagro Beanfield War, or the new Pacific Heights, or the upcoming Bonfire of the Vanities, or next year's Michael Douglas project Shining Through, Griffith worked hard to hone and polish a screen persona that is as unique in its way as the larger-than-life screen personas of John Wayne, Bette Davis, Greta Garbo, and Fred MacMurray. That persona is the instantly recognizable Griffith Girl: a trashy babe in black underpants and matching garter belt with a squeaky voice, a butt that is not to be trifled with, and a heart as wide as Asia. Breast size and tattoo configuration may vary from film to film.
Obiously not everyone is a Melanie Griffith fan. "How could anyone live with a woman who has a voice like that?" is the question my wife asked when she saw me watching Working Girl one evening. It was a legitimate inquiry and yet it reminded me only too well why my wife is an English chartered accountant with two small children and not a handcuff-toting lollapalooza who has turned men's saliva into gravy in an endless succession of torrid flicks. Because, frankly, it's just too easy to pick on Griffith's voice and make remarks like, "She sounds like a three-year-old."