TRANSLATION OF
“O ESTADO DE SÃO PAULO”
ARTICLE

WRITTEN BY MARCELO BERNARDES
PUBLISHED JUNE 4 2001


NEW YORK – Well before sex, lies and videotape, the Brothers Coen and A Spike Lee Joint, before Harvey Weinstein’s fabulous Miramax machine transformed The Crying Game and Pulp Fiction into boxoffice bonanza, before Sundance frenzy or the Academy Awards of 1996 when indies assaulted the Oscars and 15 years before Traffic, an offbeat film from Brazil revolutionized non-studio movies in America. Yet the watershed effect of Kiss Of The Spider Woman upon the world of independent film has never been acknowleged, likely because it came out so ahead of the curve the term “indie-film” did not yet exist.

Sixteen years after it won the hearts of critics, and even managed to upset the then-residents of the White House (Ronald and Nancy Reagan screened the film at the recommendation of Press Chief Mike Deaver, but were so shocked by its subject-matter they walked out mid-reel), Kiss Of The Spider Woman returns to U.S. theaters –- opening June 29 on two New York screens and three in Miami –- and by mid-September it will have played fourteen major markets. Responsible for this bold private undertaking is the film’s producer David Weisman: “I’d rather let a new generation of movie-lovers discover the film’s uniqueness, than have MGM or Fox release the DVD and watch Spider Woman get buried forever among the thousands of other titles in their library.”

As “premiere” of this upcoming revival, The Human Rights Watch has set Spider Woman as their gala benefit fundraiser event at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall, on June 13 2001. A week later Frameline Festival will screen Kiss at the San Francisco Opera House’s Herbst Theater, with an homage to Sonia Braga attended by the City’s Mayor, followed by screenings at the New York Museum of Modern Art and another gala benefit the Smithsonian Institute, for the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts in Washington DC.

Spider Woman deals with the relationship between two inmates – one a political activist undergoing torture by the authorities, the other a flamboyant queen obsessed by Hollywood movies of the 1940s – trapped together in a dreary prison-cell in some unidentified South American country. Adapted by screenwriter Leonard Schrader from the novel by reknowned Argentine author Manuel Puig, starring William Hurt, Raul Julia, Sonia Braga, plus a fine supporting cast of Brazilian actors, filmed entirely in Sao Paulo, Spider Woman was the first completely independent production ever honored with Academy Award Nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, Best Screenplay. Apart from winning the Oscar for Best Actor, first ever for portrayal of a gay character, Hurt also won the Best Actor prize at Cannes, and Best Actor at the BAFTA plus the Davide di Donatello, Oscar-equivalents in the UK and Italy.

“The indie explosion was still a decade away in 82,” Weisman recalls of the time he began developing Kiss with Babenco, Puig and Schrader. “Harvey and Bob were selling Erendíra (a steamy Portuguese-language item by Ruy Guerra), Bob Shaye’s New Line was doing Freddy Krueger; The big kid on the art-film block was The boring and complacent Samuel Goldwyn Company (which never once took a chance on a thing) and Quentin Tarantino was barely out of high-school.”

Weisman has rejection letters from now-defunct companies like Orion and Lorimar and from studios like Columbia and Universal who had no real interest in an artfilm from Brazil. “Lots of people in Hollywood expressed admiration for the script, but no one seriously wanted to get involved with the subject matter,” he reveals, “and I mean thank God for that, because if we had gotten studio financing I’m sure that Kiss would never have seen the light of day.” Made for an equity mix of US dollars and Brazilian cruzeiros worth about 1.2 million (“Let’s face it, Miramax spent twice that amount this year on Oscar trade-ads for Chocolat,” Weisman points out) Kiss wound up with a $17 million boxoffice gross in the United States and would have done double that or more, had its release not collided unexpectedly with the onslaught of homevideo -- which was about to change the theatrical distribution and exhibition business in America forever.

Filmed in 102 days (well over the 63 day schedule originally planned) with turbulent battles between Babenco and Hurt (well-known in Sao Paulo during shooting was that Hurt stopped speaking to the director, communicating exclusively through an interloquitor), the arduous job of editing Spider Woman took fourteen months. “A studio would have shelved the film as an unsalvageable mistake. Getting the film to work was an unbelievably complicated process,” explains Weisman, “As intricate as weaving a spider web.”

