Monday, December 17, 2012

Enchantéd, Pt. I: A Diane Franklin Retrospective Tribute

Enchantéd: A Retrospective Tribute to Diane Franklin
I. Introduction

Welcome to Irving Elementary School in Mesa, Arizona, the mecca of my mid-1990s adolescence. A hip-in-hindsight gym teacher named Schumacher (I will politely refrain from further connotations) introduces unsuspecting students to Elvis Costello for the first time in between Martika (not “Toy Soldiers,“ but her cover of “I Feel the Earth Move”) and Marcia “Electric Boogie” Griffiths. At nearby Taylor Jr. High, drama club students prove themselves not too ashamed to rock out to debut albums by Slipknot and System of a Down. A kamikaze camcorder-lensed production of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” thrusts an awkward but passionate boy to his first lead acting role. That boy develops his first genuine crush on a cute girl named Dawn with long brown hair and braces, exhibits mad flash card skills and gets his first underage sip of grape wine from his older sister’s friend. To this day, I have exhausted a variety of cough medicines in a futile attempt at recapturing that first transcendent, fruit of the vine-flavored hiccup.

Phys ed mix tapes and childhood prohibition were not the only surprise influence on my adult tastes. One of my teachers was kind enough to reward us with a film screening. Actually, there were two of them, and my memory serves me well enough to recall the features on display. One was animated, the other live-action, but the two of them remain benchmark moments in the progress of an adolescent movie geek.

The earliest was The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Movie from 1979, which was essentially an anthology film celebrating animator Chuck Jones’ most memorable gags and concepts. The fresh hare of Bel Air himself introduced several classic shorts in a straightforward manner, exposing me to the madcap highs of Duck Amuck, Long-Haired Hare, Robin Hood Daffy, and What’s Opera, Doc? for the very first time. There wasn’t enough time to get around to the Road Runner part of the feature, which I soon came to realize was just a lengthy montage of foiled Wile E. Coyote traps that taught me further lessons about the economy of a six-minute cartoon. The Bugs shorts were brilliant, though, especially the ones where he used opera to vanquish his enemies under the deathless alter egos of Leopold and Brunhilde.

Although live-action and animation proved easy to integrate based on the evidence of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, I was curious as to whether or not you could graft the timing and inventiveness of the Looney Tunes world upon a flick set in the physical world. I wished my real life could have the unpredictability of a Bugs Bunny short so bad, but I wasn’t going to get crushed by a boulder to live such a dream. As for dressing in drag…well, I considered that open to negotiation.

I don’t recall who it was, sadly, as I feel I owe this person some unresolved show of kindness. But there was teacher with a VHS copy of Better Off Dead… (not some previously viewed copy of the initial Key Video tape, but the “20th Century Fox Selections” reissue which isolated a color copy of John Cusack’s trash-bound mug for the cover). I may have noticed it on Comedy Central a few times, but watching it in a classroom and in the aftermath of The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Movie proved that one could indeed make a consistently animated teen comedy and not be named John Hughes. It guess it’s an advantage if you refer to yourself as Savage Steve Holland (hey, I remember him from the WWF!) and were responsible for the cheeky Whammy interstitials from the old game show Press Your Luck (“It’s coming to me now, I see financial disaster in your future!”).

Better Off Dead… was entertaining enough as a funhouse-mirror grotesquerie of teenage romantic fantasy, with oddball flights of fancy and droll comic performances from a cabal of fine character actors. And yet, before I could finish singing “Jacques the Monkey,” along come a face I never saw before on film, a beatific and vivacious creampuff adorned with a curly brown crown. Her eyes equaled her locks in their sepia allure, and a wider shot displayed a set of gams that were hotter than damn. A natural beauty if there ever was one, I came to remember the character as Monique Junot, the French princess of Northern California who proved the equal of Cusack’s Lane Meyer in terms of beguiling, offbeat charisma. Who was the young woman behind this unsung teen dream from what I learned was a certified cult classic? What enchantress initially had me begging for mercy but finally compelled me to cry “Enchanté”?

Being a mere child of the 1980s didn’t stop Diane Franklin from captivating my lovesick preteen self, which must have happened to a select group of people who genuinely grew up during that decade.

At the age of 19, Franklin was an NYU student who bailed out on a chemistry test to audition for a Golan/Globus production called The Last American Virgin, writer/director Boaz Davidson’s Americanized remake of his 1978 foreign hit Lemon Popsicle. Having pursued modeling, theatre and commercial acting ever since her early childhood, Franklin’s 1982 feature debut was as striking for its female lead’s vibrant beauty as it was for her character Karen’s devastating choice in an affair of the heart. The anticlimactic downer of that film was succeeded by the more tragic trajectory of the same year’s Amityville II: The Possession, in which she played Patricia Montelli (a character based loosely on the oldest daughter of the tragic DeFeo clan), the sheltered female progeny of a wildly dysfunctional family whose indignities rendered her both dead before her time and a lost soul.

It took one little-seen trek to New Zealand (1984’s Second Time Lucky), two 1983 movie-of-the-week productions (Deadly Lessons, Summer Girl) and a turbulent battery of overseas screen tests for Milos Forman’s Amadeus before Diane Franklin went to read for what by all rights should have been her breakthrough role: Monique Junet in Savage Steve Holland’s Better Off Dead… At the very least, we could’ve seen a spike in the number of 13-year-old boys all over the country learning a second language. It grossed an underwhelming $10 million domestically despite having a kid brother in the next year’s One Crazy Summer (a deleted scene from which reunited Franklin with John Cusack). It’s a testament to the film’s post-theatrical fan base in my mind that someone at Irving Elementary School in red state Arizona thought to screen this film in front of me at one of the most quietly desperate periods in my entire life.

