The Look: Theresa Russell

An afternoon of tantalizing fashion and frank talk with the star of Whore, director Ken Russell's antidote to Pretty Woman.



Theresa Russell is an enigma. My friend Steve unwittingly confirmed this for me when I asked if he knew who she was. His eyes lit up instantly. "Oh yeah. Oh, sure, that incredibly erotic actress."

What did he know about her, I asked. "Umm... Southern California beauty, but with something else, something strange...Great pout. Great hair. Great body. I saw her take off her clothes in that one film..." I pressed him. Which film? But Steve couldn't name that or any Theresa Russell film. "How about Bad Timing?" I asked, knowing that no one who actually saw that twisted movie would forget it. Steve shook his head. "Insignificance?" No. "Track 29?" No. "Black Widow?" "Oh--yeah," Steve said. "The Debra Winger cop film." Indeed, that Debra Winger cop film, in which Russell played a serial murderess who feels really bad about every husband she knocks off, is the closest she's come to a commercial break-through. "Theresa's married to that sixty-something eccentric British filmmaker," I hinted broadly to Steve. Perhaps too broadly. "Of course," he smiled. "Ken Russell." "No, the other sixty something eccentric British filmmaker. Nic Roeg. But she just made a film with Ken Russell. About a prostitute." "Pretty Woman?." Steve ventured. "Was she in that?"

The new Russell film (make that Ken or Theresa) is called Whore, and the title's not the only thing about it that's diametrically opposed to the prettiness of Pretty Woman. There are so many people who won't like this film. It's the grim flip side to Pretty Woman's romantic fantasy, a look at the sordid realities of a prostitute's life, and it's meant to shock in fine Ken Russell tradition. It revels in situations and language that would make the Diceman blush. Theresa likes that about it. "I think the film should be shown to the same eighth graders who are seeing Pretty Woman three or four times," she says. "Because in some ways Pretty Woman glamorized that life. Richard Gere is not going to pick you up in his Ferrari on Hollywood Boulevard. Whore is the non-fairy tale version of the same story. It says, 'This is not a wise career move.' "

Theresa's right, of course. After I saw Whore, I went home feeling guilty about being a white male, or a male, period--which is a politically correct if impractical sentiment. I switched on the TV in time to catch an insipid teen comedy called "Beverly Hills 90210," in which rich girls contemplated turning tricks up on the Boulevard--so they could meet Richard Gere. I began to ponder Ken Russell's shock tactics in Whore. Twice in this film, men vomit in the general direction of Theresa's character. Once would just be Ken Russell excess. Twice-- that's him saying something heavy. He must mean that men are loathsome, sorry creatures. Men are pigs. Yes. So Theresa Russell is saving teen girls from their own worst instincts (exactly the ones exploited by Hollywood men), while Julia Roberts is getting Oscar nominations.

I want to understand Theresa Russell better. In fact, after watching so many of her remarkable films, I'd settle for understanding her at all. But we're sitting in the dressing room of the photographer's studio between shots, and all I can think is, I wonder which outfit Theresa will put on next? I reach out to touch the fabric of a dress hanging on a rack. I hope she doesn't notice. She's smoking cigarettes, which are perhaps responsible for her throaty, Bacall-like voice, and waiting for me to ask a coherent question. I contemplate talking about her past. I read that when she was a teenager she lived with a psychiatrist. What does this tell us? But she doesn't think much of dredging up ancient history. "Who the hell should care?" she wonders with a smile. "I mean, I prefer not to have to do interviews at all. My answers about the past are going to be the same. 'Read the other interviews.' That's what I feel like saying. But I like to read about people. So I understand that perverse curiosity."

I believe that she does. That's why my face is red. So I ask her instead how she got involved with Whore. "The script unnerved me," Russell says. "But that was part of the reason that I couldn't not do it. I turned it down once, but then I thought, 'I won't be able to live with myself.' Ultimately, when I'm afraid of something, I have to go and do it." And you have to imagine that an actress so in tune with Nic Roeg that she married him and stars in his films on a regular basis can't be afraid of much. Russell's ongoing search for films that scare her enough to excite her is one reason she ends up making films in which she gets to do things-- not just play the love interest of the hero. "I'm not interested in being the appendage of the main male actor," she says. "How fucking boring. So I turn those parts down right away, and they tend to be about 90 percent of the scripts I get."

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