In Episode 196 of the Judge John Hodgman podcast, John Hodgman describes his experience seeing a special preview of the now infamous Broadway musical Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark. He describes “this weird piece of half beautiful, half catastrophic theatre.” And approaching an explanation as good as any I’ve ever heard for not only why the musical had as many problems as it did, but also for why so many adaptations in general fail, Hodgman says this:
The thing is Julie Taymor’s a genius. When you see some of the set designs, and some of the things she creates on stage, there’s no denying that she’s a genius. But I think it’s also pretty clear… she… never liked Spider-Man. Which, if it were me, I would have said “No, thank you, let someone else do Spider-Man,” but she’s the kind of genius who’s like, “Yeah, I can figure out how to fix this broken story, this broken thing that no one likes.” Wait a minute…. It’s Spider-Man, everyone likes it and there’s nothing broken about it.
If it isn’t true that Dino De Laurentiis, John Guillermin, and Lorenzo Semple Jr. (the producer, director, and screenwriter of the 1976 King Kong, respectively) actively never liked the 1933 film, it’s pretty clear that they thought it was broken and needed to be fixed. And the “solutions” they have provided for the “problems” of King Kong ’33 are almost all the most grievous no-scare-quotes problems with the film: the depiction of Ann Darrow, now Dwan, and gender and race politics by extension; the repurposing of the voyage to oil exploration and repositioning of the Carl Denham character to professional mustache twirling; and that guy in that ape suit.
I was going to write about all three, but the first issue is so monstrous that it ate the other two. What has been done to the heroine in this film makes me prone to hyperbole and paroxysms of rage. The bottom line problem, that which I think all other problems regarding Lange and her Dwan flow from, is a directorial decision that the idea of this giant ape running off with this woman, her kicking and screaming in fear, is hot. They think it’s sooooo sexy. And oh man, do they want you to think it’s sexy too. And the worse part is, I think they think it’s smart to think it’s sexy.
Jungle Films, Race, and Sex
Some background. As David Rosen pointed out in 1975, “It doesn't require too great an exercise of the imagination to perceive the element of race in King Kong. Racist conceptions of blacks often depict them as subhuman, ape or monkey-like.” This is a simple truth that has to be acknowledged in a postmodern world, and it does make elements of King Kong, of the story in general, rather cringe inducing.
1933 already had jungle-film fever, and it is out of this that the original King Kong emerges. Common components of these films include an ape, missing link, cave-man, or Tarzan-like foundling (like Tarzan) kidnapping or romancing or partnering with a woman, especially a white woman. These relationships are highly sexualized, and threaten the girl—her purity, whiteness, and acceptance by society.
The 1930 film Ingagi features on its posters a light-skinned woman of color about to be offered/ sacrificed to a gorilla, giving the viewers the opportunity to witness the “perverse union of woman and jungle animal.” “Wild Women — Gorillas — Sensational!” the posters boast.
The 1932 film The Blonde Captive describes its heroine “found new romance in the arms of a savage, jungle cave-man” and that it tells the story of “a white girl who was held captive by primitive cave-men, and who refused to be rescued!!”
In the film Trader Horn (1931) Edwina Booth plays a white woman kidnapped as a child and raised in the jungles of Africa who the white adventurers Harry Carey and Duncan Renaldo must rescue from the savages. “White goddess of the pagan tribes. The cruelest woman in all of Africa!” The tragic possibility is that the “black savages” will succeed in making Nina (Booth) one of them, that her whiteness will be erased entirely. But Renaldo rescues her from this cruel fate and whisks her away to the western world and a properly white domestic futurity.
The racial implications of these tropes speak to a fear of miscegenation, but also perpetuate the myth of the black rapist. This is especially troubling when you consider the Scottsboro Trial took place in 1931. In Women, Race, and Class (1981), Angela Davis noted that “of the 455 men executed between 1930 and 1967 on the basis of rape convictions, 405 of them were Black” and argued that “before lynching could be consolidated as a popularly accepted institution…its savagery and its horrors had to be convincingly justified. These were the circumstances that spawned the myth of the black rapist—for the rape charges turned out to be the most powerful of several attempts to justify the lynching of black people.” 1931 and 1933 show particular spikes in lynchings of blacks in America. Surely all this is not without meaning.