Growing up in the waning VHS era under the tutelage of Videohound’s Golden Movie Retriever was invaluable, but I never had the chance to taste the complete fruits of Franklin’s career as a boy. The only other title I noticed on cassette was one that gave her top billing alongside Bud the C.H.U.D. and Mary Bland, a 1986 Charles Band production called TerrorVision, and it had me thinking she could have been a glorious chameleon in the tradition of all the more prominent performers I watched adamantly, from Brad Dourif to Michael Moriarty. 1989’s blockbuster comedy Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure was her last shot at prominence, playing one of the comely English princesses rescued from the “Royal Ugly Dudes” but with criminally less screen time than was afforded to Monique. I don’t believe she was included in the cast list for Savage Steve Holland’s 1989 effort How I Got Into College in either Videohound or the Video Movie Guide. I struggled not to forget her upon transitioning to the DVD realm, where I finally saw The Last American Virgin for the first time, and my memories Better Off Dead… helped in that regard.

Diane Franklin was never part of the “Brat Pack” of 1980s icons nor was she pigeonholed in any particular genre. The character roles I would have liked to see outside of mere love interests were minimal. The nineties allowed her a quiet retreat into a wedded life with screenwriter Ray De Laurentis and the birth of two kids (one of whom, Olivia, currently directs short films and is a big Flight of the Conchords fan to boot). Diane has nowadays kept acting and producing all in the family, with her time devoted to coaching young actors, public speaking, taking part in conventions, and just being a loving, nurturing mother. But there is a generation who remember Mrs. Franklin with the greatest fondness, and have in turn passed on her filmography to future children of the world. These children are in their late-twenties and have a great deal of adoration and respect for the wonderful world of cinema and their participants, letter grade denominations be damned. You didn’t need to rely on the Internet to become a seeker or scholar, but you had to have tons of misspent free time and a rapacious hunger for strange new or old worlds on celluloid.

This is why I’m really gracious and deathlessly enthused that Diane Franklin has written and self-published a micro-memoir called Diane Franklin: The Excellent Adventures of the Last American, French-Exchange Babe of the 80s. Having previously tested the waters as a Collector’s Edition item at conventions, said book is available in paperback or Kindle form exclusively at Amazon. I guess some may consider it marginal, but it is such a rich read. More than just a nostalgic embrace of and astutely observational review of a show biz career, Diane’s book can be taken as an educational guide for aspiring stars, a copious supply of fan-friendly anecdotes and an experience-certified critique of her many ingénue/siren personae. A lot of sincerity, passion and hindsight went into this book, which is also graced with various photos of Diane throughout the years and prologues from both Michael Picarella, director of a 2006 independent movie Punchcard Player that starred Mrs. Franklin as “Sweetheart,” and Savage Steve Holland himself, who indeed removes the quotes and pays respect to her exuberance.

(Side note: Franklin can be heard on Cult Radio a Go Go hosting a program celebrating fellow “Babes of the 1980s.” Guests I’ve heard from thus far include the likes of Mary Woronov, Amanda Wyss and Kimmy Robertson, all three of whom co-starred with Franklin in many of the previously mentioned movies).

The time is right for a retrospective in honor of Diane Franklin, but I can’t say this one is going to be fully complete, either. Not available commercially are the TV movies Deadly Lessons, a murder mystery which co-starred Ally Sheedy and Bill Paxton, or Summer Girl, wherein Franklin plays a malevolent babysitter named Cinny with designs on Barry Bostwick (Kim Darby of Better Off Dead… plays his wife, with no boiled bacon or raisin gruel in sight). Olivia De Laurentis’ The Adventures of Lass trilogy screened at the Los Angeles Film Festival but are not within my own reach (when she directs a feature-length masterpiece, I'll expect Criterion to pay attention). Of her handful of TV appearances, I was more successful finding a Charles in Charge episode where she plays a Yugoslavian exchange student than the Freddy’s Nightmares episode “The Bride Wore Red.”

Seeing as though this site is called Mind of Frames, I will make the focus exclusively on the movies Diane Franklin starred in from 1982’s The Last American Virgin, which will be my first time watching it since my initial DVD review on, to 1989’s How I Got Into College. I will also throw in a bonus screening of Michael Picarella’s Punchcard Player and a more in-depth review of Diane Franklin: The Excellent Adventures of the Last American, French-Exchange Babe of the 80s. I am eager to also get extra reviews written on the site after what seems like a prolonged absence, some of recent titles and others of vintage. But with this introduction out of the way, expect a sincere, thorough and satisfying critical look at one of the greatest babes of the 1980s who has not only aged stunningly in her fifties but can still provide positive inspiration and fond nostalgia on the printed page as well as the projected image.

There’s a hurricane on its way and you can call it Karen…Karen with a K.

1 comment:

  1. Really enjoy your writing, John, and must say that, strangely enough, The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Movie was also a big influence on me in my youth. I watched it and rewatched it, along with films like Big Shots, Better Off Dead and the older Freaky Friday (with the lovely Barbara Harris, another crush I had).
    And now I sit with my wonderful collection of DVDs and Blu-rays, enjoying movies I never thought I'd see again in such good condition, and a boxed set of Looney Tunes cartoons. Life is good for us fans of such fare.