In August 1984, after a screening for the New York Film Festival selection committee (who wanted the movie for their closing night event), a version of Kiss of the Spider Woman that ran 40 minutes longer than its final length had a chilly reception and was turned down. That same day another fateful screening took place for Raul Julia and his agent Jeff Hunter, and Gene Parseghian (Hurt’s agent). “When the lights came up nearly three hours later, Raul was white-faced, barely able to conceal his fury,” Weisman remembers. “What happened to all our great work?” the actor demanded. “You’ve got to do something to save the film or it will destroy their careers,” the agents implored.

Finally the editorial problems were overcome and the film found its proper rhythm; it was then selected for official competion at Cannes in May of 1985, where the dark-horse Babenco film went up against Emir Kusterica’s When Father Was Away On Business –- which won the Palm d’Or that year -- Paul Schrader’s Mishima (co-written by Spider Woman screenwriter Leonard Schrader), Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider, Alan Parker’s Birdie, Jean-Luc Godard’s Detective and Isvan Szabo’s Colonel Redl, among others.

With the buzz around the Cannes Festival, US rights to Kiss of the Spider Woman were acquired by Island, a small company new to film distribution. CBS, who had just set up a Theatrical divison in an attempt to create a new major studio and was eager to make some noise at Cannes, picked up the picture’s international distribution rights. Since Island did not have their $1.5 million guarantee in pocket, they went looking for the money; Avco-Embassy covered 75% of Island’s acquisition price in exchange for the film’s domestic TV rights – including the rights to homevideo, a market still in its infancy.

The director and producer both believed their deal with CBS would open doors in the international marketplace for them. “But many territorial distribtors approached us at Cannes, complaining that CBS was selling Kiss in a package of mediocre films that nobody wanted,” Weisman remembers. Shortly afterward CBS shuttered their movie division after considerable losses. Consequently, it’s impossible today to trace the international boxoffice results of Kiss of the Spider Woman.

Kiss had its US premiere at Cinema I in New York on July 26 1985, with spectacular reviews from critics like Janet Maslin of The New York Times. The owners of the theater were amazed by the lines around the block and added more shows which were sold out until dawn, Quite a few well known faces were spotted waiting on line to see the film including actors like Dom DeLuise and Mickey Rooney.

The film earned $109,000 in its first week at Cinema I, breaking the house record previously set four years earlier by On Golden Pond during Christmas week, the year’s busiest, while the mid-summer opening of Kiss of the Spider Woman wasnot exactly prime playtime for an artfilm.

Preceding the LA premiere, Hollywood’s biggest stars crowded the Directors Guild screening of Spider Woman -- including Jack Lemmon, Robert Redford, Barbar Streisand and Elizabeth Taylor. Warren Beatty (who adored Manuel Puig) and Jack Nicholson ( wjo later did Ironweed with Babenco) had their own private screenings.

Three months after it opened the business done by Kiss showed no signs of weakening, a phenomenon for an artfilm, and by the end of the year, with only 167 prints, the movie had grossed $10.5 million and it was awards-time: The film first got four Golden Globe nominations followed by an unprecedented four Academy Award Nominations. By Oscar time in March 1986, Kiss of the Spider Woman was playing in over 400 theaters, a record for an independent film.

But the movie was facing a big problem: Six months after the film’s first theatrical date, Avco-Embassy had the right to release Kiss on homevideo, a media which by early 1986 had exploded on the market. Island persuaded Avco to delay the video release til after the Oscars. The exhibitors had just declared war on incursion of the video-market, drawing a “line in the sand” that said if it’s on the video-shelf, it’s off the screen. One week after Hurt won his Best Actor Oscar, the video was shipped. At a time when the film should have gone on to do its biggest business, all prints were yanked by exhibitors and Kiss of the Spider Woman was suddenly gone from the theaters. Shortly after the video release, Island was sold and the film vanished from the marketplace for 15 years. Nowadays it’s rare to even find a video copy in decent shape, even from collectors on the internet. Then last year, when the rights reverted, Babenco and Weisman formulated a strategy to keep the film from falling into another black hole. After hearing various proposals from the likes of MGM and Miramax, who sought to release the DVD but were unwilling to take a shot on theatrical re-issue, they closed a deal with Strand Releasing, a small specialty distrivutor based in Santa Monica.

“We have this tree that keeps growing and bears wonderful fruit,” says Weisman. “All that most distributors really want is the ‘current harvest’ for their library -- without caring if the tree lives or dies, “ he adds. “Instead of tossing it into the DVD basket of some big company, we prefer to bring it again to the light.”

In a Variety interview Marcus Hu, president of Strand, commented about the film’s importance. “The re-release of Kiss of the Spider Woman is a about celebration of independent film,” he states. “We want people to have an opportunity to discover or see again on the big screen one of the most important independent films ever made.”