He lay down the manuscript on the desk before him and glanced at the title page. Its moniker, Boxing Helena, gave little indication on what he could expect and so he turned the page, his eyes shifting from one paragraph to the next as he moved slowly through the screenplay. His new client had been blessed with the role of the eponymous Helena, and yet while this should be something of an achievement, his blood ran cold as he discovered the fate of the character. The glamorous star was to become the object of a lonely man’s obsession, until his desire grows so strong that he amputates her limbs, keeping her trapped like a prisoner and locked away from the outside world. Finally coming to the end, he closed the script and let out a long, exasperated sigh, before reaching for the telephone. After dialling a number, he paused for a moment until a voice on the other end of the line greeted him with enthusiastic pleasantries. But he shattered the carefree tone of the conversation with the declaration that, ‘We have a problem.’ He looked back down at the manuscript and shuddered in disgust. There is no way his new client will participate in such filth!
Its creator viewed it as a love story, a surreal fairy-tale, yet its detractors dismissed it as little more than pornography. ‘Nothing has come out in the past two years that reaches this level of misogyny,’ claimed the National Organisation for Women shortly after Boxing Helena’s release. ‘If Jennifer Lynch thinks this is what love is all about, I sincerely hope no one ever falls in love with her.’ Feminist groups gathered outside viewings of the feature, brandishing signs of protest that insisted, ‘Real roles for reel women.’ Had the film not been shrouded under a veil of controversy that would culminate in a highly-publicised legal trial then Boxing Helena, the directorial debut of twenty-five-year-old Lynch, may have found its audience among arthouse and genre circles, but as a result of its dissection from such publications as Variety and Entertainment Weekly it became one of the most anticipated motion pictures of the year. ‘The film got a lot of unjust sensationalism through the media,’ lambasted its producer, Carl Mazzocone, as the dust settled. ‘People stayed away from it; they thought it was a hack ‘em up, cut off her arms and legs, blood on the wall-type of film.’ The drama that would unfold around Boxing Helena may have been a publicist’s dream, but for those who had nurtured the project from conception to completion, what followed was nothing short of a nightmare.
Patricia Glaser glanced over at her companion as they were greeted by the head of the company. The decision for their client to withdraw had resulted in significant losses for those that had spent the last two years developing the project, and the threat of legal action had prompted the agency to summon its producer and lawyer to their office. Standing like children before the school principal, Glaser and Mazzocone were greeted with an air of hostility and defiance, and it was clear from the moment they arrived that the purpose of this meeting was to intimidate. Mazzocone had negotiated for their client to participate in his independent feature film, but when she was convinced by her new representatives to back out of her alleged agreement, Glaser was brought onboard to begin legal proceedings. And now here they were, standing side-by-side as the most senior of the company offered their ultimatum. ‘I’m not telling you, Carl, that you’ll never work in this town again if you proceed with this lawsuit,’ he began, prompting Glaser to turn to her accomplice and retort, ‘I think we’re being threatened.’ The second most senior of those present offered a quick denial that this was their intention, but once again the head of the firm repeated his statement. As Glaser and Mazzocone left the office moments later one thing was undeniable: war had been declared.
How could it have come to this? As Kim Basinger looked across the courthouse at the director and producer that now served as her adversaries, she recalled those early meetings in which the young filmmakers radiated with innocence and enthusiasm. The hallmark of a great actor is to continuously push one’s limits, to take on roles that were against type and defied expectations, and to elevate the artform with larger-than-life performances. And for a time she believed she had found that in Boxing Helena. ‘When I read the piece, I just felt I had to meet the mind behind this idea,’ she now explained to the jury. But all this was gone in an instant. During negotiations she had relocated to a more reputable talent agency, and it was at their insistence that she reluctantly backed out of the project. This had come at a price even greater than she had imagined, and now it felt like she was being sacrificed as the world watched on with dumbfounded fascination. Now she stood to lose everything – her career, her wealth, her reputation – even as industry insiders painted her in the media as a Hollywood starlet that got what she deserved.
