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THE FAN (1981)

"Dear Miss Ross – I am your greatest fan because, unlike the others, I want nothing from you. The only thing that matters to me is your happiness…."

The FanDirector: Edward Bianchi

Starring: Lauren Bacall, Michael Biehn, Maureen Stapleton, James Garner, Hector Elizondo, Anna Maria Horsford, Kurt Johnson, Feiga Martinez, Kaiulani Lee

Screenplay: Priscilla Chapman and John Hartwell, based upon the novel by Bob Randall

Synopsis: As film and stage star Sally Ross (Lauren Bacall) leaves a theatre on Broadway, she is swamped by fans begging for autographs. One of them, a young woman, steals a pen from her and runs off. A block away, she is tripped by Douglas Breen (Michael Biehn), who takes the pen from her. At home, Douglas spends the evening writing yet another letter to Sally, with whom he is obsessed, complaining that she allows her secretary to answer his letters instead of doing it herself. In her own apartment, Sally, feeling lonely and depressed, tries calling her ex-husband, actor Jake Berman (James Garner), but gets only his answering machine. The next morning, Sally’s secretary, Belle Goldman (Maureen Stapleton), and her maid, Elsa (Feiga Martinez) greet her with a chorus of "Happy Birthday". Belle tells Sally that Jake called, and that he will pick her up for lunch. In the restaurant, Sally tells Jake that she has agreed to do a musical. The two then drift into discussing how their relationship went wrong. Sally is goaded into asking after Jake’s young girlfriend, and is stunned and hurt when he tells her they are getting married. That evening, Douglas’s sister (Kaiulani Lee) appears at his apartment, telling him his family is worried about him. When he shrugs this off, she accuses him of having lost the ability to tell reality from fantasy. Douglas slams the door on her and returns to his previous occupation: an imaginary dinner with Sally. A few days later, Belle is angered by another letter from Douglas, in which he abuses her and demands that Sally fire her for her rudeness to him. She tries to bring the letter to Sally’s attention, but Sally is pre-occupied with the rehearsals for her new musical. Douglas writes again, telling Sally that he wants to be her lover, and that he knows she wants this too. Belle writes him an abrupt response, informing him that she did not show Sally his letter and threatening him with the police if writes again. Douglas is furious. He decides to contact Sally directly, writing another letter and taking it to the studio where she is rehearsing. However, Sally isn’t there, and to Douglas’s anger, the letter ends up with Belle. Belle finally succeeds in getting Sally’s attention on the subject, but Sally accuses her of overreacting and being rude to a fan. Belle is hurt, pointing out to Sally how much she does for her that she never even notices. Sally apologises, and tells her simply to ignore Douglas’s letters from now on. But when Belle leaves the apartment that evening, Douglas is waiting for her. He follows her into the subway and, cornering her in a deserted walkway, produces a straight razor….

Comments: Sadly, The Fan is a film even more topical today than when it was made. We take stalkers for granted to such an extent these days that it makes it difficult to gauge this film on its merits (or lack thereof). Douglas Breen’s obsession with Sally Ross we can believe, all too easily. The problem is that it takes the other characters so long to react appropriately to the situation that they seem either suicidally stupid or criminally negligent. Can you imagine any star today taking so long to take letters such as Douglas’s seriously? Can you imagine one having nothing more effective than one of those silly little chain locks on her apartment door at any time, let alone after she knows she’s in definite danger? Can you imagine one reacting to her danger by doping her police guard and escaping to her very, very solitary beach-house? (Are we supposed to believe that The World’s Most Obsessive Fan doesn’t know about that place?) In fact, Sally Ross’s behaviour throughout is so dumb that it becomes hard to feel sympathetic towards her. This doesn’t exactly help a film that is already struggling to prove it’s more than "just" a horror movie. What worth The Fan has lies not in its overall story, or the way in which it plays itself out, but in its journey inside the mind of the stalker. The crumbling of Douglas Breen’s sanity, as he goes from being content to worship from afar, to imagining that Sally wants him in her life, to exploding into a violent fury when she, as he sees it, leads him on and rejects him, is chillingly conveyed. This aspect of The Fan is greatly bolstered by the casting of Michael Biehn, who gives Douglas exactly the right degree of surface innocuousness. You just know that the moment this story hits the newspapers, Douglas’s neighbours are going to be telling any reporter who’ll listen how "quiet" and "polite" he always was, and how he "kept himself to himself". The film gives us just enough of a glimpse of Douglas in "the real world" to let us understand how his hobby became his obsession. In one scene, Douglas rehearses a complaint about a co-worker in front of his mirror, trying to decide on the appropriate level of firmness and/or aggression to use. Of course, when it comes to the crunch, he can’t even open his mouth, let alone say anything of what he rehearsed. Some care is taken to establish the social ineptness and weakness that overlies Douglas’s monomania, and this pays off in the climactic scene when, cornered and with a knife at her throat, Sally Ross manages to hold her stalker at bay by the sheer force of her personality.

