In 1979 Bette Midler took the movie world by storm when she starred in her first film, The Rose. She then appeared in a concert film called Divine Madness the following year. However her third film proved to be a major box office bomb. Suddenly her movie career was in the dumps and it would be another four years before she hit it big again with a string of successes beginning with Down and Out in Beverly Hills. What film could’ve have possibly caused such a career derailment? Look no further, it’s 1982’s Jinxed!
The film concerns a low-life gambler named Harold Benson (Rip Torn) and his lounge singer wife Bonita (Middler). They travel around Nevada in their pickup truck and mobile home following Harold’s “pigeon,” a handsome but hapless young blackjack dealer named Willie (Ken Wahl). It seems that Willie is somehow jinxed when it comes to Harold…the man seems to always beat the poor kid. Of course, every time Harold wins a large sum of money from the Willie, the casino managers figure the kid is bad luck and give him the boot. He moves to a new city and Harold always follows. This time, though, Willie decides to try and do something to mess up Harold…having an affair with Bonita.
What Willie doesn’t expect, though, is that Bonita will become so attached that she asks him to assist her with a plan to bump off Harold. She figures the two of them will cash in on his insurance policy and live happily ever after. The night they plan the murder, though, coincides with when Harold plans his big score against Willie. When Harold’s luck runs out, though, he loses everything and ends up killing himself by standing in the shower and sticking his finger in a light socket. Of course, the insurance policy has a suicide clause, so now Bonita and Willie have to re-orchestrate Harold’s death so they can still get the payoff.
Jinxed! was the final film directed by Don Siegel; director of a wide array of films including everything from Invasion of the Body Snatchers to Dirty Harry. It was a troubled production that lived up to the film’s name. Supposedly the stars of the film did not get along which made for a tense set. The problems became worse when Siegel suffered a heart attack midway through the shoot. Director Sam Peckinpah, though uncredited, took over for Siegel. The jinx continued, though, when the film was a huge bomb and earned scathing reviews from the likes of Roger Ebert. Knowing all this, I was pleasantly surprised to see that Jinxed! is really not all that bad.
The main thing the film has going for it is the cast. Bette Midler certainly gives the film everything she’s got. Her character is quirky and a bit out there…just the kind of character I’d expect from Midler. It almost goes without saying that one of the best parts of the film is the sequence where we see Bonita doing a cheesy nightclub act. Rip Torn is also well suited to the role of a sleazeball gambler. He’s instantly unlikable, but in a good way. Ken Wahl, on the other hand, is just plain boring. He’s as stiff as a board and lacks any sort of charisma. That’s not good when you have to play many of your scenes with someone like Bette Midler. Here’s a visual illustration for you: Wahl’s performance is a bit like the last donut in the box, that heavy cake donut that nobody wants. Meanwhile, Midler is the big fluffy donut with pink frosting and sprinkles that everyone reaches for first. Man, I’m really hungry for a donut right now.
I can understand why the film didn’t resonate with many audiences at the time of its release. For every gag that works, there are just as many that fizzle. Plus, the story does get bit convoluted as it progresses. The final act of the film gets caught up in having Midler on a strange sort of scavenger hunt (that felt a wee bit like Midnight Madness) trying to find some money hidden by Harold. This includes a bizarre moment where she ends up in a ghost town and is almost assaulted by Jack Elam. It looked like it was shot in a real ghost town, though, which was pretty cool. I kept looking to see if I could spot the Brady Bunch’s station wagon. Remember, they got stuck in a ghost town in one episode…oh never mind. I did start to loose my patience a bit with all the twists and turns the film takes in its final act, but at least Midler kept things entertaining.
So, while Jinxed! certainly has its share of struggles, it’s not anywhere near the disaster that I was led to believe. Despite a mess of a story, Bette Midler still brings enough her magic to make the film entertaining. With a title like Jinxed!, though, I guess the filmmakers should’ve expected the film to falter at the box office.
Note: After several years of being unavailable on home video, Jinxed! is being released on DVD and Blu-ray by Olive Films later this month. Thanks to Olive Films for giving us an advanced look at the film!