‘People want the film abolished,’ claimed Lynch to the New York Times months before Boxing Helena had even seen the light of day. ‘My whole intent was to parody and to show seriously what we do to each other in relationships. It’s about how we try to change each other. We are equally vulnerable to self-hatred, to obsession, and we try and change each other. It’s about how we try to break each other down and control each other – the thievery that goes on in obsessive relationships.’ While the media would often market Boxing Helena as a body horror, something akin to the work of David Cronenberg, the film could best be described as a psychological thriller that explored a love that is not reciprocated. The concept of obsessive love had been a recurring theme ever since the success of Fatal Attraction just a few short years earlier, and as a result audiences were fascinated with stories of how far a rejected admirer would go to possess their dream lover. Every relationship is a power struggle as both parties fight for dominance, but when one rejects the love of the other then anything is possible. This notion is at the heart of Boxing Helena.
The patrons took their seats around the stage as the young woman stepped out before them, looking through the thin cloud of smoke to the sea of faces that stared back in anticipation. For the last few years this Hollywood venue had housed poetry readings from some of the most beloved and respected artists in the industry, and tonight the nineteen-year-old will present her most private thoughts to the crowd of strangers. One man moved slowly between the tables, watching with keen interest as she recited one verse after another, each one captivating him with their simple-yet-elegant charm. The girl bid farewell to her audience and retreated into the shadows, but the man’s eyes watched intently as she crossed over to the bar. Taking a swig from her bottle, she turned her attention to the stage for the next performer, at which point the man approached with caution. But his intention was not to flirt, but to offer a more curious proposition: he had an idea for a story, and he would like a woman to adapt it into a film. The concept, he would reveal, was of a surgeon so consumed with obsessive passion for a beauty that could not love him back that he amputates her limbs and locks away in his mansion, finally giving his empty life a purpose. The young woman was horrified at this proposition, but as time passed by she gradually began to relate to both the villain and the victim of the tale, and in that moment Boxing Helena was born.
Despite feeling drawn to the story, Jennifer Lynch had reservations of whether this was a fable that needed to be told. The man she had met that night at the poetry reading had emigrated to the United States two years earlier after studying at the American University of Paris, and while he had no experience or connection to the film industry, Philippe Caland felt that his concept had cinematic potential. Lynch never expressed a desire to become a filmmaker, but it was in her blood. While there was something inherently sadistic about his pitch, she somehow felt drawn to it. ‘He had a lone-line concept that he pitched to me,’ she recalled. ‘It was, basically, that someone did this amputating and boxing thing to someone else, and I couldn’t figure out, really, what the point of that was. I was also a little taken aback by the idea that he was specifically looking for a female writer, as if that would somehow condone the content of the story.’
The young boy walked through the vast halls of the opulent palace. Its Italian Renaissance-style decor radiated wealth and elegance, but betrayed the cold, detached sentiments that lurked underneath. He walked unnoticed among the guests as he desperately searched for his father, navigating his way through the unfamiliar faces until he finally made his way to a study on the first floor, its occupant hiding from the festivities taking place below. The boy appeared as invisible to his parents as he was to the socialites that now littered his home. His father, a respected surgeon, was consumed by his work, an obsession that caused him to neglect both his wife and son. The boy’s mother had failed to tell her friends that she had a child, and the blonde bombshell favoured the company of rich men than her own family. He is often told how grateful he should be, and how he is destined to follow in his father’s footsteps, but not once is he told that he is loved. When she died many years later he felt nothing, except perhaps confusing Oedipal memories of a mother that strutted through the house semi-naked as she bid farewell to her latest lover.
As he watches her coffin lowered into the earth, the man that he has become remains haunted by her ghost. He fulfilled all of the expectations that were asked of him. Much like his father, Nick Cavanaugh pursued a life in medicine, achieving accolades that should have made his parents proud, but even after all this success he was nothing to them. So disconnected from his family life, when he arrives at the hospital immediately after the funeral to the surprise of his colleagues, he merely dismisses the grieving processes with, ‘What’s dead is dead.’ He may have dedicated his life to healing and saving lives, but there appears to be very little humanity within him, and while he understands the human body, the heart and soul remain foreign to him. Even the love of a woman who remains devoted to him does little to bring out his compassion, as if he fears that any kind of emotional attachment would result in rejection, much like how his parents had rejected him.