But apart from the psychological accuracy of its depiction of Douglas, The Fan hasn’t very much to offer. Indeed, although it has pretensions to being a "psychological thriller", the film is really just another slasher film. It’s less explicit than most of its era, which is a point in its favour, but in intent it’s no less nasty. In fact, the late seventies and early eighties saw a rash of films such as this: studio productions that used a reasonable budget, a few star names and a glossy surface to disguise the fact that at their core they were just as mean-spirited as their low budget cousins. Armed with a straight razor (thank you, Brian De Palma. By the way, does anyone outside of horror films actually own a straight razor, let alone use one?), Douglas gets to slash open the face of Sally’s secretary, nearly gut the guy who escorted her to a party, and finally kill Sally’s maid. The film’s nadir, however, is reached after Sally flees town to go into hiding. To lure her back, Douglas fakes his suicide. He does this by allowing himself to be picked up in a gay bar by a man who somewhat resembles him. The two retire to the alley behind the bar (on the way out we see a wall covered with pictures of famous people, including Sally Ross. All gay people are obsessed with Broadway stars, you know!), and Douglas butchers his hapless pick-up while he’s in the process of---well, let’s just say that, for his own sake, I hope Douglas was careful where he swung that razor. The victim is then immolated and left with a "suicide" note, all of which is accepted as genuine without, apparently, much of an investigation (guess the NYPD hadn’t heard of using dental records). The sheer tastelessness of this sequence robs The Fan of any pretensions towards being more than just a slasher (although, I confess, I derived a certain amusement from wondering how many gay bars Douglas had to cruise through before he got picked up by the "right type"). It also underscores its relationship to several other films of the era that aren’t exactly noted for their quiet good taste: Eyes Of Laura Mars, for one, which it fairly closely resembles; and then, of course, there’s Cruising…. [*shudder*]

The presence of Lauren Bacall lends The Fan an infinitely greater degree of class than it deserves. Bacall is good, even though her character is extremely problematical (this is discussed below at – warning! warning! – some length). Her musical numbers, typical of their time, are fairly embarrassing, but that’s not her fault. As mentioned previously, Michael Biehn is effective as Douglas, and there’s a surprisingly sympathetic performance from Hector Elizondo who, at this point in his career, was mostly playing terminal assholes. Elizondo plays the initially antagonistic police inspector put in charge of Sally’s case, who ends up getting a crush on her himself. The film’s best performance, however, unquestionably comes from Maureen Stapleton as Belle Goldman. Warm, funny and dependable, Stapleton’s Belle is thoroughly likeable, and Douglas’s attack upon her is doubly distressing as a consequence. Of the minor players, Kurt Johnson’s resemblance to Richard Thomas distracts from his performance; Feiga Martinez has a couple of nice moments as Sally’s maid; while those with sharp eyes can spot Dana Delaney as one of Douglas’s co-workers, and Griffin Dunne as an assistant at the dance studio where Sally rehearses (both appearances really too brief to qualify as "skeletons"). James Garner is largely wasted as Jake; he’s simply there to provide back-story. We are undoubtedly meant to like him, however, and this brings me to something that sincerely bothered me while I was watching this film.

