One of the “guilty” pleasures of growing up during the ’80s was watching movies on Cinemax after midnight. That is when the cable network officially became “Skin-A-Max” and soft-core porn ruled the airwaves. Enterprising teens like myself with a penchant for staying up late could view films like Bob Rafelson’s, The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981) remake with Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange far from the disapproving eyes of our parents.
If you aren’t familiar with this work, there are several sexually charged scenes between the two leads that definitely do NOT look choreographed. One, in particular, involves a kitchen table, flour and some incredibly hot oral action. Another movie that used to show up “after hours” was John Derek’s overblown Penthouse letter, Bolero (1984). This production starred his wife at the time, Playboy golden goddess, Bo.
Prior to starring in her husband’s indulgent hedonistic opus, she was famous for being Dudley Moore’s fantasy girl in Blake Edwards’ 10 (1979). Basically, this effort was the progenitor to Sam Mendes’ American Beauty (1999) with Moore portraying the lovestruck older man who is desperately trying to recapture his youth by abandoning his companion of many years to pursue a gorgeous nymphet (Bo Derek).
Shortly after 10, Ms. Derek became Anthony Hopkins’ younger muse in Richard Lang’s A Change of Seasons (1980). Although this particular comedy was received lukewarmly by critics and audiences alike, that didn’t deter John Derek in his relentless campaign to turn his spouse into a box office maven. Behind the scenes, Hollywood nicknamed the former actor, “Svengali.” He handled all aspects of Bo’s career. Eventually, believing that no one could capitalize on her image more than him, John ended up going behind the camera.
His first venture with Bo was a 1973 flick called Fantasies which wasn’t released until 1981. In that same year, he helmed the ill-fated Tarzan, The Ape Man which garnered a Worst Actress Razzie for his missus. Derek’s period piece that featured eye-candy actor, Miles O’Keeffe in the titular role was tied for the most reviled production next to Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980). Oddly enough, despite his box office woes, Derek somehow managed to secure financing for his trashy, provocative romp, Bolero (1984).
Before diving into how this indulgent project got made in the first place, we need to understand Derek’s background. His first foray into cinema was in Nicholas Ray’s Knock on Any Door (1949) making his debut opposite matinee idol and one of the Golden Age Kings of Tinseltown, Humphrey Bogart. His role as juvenile “hoodlum” Nick Romano propelled him into the spotlight.
One of the most quoted pieces of dialogue in a motion picture can be attributed to his character who uttered this notorious phrase, “Live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse.” A stunning chap and a ladies’ man to boot, Derek went on to bed and wed several beautiful blonde actresses including Ursula Andress and Linda Evans. He was definitely a product of the studio system which is on full display in the way that he approached directing Bolero. Taking a page from Cecil B. DeMille’s playbook (Derek starred as Joshua in The Ten Commandments (1956)), he strived to elevate his soft-core porn undertaking into high art utilizing his keen photographer’s eye.
Set in the roaring 1920s, Bolero is the story of two wealthy graduates from a posh British boarding school. After securing their “freedom” from the venerable institution, Lida MacGillivery (Bo Derek) and Catalina (Ana Obregón) decide to lose their virginity while travelling to the “exotic” lands of Morocco and Spain (to understand this premise, think of the plot of Little Darlings (1980) where Tatum O’Neal and Kristy McNichol are replaced by Derek and Obregón). Lida is infatuated with Rudolph Valentino so she sets her cap to give her womanhood to an attractive Sheik (Greg Bensen) with bedroom eyes.
Everything seems to be going to plan except that her intended is addicted to opium. He sets the mood appropriately with pillows underneath the moonlight near the Mediterranean Sea. Calling for his “milk and honey,” he drips the warm, sticky concoction onto Lida’s naked body, lapping it up in the process. However, before he can give her the “ecstasy” that she craves, he passes out. Left high and dry, the young heiress moves on to Spain where she meets a handsome matador named Angel (Andrea Occhipinti). At first, he plays hard to get and resists her ploys but after she woos him by basically giving him doe eyes and following him around, he relents and gives into her whims after she purchases a prized Palomino from him.
During their passionate encounters is where Derek’s artistic sensibilities kick in. Bolero feels like it should have been directed by John Waters. The dialogue is kitschy, the vibe is campy but what prohibits the film from becoming full-on comedic is the way that the sex scenes are filmed. In my mind, Derek should have just turned this exercise into an exhibit in a Manhattan or Los Angeles gallery. The way that he photographs his wife exploits all of her ample assets. He loves to let the camera linger on her undulating stomach as she is being ridden by Occhipinti’s character and he especially loves to focus on her erect nipples.
I won’t lie some of the devices that Derek employs like a wind machine to make sure that Bo’s hair billows appropriately while she is being ravished is laughable as is the way that she pantomimes orgasming. If you enjoy soft-core porn, you can appreciate the realistic manner in which the couplings are filmed. Even veteran character actor, George Kennedy (who plays Lida’s chauffeur, Cotton) gets a romp in the sack. Thankfully, we don’t see it. After witnessing Lida’s good fortune, her pal, Catalina finds her sexual bliss with a randy Scot, Solicitor Robert Stewart (Ian Cochrane) after pestering him about what he is wearing underneath his kilt.
Clearly, John Derek has an appreciation of the feminine form. Some of the moments play out like pages in the Kama Sutra. There is one particular scene where Lida literally does a backbend while sitting astride Angel. It is a gravity-defying move and makes you wonder if it can actually be done. What would have made the trysts spicier would have been some genuine acting on the parts of Derek and her co-star Andrea Occhipinti. Half the time she looked like she was making lists in her head and he looked as if a hand job might have been more pleasurable. Perhaps they should have been coached by some professionals in the adult film business. The original tagline of this venture was “The Hottest Erotic Film of the Century.” While it was lushly photographed by John Derek, that description is a bit far-fetched. Unfortunately, Bolero didn’t live up to its hype but if you are looking to relive the less complicated days of Skin-A-Max, then this John Derek opus will be right up your alley.