Our relationships with our families during childhood undeniably help to shape the adults we become, and so if we are raised by abusive parents then this can influence the relationships we have in later life. Nick spent his youth desperate for the affection of a mother and father that treated him as irrelevant, and so his emotional attachment as a man would not be towards the woman that loves him, but rather a fantasy figure that finds him inconsequential. Ever since their one night together, he has remained fixated on the beautiful Helena, a woman as cold as his mother, yet as sultry and enticing. His desire for Helena could be interpreted as a representation of his desire for his mother. Following the death of one abusive woman, he has turned his attention to another. ‘It’s an unfortunate modern love story,’ explained Lynch. ‘People do ridiculous things when they want someone to like them. We spend our lives making fools out of ourselves for the love of someone else.’
The April heat felt oppressive as the two figures worked carefully to clear away each discarded piece of rock from the base of the ancient theatre. Yorgos Bottonis had spent his entire life on the small Greek island of Milos and often felt overwhelmed by the rich history of his forefathers that surrounded him on this long-forgotten corner of the world. With the assistance of his son, he had been tasked with searching through this once-thriving venue, and as they cleared the ground of the larger pieces of rubble, they discovered what appeared to be a cave leading underground. They ventured cautiously inside where they found fragments of marble that they believed dated back hundreds of years. Summoning the local priest, Bottonis hoped to find a buyer for his discovery, eventually selling the relics for just a few thousand francs. ‘The status was in two pieces, joined in the middle by two small iron tenons,’ detailed Jules Dumont d’Urville, the French explorer who had bid for the discovery. ‘It represented a nude woman whose left hand was raised and held an apple, and the right supported a garment draped in easy folds and falling carelessly from her loins to her feet. Both hands have been mutilated and one actually detached from the body.’
The discovery of the Venus de Milo in 1820 would raise the tantalising question of where the statue had been for almost two-thousand years. Sculpted in Ancient Greece and yet its origins unknown, had the remains of the artefact survived in this abandoned cave for hundreds of years, during which time the island had been colonised and repopulated? Despite the imperfections caused by an eon of neglect, it is considered by many historians to be one of the finest sculptures of all time. ‘Surely this work of art represents womanhood at its best – a noble feminine figure in full maturity, not a maiden but fully-developed, a wife or mother; and yet not as a mother with a child, nor as a wife with her husband, but simply as a woman,’ wrote author Paul Carus in 1916’s The Archaeological Study of Womanhood. The naked form was not uncommon in Greece during the era in which it was crafted, and yet the Venus de Milo is looked upon as something far more beautiful, sensual, and elegant than any other work of art to emerge from that culture.
Jennifer Lynch had been exposed to this image as a child, and having been born with imperfections of her own, the young girl was able to find comfort in this incomplete beauty. ‘My earliest memory is of feeling the weight of my parents’ panic and what has been born to them; all this responsibility. I was born with a physical condition called clubfoot, which was a fairly severe case, and I was put in cast the day after I was born,’ she revealed. ‘I had an orthopaedic shoe and a contraption on me for many years, and felt initially very much the way Nick feels in the film; like a burden, which isn’t necessarily true, but for Nick it was. And broken, like a failed person…I learned the greatest lesson of my life, which is what Nick falls in love with – the Venus. In my grandmother’s home when I was raised in Philadelphia, and throughout my visits there, she had this small statue of the Venus de Milo, this is a broken statue, and yet I remember these people moving by, looking at this statue with love and awe, as if it was this beautiful, very whole, perfect thing.’
When Nick finally returns to his childhood home following the death of his mother he too finds the image of the Venus de Milo. A replica of the statue has dominated the hallway of the mansion for as long as he could remember, and much like Lynch he would see beauty in its flaws. ‘That sort of helped give birth to the basic idea of Boxing Helena,’ she said. ‘Then I had my own dysfunctional relationships in junior high. I was the last of all my friends to lose their virginity, and had all sorts of experiences and influences; from my father’s movie sets to my mother’s paintings and sculptures.’ It was her time on film sets during the late seventies and early eighties that cultivated the artist within, and even while she resisted a career in filmmaking in favour of one as a writer, years of watching her father behind the camera was sure to leave its mark.