The motion picture industry has, somewhat strangely, a long history of making "Hollywood is a terrible place" films. An offshoot of this is the "actors are terrible people" sub-genre, which typically spends its time telling us how actors (who are being played by actors, naturally) are selfish and conceited, and above all incapable of leading "normal" lives. The Fan fits neatly into this peculiar category. One of the main plot threads is Sally’s self-absorption and her fixation with her career. Ever noticed that when a woman in a film maintains a career, it’s always implied that she’s "obsessed" – that is, that her behaviour is somehow "unnatural"? When that career is acting, we get the double whammy – obsessed and conceited. In these cases, convention dictates that at some point in the film, the woman will express regret – or be accused of regretting – that she chose a career over being "just a woman". (The most infuriating and unbelievable instance of this particular convention is, IMHO, Margo Channing’s self-denunciation in All About Eve.) The Fan goes for the implicit route, showing us again and again that Sally’s "selfishness" is responsible for bringing unhappiness, terror and finally death to those people who care about her. Thus, when Belle tries to warn her about Douglas, Sally accuses Belle of being rude to her fans, indicating that she prefers the ego-massaging adoration of strangers to the genuine but critical affection of her secretary. By refusing to take any action against Douglas, Sally puts Belle directly into the firing line. Similarly, Sally takes up with a much younger man not because she cares about him, but in an effort to make her ex-husband jealous; as a consequence, the young man also becomes one of Douglas’s victims. And so on it goes. The most blatant point in this thread – and one of the most jaw-dropping cases of the double standard I’ve ever come across – is the scene in which we learn the reasons for the breakdown of Sally and Jake’s marriage. Nothing too surprising about it – just Sally putting her career before her marriage, not "being there" whenever Jake (an actor himself, remember) needed her. This might not be too objectionable in itself, but simultaneously we get a very clear picture of Jake’s current relationship with a much younger woman. He doesn’t really love her, we learn, but "I don’t want to be alone. She’s very bright, you know. And she’s very much in love with me. She’s very supportive. Always there. I need that." Oh, do you? Bully for you! But this isn’t all. Later, Jake decides he wants Sally back after all. Without determining how Sally feels about things, he assumes (correctly, needless to say) that she will immediately take him back, adding calmly that "Heidi’s on a plane back to California – it’s over." This is the girl he was engaged to, mind you! Yet never at any stage is Jake depicted as anything but a great guy, the "one that got away". The film never bats an eyelid at his selfishness, while Sally is pilloried for hers. In fact, the screenplay goes so far as to explicitly equate Sally’s "obsession" with her career with Douglas’s obsession with her, both of them derided as being, in Sally’s own words, "takers". Thus, the underlying implication of the film is that Sally "deserves" the punishment that Douglas inflicts upon her.

And yet – there’s something strange about the final scenes of The Fan. The final sequence is set against the opening night of Sally’s musical. Just in case we haven’t gotten the point of Jake and Sally’s reconciliation, we hear Sally singing a song called "Hearts, Not Diamonds" ("I always chased those diamonds/Hoping I would shine/Hearts were not my strongest suit/So you were never mine"). Douglas (presumed dead, you recall) is in the audience, and has every intention of killing the object of his obsession. Despite himself, however, Douglas is re-seduced by Sally’s performance, and ends up joining in the crowd’s rapturous standing ovation almost against his will. (We get perilously close to a Jabootuian "Informed Attribute" scene here, despite Bacall’s best efforts.) Afterwards, Sally is all alone in the theatre except for some cannon fodder---ah, minor characters, and Douglas reveals himself to her. We pause for one more moment of unspeakable stupidity (Sally grabs a prop whip, and strikes Douglas with it; she then – get this – drops it and lets him pick it up) before Douglas corners Sally and the final showdown takes place. Now, prior to all this, some trouble was taken to let the audience know not just that Jake was coming back, but precisely how long he would be. But strangely, he never shows up. Now, I don’t know about you, but this smells like "tampering with the novel" to me. What was meant to happen here? Was Jake meant to be the hero? Was Douglas meant to kill him, thus delivering Sally’s ultimate "punishment"? I can’t help wondering whether this is another case of a film’s ending testing badly in preview, and being changed at the last moment. Despite the fact that the ending as now it stands, low-key though it is, is rather effective, I’d really like to know what should have happened here. If anyone out there has read the novel, I’d appreciate an e-mail.

Footnote: Watching The Fan, it occurred to me that, perverse as it seems, films made not that long ago often manage to seem even more dated than ones that are much older. The opening scenes of this one deliver a one-two-three punch that’s very nearly a knockout. First, in a voiceover letter, we hear Douglas telling Sally that no matter what hour of the night one of her films comes on, he’s happy to sit up and watch it. Ah, those horror years before the VCR! Then we find out that Douglas is writing his letter on a typewriter (remember those?). And finally, it turns out that Douglas works in a record store. (Kids, ask your parents!) I was still recovering from this opening volley when another odd moment completely floored me. At one point, Douglas learns that Sally has left town by listening to a report on a gossip show (Liz Smith, voicing herself). The next item begins, "I’ll be back with news of another major star down in Sydney, Australia, whose antics---" before Douglas turns the show off. And I’m left thinking, HUH? WHA? I found that odd little non sequitur so distracting it nearly kept me from concentrating on the final third of the film. Not, I hasten to add, that this would have been any great loss….