Saturday, 15 August 2020

Reflections on ... Poor Pretty Eddie (1975)

Recently watched: Poor Pretty Eddie (1975). “Look, I have two weeks before my next concert. Now I’m going to get in my car and drive until I find a nice, quiet hole to crawl into.” When glamorous but exhausted African American show biz diva Liz Wetherly (Leslie Uggams) utters those words, little does she anticipate the horrors this impromptu solo road trip holds in store. In no time, her car has broken down on some godforsaken Southern dirt road in the middle of nowhere. (Poor Pretty Eddie was filmed in Athens, Georgia). Looking for assistance, Liz wanders into a decaying isolated hunting lodge called Bertha’s Oasis. The first person she encounters is handyman Keno (Ted Cassidy – aka Lurch from The Addams Family) just as he’s beheading a chicken with an ax! Further grotesquery awaits: the proprietress Bertha (Shelley Winters) is a former showgirl-turned-sloppy alcoholic harridan who lives with her much-younger studmuffin lover, aspiring Country & Western singer Eddie (Michael Christian). While her car is getting repaired, Liz checks into one of Bertha’s cabins – but will she survive to check out?

Poor Pretty Eddie is a putrid exploitation shocker that lives up to its notorious reputation. It’s a prime exemplar of “hicksploitation”: the subgenre of rural horror movies featuring homicidal rednecks. The hit film Deliverance came out three years earlier and clearly influenced the representation of hillbilly characters here. And the decrepit shanty town locale also anticipates Mortville in John Waters’ punk epic Desperate Living (1977).

The acting is genuinely good. As child-like but dangerously deluded halfwit Eddie, Christian manages to be simultaneously repellent and sexy (it must be said: he fills-out his Vegas-era Elvis fringed outfits nicely). And of course, Winters specialized in portraying blowzy, frowzy slatterns. An aside: for some masochistic reason, I’ve read both volumes of Winters’ wildly self-aggrandizing memoirs. She’s keen to depict herself as the highly-principled uncompromising earth mother of Method Acting – but she never once mentions the multitude of low-budget hagsploitation b-movies she mainly made from the early seventies onward. That would have been so much more interesting!

What the hell was classy mainstream entertainer Uggams thinking when she signed up for this? The only comparable example that comes to mind is Lyle Waggoner appearing in the necrophilia-themed Love Me Deadly (1972). Full credit to Uggams, though: she fully embraces the material. I love the haughty contempt with which Liz contemplates the dumb crackers she’s surrounded with, and she gives great side eye. Interestingly, the role was originally offered to Nichelle Nichols (Uhuru from Star Trek). I bet Nichols felt like she had a lucky escape!

Eddie’s behind-the-scenes story is almost more interesting than what unfolds onscreen. The production company had links to pornography, organized crime and money-laundering. (The executive producer was known as “The Scarface of Porn”). In a laudable attempt to cover all the bases, the film was released under multiple titles for different demographics. For the honky drive-in / grindhouse circuit it was called Poor Pretty Eddie. For African American audiences, it was sold as a blaxploitation movie re-titled Black Vengeance. And there’s supposedly a radically different, much softer-core version entitled Heartbreak Hotel that shifts the emphasis to Eddie and Bertha’s relationship – and has a happy ending!

With its queasy, bad taste emphasis on rape and racism, Eddie has something to offend everyone. It certainly abounds with unpleasant moments. But it feels weirdly relevant today in the era of Black Lives Matter and Trump. Today, the hicks who brutalize Liz would sport MAGA hats, rage against the removal of Confederate flags and be addicted to opioids. Time has not mellowed Poor Pretty Eddie. Approach with caution!

Further reading:

Temple of Schlock's in-depth account of the production of Poor Pretty Eddie.

Funny and perceptive analysis of Poor Pretty Eddie here.

1 comment:

  1. This one really is an oddity, isn't it? When I watched it I was aware of this thing that happens with a person's (at least THIS person) perception of the star system: I often assume that stars of a certain reputation and image would never accept a particular kind of role. No matter what the subject, I would never expect that Harry Belafonte would appear in a role that degraded him. Similarly, with someone like Glenn Close...I'd feel secure in the fact that any part she appeared in would be classy and never demeaning.
    Throughout the entirety of POOR PRETTY EDDIE, no matter how grotesque things were getting, I sincerely held the belief that Leslie Uggams - not only a good-girl image Black trailblazer, but an outspoken about civil rights in life and in the Broadway musical Hallelujah Baby - was going to show why a woman like her would appear in a film like this. Expecting some big, Pam Grier-like, woman power, turning of the tables on her abusers, what I was left with was a big Whhhhaaaat??!?!? Zip! As you cite, it's exactly like with the Lyle Waggoner movie. It's one thing to go against an image, another to go accept a role in film even John Waters or Warhol would think was in questionable taste. So, of course, ! own a copy. HA! Thanks for covering this one, Graham. Quarantine has been great for your blog!