‘My parents were very young when I was born: dad was just twenty-two,’ she told The Sunday Times. ‘They were struggling artists and I think youth, art, and parenting don’t always go hand-in-hand. There was never a moment when I felt unloved, but sometimes I was afraid that I wasn’t as important as the art, so my way around that was to make sure I became part of the art instead.’ Long before he considered himself a director, David Lynch was a painter who first experimented with film as a way of bringing his art to life. But following a succession of increasingly ambitious short films, he utilised the resources of the American Film Institute to develop a feature that he christened Eraserhead. Much has been made of its concept, in which a young man is forced to raise a deformed child, and the struggles that he faced following the birth of his own daughter. ‘I guess one of the misconceptions of late is the prime idea for Eraserhead came out of my birth, because David – in no uncertain terms – did not want a family,’ she acknowledged. ‘People have made insinuations about it because the baby in Eraserhead is deformed. But I don’t think David credits that directly as where Eraserhead comes from.’
While Eraserhead would be a nightmarish exercise in avant-garde that recalled the surrealism of Luis Buñuel, for a young Jennifer Lynch its set was a playground. ‘Eraserhead was my childhood,’ admitted Lynch. ‘I lived with the actors, lived on the sets. My father as a director is the same man he is as my father, so it is hard to separate the two.’ With David Lynch using everything that his disposal, perhaps it was inevitable that his daughter would make her way onscreen. ‘I should let you know that although I’m still in the credits, I ended up on the cutting-room ﬂoor,’ she laughed. ‘It was a beautiful little scene. I think for time and story, my father thought it was unnecessary. But it’s one of my favourite memories from childhood.’ Despite the breakup of her parents’ marriage during this time, Lynch would be as equally inspired by her mother’s work. ‘She found a way to incorporate being an artist into her parenting,’ she told The Independent. ‘There is something so potent to me about my mother’s work in the same way that there’s something potent to me about my father’s. It’s just one is more well-known to the public than the other.’
At the age of seventeen, Lynch landed her first professional assignment when she was hired as a production assistant on her father’s acclaimed noir mystery Blue Velvet, and following her graduation she relocated to Los Angeles to focus on writing. It would be here that she crossed paths with Philippe Caland and the seeds of Boxing Helena were first sown. While the first draft was completed in six weeks, it would take a further two years before the screenplay caught the attention of a producer, during which time she was contracted by Paramount Television to develop a script for their popular syndicated show Friday the 13th: The Series. Despite being a spinoff of the iconic slasher franchise, the show bore no relation to its big screen counterpart and instead focused on an antique store whose cursed items bring tragedy to the lives of those who possess them. ‘The funny story about that is, I had two meetings that day, one at Paramount for Friday the 13th: The Series, and another at another studio for another show,’ she recalled. ‘And I went to Paramount thinking it was for this other show. As I walked up the stairs following the guy into the office, he turned around to lead me up, and he was wearing a Friday the 13th: The Series jacket. And I went, ‘Oh fuck, I’m not ready for this meeting.’ I sat down, and by the grace of whatever creative angels there are out there, an idea came to me, I pitched it to them, and they bought it that day.’
Critical acclaim would finally come following the launch of Twin Peaks, the highly anticipated whodunnit soap opera created by her father that made its debut in the spring of 1990. The mystery surrounding the murder of homecoming queen Laura Palmer and the subsequent investigation by FBI Special Agent Cooper fascinated the world, and allowed Jennifer Lynch the opportunity to put her writing talents to the test by writing a fictitious diary of Palmer. Charting her life from her twelfth birthday to her brutal death five-and-a-half years later, the book would become an instant bestseller. ‘Jennifer Lynch has taken her father’s conception of a good girl gone bad and run with it; she writes in prose style that’s all the more unsettling for being so clear and simple,’ wrote Entertainment Weekly. ‘It was written in nine days, and it was lost four times,’ she revealed to Wrapped in Plastic. ‘There was a weird thing going on with what they first thought was my computer, and what was ultimately blamed on my heart murmur sending out electrical pulses. And then once an x-ray machine at the airport supposedly deleted the disk. Ultimately, it was written four times, beginning to end, with some things being retrieved and others not.’
Throughout her contributions to Friday the 13th: The Series and Twin Peaks, Lynch continued to harbour a desire to develop her script for Boxing Helena, but to her dismay it was regularly perceived as a horror story. It was during a move into a new apartment that she was contacted by an individual who understood what she wanted to achieve. ‘Boxing Helena could have been exploited in a more typical Hollywood fashion,’ admitted Carl Mazzocone, whose career had begun in the early eighties as a location manager on Jaws 3-D, before forming his own production company, Main Line Pictures, in 1989. ‘It could have had production design similar to The Silence of the Lambs, where there’s this deserted pit, or a film like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and be sheer horror and terror. To produce a movie and direct a movie the way we did, we went the long road, the hard way, and what we did was the exact opposite. Instead of having some creaky old mansion, or a scary old house or basement, it was a palatial estate.’