King Kong ’33, Sex, and Avoidance
Whatever fear of the black man may have gone into King Kong ’33, and there certainly was some, it’s important to emphasize that it was fear and it was veiled. That fear was all wound up in sex, yes, but the film really lets that be a you thing, and not an it thing. Kong himself is not sexualized, and Ann Darrow isn’t really either. There is the exception of one scene in which Kong is removing Ann’s clothes down to her slip, but this is accompanied by playful music, and Kong looks unmenacing and childlike. It’s more like a toddler removing clothes from a doll than anything else. Merian C. Cooper argues just this in a response to a fan letter in 1966: “I played this scene as a great gorilla playing as with a toy—and played it for comedy—and so the 1933 audiences took it. It had no decadent ‘rape’ concept or execution!!!”
It is still creepy, but it is actually trying really hard not to be that kind of creepy. And there are a lot of people out there who can watch King Kong ‘33 and never see it, people who would argue the last section was pretentious academic nonsense. Your uncle will roll his eyes at Thanksgiving dinner and call you an idiot; it’s just about a giant monkey fighting dinosaurs and his tiny pet lady.
And if you can put everything you know about postcolonialism or Frantz Fanon or Angela Davis in a little jar on a shelf and just not think about it, you can watch King Kong like that too. Its only really PG-13 elements come not from sex or sexuality, but from completely non-sexual violence and horror—Kong chompa-chompas sailors and natives and flings them aside, he squashes and drowns people in mud, he rips open the jaw of a T-Rex and plays with it, a brontosaurus (or whatever) attacks a raft full of sailors and flings them around like dolls, some assholes shoot a stegosaurus (or whatever!!) through the eye, Kong finds another blonde in New York and carelessly drops her from a considerable height realizing it’s not the right blonde, and Kong of course himself is shot repeatedly, and falls, and dies.
My point is that King Kong ’33 resists the sensationalism of sex even while that sex is an inherent implication of the basic plot and a central element of many jungle adventure films of the time.
King Kong ’76, Desire, and Blow Jobs
But the 1976 remake wants you to think about sex soooooo much. So much. Jessica Lange seems to simply exist on a perpetual continuum of desire, orgasm, and post-coital bliss. She was clearly given three direction: imagine you want sex right now, imagine you’re having sex right now, and cut.
The character, Dwan (yes, D-W-A-N) enters the film passed out in a dinghy, soaking wet, in a sheer black dress, possible negligee, cut down to her belly button in front, and slit to her waist on the side, her nipples clearly visible. She is carried below. When she comes to, she rolls around on the bed for a while, lamenting the loss of her traveling companions, especially Harry, who apparently “discovered her” and was going to put her in a movie. It’s hard to describe just how sexualized Lange’s performance is here. Imagine half Juliette Lewis in Cape Fear, and half maybe Brigitte Bardot, or just half porn star. She kneels on the bed, she fiddles with the hem of her dress/ nightgown, she plays with her hair, she arches her back like a cat, she touches her neck, looks over her shoulder, she bites her lower lip, she gazes at Jack (Jeff Bridges) as a coyote to a pomeranian. “You need some rest,” he says, laying her down and covering her with a blanket. Maybe she has a head injury he seems to be thinking. “Oh, I haven’t had a good one of those in years,” she says. The lack of context for this statement makes us wonder what she’s doing every night.
She’s in bed now, on her back, gazing up at the camera, her arms framing her face and hair. “Harry probably wasn’t going to put me in that movie anyhow,” she says, though the audience was way ahead of her on that one. “Oh my God,” she exclaims, returning to a kneeling position. She caresses her face, her neck, her chest, a tear running down her eye. She knits her fingers in front of her mouth, her eyes wide. “What a meaningful miracle! Do you realize that I owe my life to a movie?” (They cut to Charles Grodin and John Randolph here. Randolph is impassive, but Grodin is transfixed, hanging on her every word as if to an angel’s song.) “I swear to God! You see, Harry was showing this film that I refused to watch. And that’s why I was up on deck by myself when the yacht exploded. Did you ever meet anyone before whose life was saved by Deep Throat?” Touches neck, plays with hair, bites lower lip. Long pause as we cut to the men reacting, imagining her, imagining Deep Throat, imagining themselves with her…. You can practically hear Jeff Bridges gulp. You mean… coitus?
Then follows the musical montage of sexy outfits. Dwan collects clothing from sailors and alters, slashes and ties them, like an enterprising Etsy devotee, into more revealing incarnations. She looks fantastic in the unaltered borrowed clothes, in men’s khakis and a white shirt, or jeans and a white sweater, like those shots of Lauren Bacall visiting Bogart on the set of The African Queen.
But she is positively Playboy in most of the outfits she designs for herself. Picture her there, standing alone on the deck of the ship, bending over a lifeline, staring off into the sea, alternately biting her lower lip, opening her mouth and licking her lips, wearing sleeveless blue coveralls cut off at the panty line and unzipped to the solar plexus.