The palace chosen to depict Nick Cavanaugh’s family home was located at 801 West Paces Ferry Road in the Georgian city of Atlanta. Construction on the mansion began in 1911 and was completed the following year, with its ten bedrooms, five bathrooms, and beautiful reception hall designed in the style of the Italian Renaissance. It would be this imposing homestead that would dominate Nick as much as the women in his life. And within its walls he would take possession of the woman he loves. ‘It addressed so many different issues about men and women, about denial in one’s life, about fear of loving, about fear of allowing oneself to be dependent on somebody else,’ insisted Lynch. ‘Those were really the reasons why I wanted to do it. I felt that it was a powerful story that should be told.’
She looked every bit the dame. Robert Stigwood stared in awe as the beautiful blonde entered the room with such elegance and grace he felt captivated by her charm. The woman resembled a star from another time. He sat watching her through his eighties eyes, but she looked very much the forties femme fatale. Perhaps she could have starred in Double Indemnity, or even Vertigo. She had come dressed for the part. Stigwood had spent more than a decade attempting to bring the story of political icon Eva Perón to the big screen, using the Broadway blockbuster Evita as its blueprint, and during that time he’d seen such Hollywood leading ladies as Meryl Streep come and go. But Madonna was convinced that she was destined for the role. And yet despite Platinum-selling albums and numerous music awards, she had yet to prove herself a viable film star. While Desperately Seeking Susan had been a modest success, both Shanghai Surprise and Who’s That Girl proved disappointing. But with Evita, she felt she could finally prove to the world that she could deliver a worthwhile performance. But there was one problem, and it wasn’t her role in an upcoming adaptation of Dick Tracy. As legend would have it, Madonna had spent the eighties courting controversy and pushing boundaries, but even Boxing Helena could have been a step too far.
The early nineties would prove to be the most notorious era of Madonna’s long and distinguished career as she repeatedly provoked both her fans and detractors with her documentary Truth or Dare, the explicit Sex book, and the erotic thriller Body of Evidence. One would think that a film such as Boxing Helena would go hand-in-hand with these projects. Helena had given herself to Nick for one night, and this liaison was now in the past with countless other affairs. And yet he has been unable to let her go. Just a brief glimpse of her in a bar was all it took for those memories to come flooding back. Later that evening, drawn to her once again, he scales the trees outside her apartment and watches lustfully as she strolls across her room in just a bra and skirt. But his fantasy is ruined as another figure steps into frame, and as Nick runs frantically through the night, he is haunted by images of the man sucking her nipples and peeling off her clothes, his lips and fingers performing the tasks that Nick could only dream of. But she did not love that man like Nick loved her.
In much the same way that Helena was depicted as a beauty with a volatile reputation, ever since Madonna first left her mark on popular culture in the mid-eighties she had been equally adored and reviled. Following a career-making performance at the MTV Video Music Awards in 1984, she became both a superstar and an icon for young women. While she had attempted to distance herself from A Certain Sacrifice, a softcore exploitation picture shot in the late seventies, her mainstream acting debut came in 1985 with the comedy Desperately Seeking Susan. ‘I picked Madonna even though people around me were hesitant,’ claimed director Susan Seidelman soon after the film’s release. ‘I fought to keep her in the movie, and if it’s successful, or even if they call it a Madonna movie, I’ll feel proud of that. I was able to see something in her before other people could, and I stuck it in a movie.’ Despite the success of the picture, Madonna would not prove to be a box office draw, with her next feature, Shanghai Surprise, proving a bitter disappointment. Who’s That Girl, released the following year, would fare only slightly better. ‘It’s not as good as Desperately Seeking Susan,’ wrote one reviewer, ‘but if you’re the slightest bit of a Madonna fan, it’s well worth going to see.’
Boxing Helena would seem tailor-made for a star such as Madonna: the provocative tale of a beautiful woman who is obsessed over to the point that her admirer must possess her body. Ever since pre-fame nude photographs were leaked to both Playboy and Penthouse soon after her rise to stardom, sex and Madonna have remained interchangeable. Uli Edel recognised both the vulnerability and raw sexuality that she displayed when he cast her as a murder suspect in his thriller Body of Evidence. ‘As an actress, she must play someone else, not sell herself as she has to onstage,’ he explained in the film’s presskit. ‘Of course, I didn’t want her to stop being herself altogether. She needed to be able to freely access the aspects of herself that she could incorporate into the role. She’s a tough, strong iron lady on the one hand, but also a vulnerable, fragile, and very funny woman.’ How Madonna would have chosen to portray Helena is a matter of debate, but as she expressed interest in the role, the part of Nick Cavanaugh would be offered to a celebrated character actor.
‘I don’t know what my persona is. I don’t give a fuck either, to tell you the truth,’ declared Ed Harris in an interview with New York Magazine. ‘Perhaps that’s the drawback to my career, because I haven’t tried to get into a place where I’m playing the same guy over and over again.’ Nick Cavanaugh was a thirty-something man still plagued by his inadequacies of childhood, of how he fought and failed for his mother’s affection, and how this need to be loved has been projected onto Helena. Ed Harris was thirty-nine when he was approached to take the lead role in Boxing Helena, which would depict his emotionally-scarred surgeon obsessing over the unobtainable Madonna and, after observing the flawed perfection of the Venus de Milo, amputating her limbs in order to have her to himself. It was to be the most challenging role of his career, and one that would prove he was an actor willing to take chances and play against type. While his early career was guided by such cult filmmakers as George A. Romero and Alex Cox, it would be James Cameron’s science fiction fantasy The Abyss that cemented his reputation as a leading man. ‘It was a bitch,’ he declared when looking back on the underwater shoot that drove both cast and crew to the brink of insanity.
With Harris having spent his career portraying masculine characters, it is unclear how he would have approached the role of Nick, an emasculated man who is drawn to those women who abuse him, and has a tendency to prematurely ejaculate during intercourse. This would be a far cry from the alpha males that he had played in such pictures as To Kill a Priest and The Abyss. But with Harris lacking the star appeal of Tom Cruise or Kevin Costner, this would allow him to pursue unconventional projects such as Boxing Helena. ‘My career has been based on playing characters. I don’t have that star persona,’ he claimed. ‘I like to think of myself as an actor, not a personality.’ It was this mentality that first drew him to Lynch’s screenplay and the character of Nick Cavanaugh. In Boxing Helena, he is both the sympathetic victim and the villain. ‘I knew I had to choose a victim and I knew it couldn’t be Helena, because then it would have made a movie about cutting up a woman,’ said Lynch. ‘Nick does not love Helena because he wants to have sex with her. He loves her because he wants her to let him in, somehow.’
In an attempt to lure Helena into his world he throws an extravagant party at his new home. All are invited; his colleagues, his best friend, Lawrence, his girlfriend, Anne, and, most importantly, Helena. The more dismissive and abusive she is towards him, the more submissive he is to her. He seems oblivious to the neglect and pain he is causing his partner as he openly obsesses over the beautiful young woman. Even as the sight of her with another man breaks his heart, he remains devoted to her every whim. ‘Nick is attracted to exactly what has hurt him all his life; a beautiful woman who says nothing to him but, ‘This is wrong, I hate you, leave me alone, you’re a joke,’’ explained Lynch. ‘Which is exactly what his mother said, essentially what his father said, aside from, ‘You will be a surgeon.’ I think that we are drawn repeatedly, in an act of insanity to get it right, to the people who abuse us, and that’s why Helena exists with Ray. Ray is about making sure Helena doesn’t learn that there’s a nice person inside this.’
The toxic relationship between the selfish Helena and the dominating Ray is a mirror reflexion of Nick’s obsession with Helena: both have an abuser who dominates the other through emotional manipulation and verbal tyranny, while the other dismisses everyone else in their life as inconsequential. Watching the two of them explore each other’s bodies sickens Nick as he knows that Ray does not deserve her, and yet as a result of her own abusive and selfish treatment of others, she is someone who – much like its director would be told – deserves not to be loved. ‘The suggestion that, as a human being, I didn’t deserve to be loved again, something that the National Organisation of Women actually said to me,’ recalled Lynch to The Guardian. ‘Are you fucking kidding me? C’mon, even Hitler deserved to be loved – in fact, a little love might have made him a way better guy.’