This montage is I think supposed to be about her and Jeff Bridges falling in love. You do see him in some of the shots, reading to her as she sews. But the impression left is of infinitely more side-boob than true love.
Then there are the multiple references to rape, both covert and overt.
CARNAHAN. If he’s not gonna eat her, why’d he take her?
JACK. Apes are highly territorial. He’s probably gonna take her to his turf.
CARNAHAN. What for? Joe and the guys said that you said this ape was gonna marry her. Was that some kind of joke or did you really mean this huge ape was gonna—
JACK. — I don’t know, Carnahan!
Jack later pleads with Wilson (Grodin) to send help, shouting, “There’s a woman out there who may be running for her life from some gigantic turned on ape.” After Dwan escapes/is rescued, Wilson insists to her that Kong was going to rape her. “He’s not a person. He’s an animal, a beast that tried to rape you.” In the next scene Jack looks at her longingly and says, “The ape had the right idea,” right before he leans in to kiss her.
Even Dwan’s first conscious reactions to her kidnapper reflect a victim’s negotiations in the face of impending sexual assault, but then devolve into some kind of demented meet-cute. Kong has grabbed her and is holding her up, close to his face, studying her, sometimes growling.
DWAN. Put me down! (Pounds fists on fingers.) You put me down!!! …. (Crying, lays her head down on his fingers and hugs them.) You put me down. (Sobbing, pleading, gently stroking his fingers, gazing at him.) Put me down. Please put me down….
(Angry now.) Why, you goddamned chauvinist pig-ape! (Screaming.) What are you waiting for? You wanna eat me? (Beating on Kong’s nose.) Then go ahead and do it! Go ahead and eat me! Choke on me!!!
(Still afraid, but feigning ease and familiarity now.) Oh, I didn’t mean that, honest I didn’t. Sometimes I get too physical. It’s a sign of insecurity you know, like when you knock down trees. (Nervous.) Such a nice ape, such a nice sweet, nice sweet monkey. You know we’re gonna be great friends. (Cheery.) I’m a Libra, what sign are you? No, wait, don’t tell me. I bet you’re an Aires, aren’t you? Of course you are. I just knew it. I think that’s just wonderful.
And perhaps most shocking, there are multiple scenes implying that Dwan welcomes Kong’s advances. At one point Kong holds Dwan in the palm of his hand and rinses her under a waterfall, then dries her by repeatedly blowing his hot Kong breath on her, and she reacts in obvious sexual ecstasy. It’s possible this is some attempt to show a transcendent communion with nature, Dwan’s touching the Sublime. I doubt that is the immediate association for most viewers, though.
Conclusions, Recovery, and Thoughts on Beards
The intimation of sex was there in ‘33, but it just played on existent cultural fears; it was never explicit, and it was always unwelcome. King Kong ’76 insists on the idea of an impending literal sexual violation of a human woman by a fifty-foot gorilla, and implies that she would welcome the violation, that her openness to sex in general would transcend species boundary.
Again, it seems they’re fixing a problem that wasn’t a problem, and making it a HUGE problem. But what is so rotten about it all is that they think they were being smart. That perfectly happy Thanksgiving uncle doesn’t know King Kong is about sex. We need to fix that. We need to cram sex and rape and thinking about Jessica Lange and sex and that big ape and rape and sailors and her and Deep Throat and Harry and rape and Jeff Bridges and sex and her and Charles Grodin and sex and that ape and sex sex sex sex sex right down your Thanksgiving uncle’s throat. And they can make like it’s all very second-wave, but really it’s just dipping its toe into inter-species rape fantasy porn. (I don’t even know if that’s a thing, and I’m definitely not going to look it up.)
And look, I don’t blame Jessica Lange. I love Jessica Lange. If I were a drag queen I’d strive to be Jessica Lange. This was her first film, she was clearly hired for her sex appeal, and she probably just hadn’t gotten around to reading Susan Brownmiller yet. Dwan is the Ann Darrow De Laurentiis and Guillermin wanted. And Jessica Lange does it beautifully. But all I wanted after was a Silkwood shower and a strong binge of AHS: Coven. Fiona would have told De Laurentiis what was up. She might have started by explaining how no one ever faulted Fay Wray for not making us think about blow jobs enough.
Unrelated Theory: Jeff Bridges has spent the last twenty years proving that he can grow a first-class beard to make up for that abomination he donned in ’76. I could curl up in Rooster’s beard any day.