But as Boxing Helena entered pre-production, the filmmakers encountered their first of many obstacles. Madonna announced that she was withdrawing from the project. ‘It was scheduled for a prosthetic fitting the next day,’ said Mazzocone. ‘We lost almost $750,000, and had to fire close to a hundred crew people. It was the first time I cried in my adult life. So many people were counting on me. We were starting to build our set. I had to meet a $250,000 payroll. I mortgaged my house.’ Madonna’s involvement with Boxing Helena had been announced in November 1990, with principal photography due to commence the following February, but her decision to turn down the role threw the production into disarray. She was still reeling from the controversy caused by her Like a Prayer music video, and the success of Dick Tracy, when she made the announcement. Mazzocone dismissed much of his crew, Harris waited patiently for a new actress to be cast, and Lynch returned to the drawing board as work on Boxing Helena came to a standstill.
‘The past was too close to Madonna, maybe,’ mused Lynch. ‘That may have scared her or those around her. David certainly counselled me that big stars were trouble. He was very excited when we had Madonna. Then when she was gone he said, ‘Now you know.’ He’s a dad!’ Although she had withdrawn and left the future of Boxing Helena shrouded in uncertainty, Madonna returned the money that her exit had cost the production, and by the New Year, Mazzocone was ready to start casting once again. ‘The whole thing blew up when Andrew Lloyd Webber said, You can’t have Evita, Madonna, if you do Boxing Helena,’’ revealed Lynch. ‘She wrote me the most beautiful letter, called me crying, and paid back every dime we’d spent. It was the most admirable action. She knew we were a small production that had spent time. She knew there was a deal. It was incredible.’ The loss of Madonna, however, would not be the greatest tragedy that would befall the makers of Boxing Helena, as more drama was about to unfold.
Nudity was nothing new to Kim Basinger, but the demands of the screenplay she had just read would require her to be exposed in a way she had never experienced before. It’s not that the sex scenes were explicit. For they were far less erotic than the notorious 9 ½ Weeks that launched her career, nor was it as graphic as her appearance in Playboy. But there was a sadism and humiliation that left her feeling vulnerable. Still, there was something fascinating about the story that captivated her, much in the same way that its eponymous character captivated its tragic hero. She had spent the last few years attempting to forge a respectable acting career and such a project could prove to be a stain on her résumé, but if approached it the right way this could cement her reputation as a fearless actress. Three weeks after the role had been officially offered, Basinger met with its director to discuss her concerns regarding the nudity and how it would be depicted onscreen. An hour later both parties had come to a consensus, and on 24 January, 1991, almost a month to the day since she first received the manuscript, Basinger accepted the role of Helena.
Basinger’s star was on the rise. Having started her career as a model and television bit-part actress in the seventies, she first found success as a Bond girl opposite Sean Connery in Never Say Never Again, but it would be her risqué performances in 9 ½ Weeks and No Mercy in the mid-eighties that transformed her into a sex symbol. The phenomenal success of Batman in the summer of 1989 took the world by storm, and it would be while riding high on this acclaim that she agreed to participate in Boxing Helena. The demands of the role would not be foreign to Basinger, who was pushed close to breaking point by director Adrian Lyne during the filming of 9 ½ Weeks. ‘I knew if I got through this, it would make me stronger, wiser,’ she admitted during its promotion. ‘I was going against my total grain. I felt disgusted, humiliated, but when you go against your grain you just know that emotions you never knew you had will surface.’ Having survived the experience of shooting the erotic, and occasionally sadomasochistic, picture would serve her well as she discussed the role of Helena with Lynch.
Boxing Helena was the kind of project that an actor chooses when they want to test their own limits, while also revealing their courage to the world, and so Basinger, whose recent project included the comedies Blind Date and My Stepmother Is an Alien, saw this was an opportunity to grow as an artist. The story of an objectified woman mutilated through amputation in order to appease the desires of an emotionally disturbed man appeared morally questionable even during the early nineties, but Lynch was determined to depict the film as a tragic love story, not an exercise in misogyny. And it was this mentality that lured Basinger to the role, seeing Boxing Helena less as a horror picture and more as an arthouse film that explored important themes of desire and possession within relationships. ‘The film is not there to objectify women,’ insisted Lynch. ‘It is an observation of what I felt went on in the obsessive relationships I’ve been involved in. I would never dare to think of punishing a woman for enjoying her sexuality. In fact, I don’t think what happens in this movie is gender specific. The story would work just as well if it were about a woman obsessed with a man.’
Among the moments in which Basinger’s character would be objectified and sexualised by Nick Cavanaugh were the love scenes involving Helena, and Nick’s party in which she allows her scantily clad body to become soaking wet by standing under the garden fountain, much to the anger of both Lawrence and Anne, Nick’s friend and partner, respectively. Disgusted that Nick had invited the promiscuous young woman, Anne insists on asking if they are sleeping together, but Nick is too preoccupied to discover that Helena is leaving with another man. But in her haste she left behind her handbag and so later that evening leaves a message on his answer machine, demanding that he deliver it to the airport. Infuriated that he has arrived late at the terminal, she becomes even more volatile when she finds that her address book is missing and so reluctantly returns to his home. Despite insisting that she wants nothing to do with him, he attempts to make the house as inviting as possible, even lighting candles in order to create an intimate setting. As she waits for him to locate the book she explores the vast lounge, taking a moment to admire the captivating beauty of the Venus de Milo.
Having realised that she had been manipulated into entering his home, Helena grabs her handbag and marches off the property, only to be struck down by a speeding car in a violent hit-and-run. Following the incident, Nick retreats from his public life, prompting a rival surgeon, Alan Harrison, to lobby for a promotion. Paying a visit to Nick’s mansion, he request that his name be put forward as a replacement as the head of surgery, only to discover that Nick has kept the young woman as his private patient. Horrified by his unethical practices, Alan tries to convince him to admit her to the hospital, but Nick blackmails him into keeping his discovery a secret in return for a promotion. Dedicating his life to his new patient, Nick cares for Helena who remains defiant to his advances. Avoiding visits from Lawrence, Nick cuts himself off from the outside world as he tries to win the heart of Helena. In an attempt to challenge his authority, she mocks his lack of sexual strength, particularly his failure as a lover, prompting him to have sex with Anne while Helena watches from the next room, but once again he prematurely ejaculates from the excitement. After driving Anne from his home, he is dismissed by Helena as being pathetic and only being able to last for three seconds during intercourse.
Basinger’s involvement with Boxing Helena was first called into question in April 1991 when she relocated from InterTalent to a more established talent agency, International Creative Management (ICM). The deal between Main Line Pictures and InterTalent was originally negotiated by Bill Block, who founded InterTalent in 1988 and would, ironically, join ICM four years later, where he would represent such talent as Sam Raimi and Charlie Sheen. ‘Kim and I had a business discussion that day, in which she agreed to let me go ahead and try to make a deal for both Final Analysis and Boxing Helena,’ recalled Block. ‘I think the only discussion we had about Boxing Helena at that point was that I told her she had the greatest legs in the world, why would she want to play a role where they get cut off?’ But after her transfer to ICM, her new agent, Guy McElwaine, protested Basinger’s commitment to Boxing Helena. ‘The moment I sat down to write the screenplay, I knew this wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea,’ admitted Lynch. ‘There are a lot of very powerful images in the idea of a woman in a box. It’s about being a victim.’ On 6 May, 1991, less than a month after signing to ICM, Basinger contacted Main Line to discuss changes to her character, feeling that Helena should be portrayed in a more sympathetic light. ‘She wanted the character to be less of a bitch,’ concurred Mazzocone. ‘We did our best to tone it down, but if Helena isn’t a bitch the movie doesn’t work.’
Main Line’s intention to file a lawsuit against both Basinger and Mighty Wind, Inc. was first announced by the tabloids on 24 June, 1991, three days after the suit was filed with the Superior Court for breach of contract. This would set a precedent in legal proceedings as it would rest on whether an oral contract was as legally binding as that of its written counterpart. ‘You waste months of effort putting together a deal based on the star. Then she walks off and I’m left holding the bills,’ insisted Mazzocone. ‘The way the industry does business is what is on trial here.’ The lawsuit was announced one year after producer Sherry Lansing and actor Woody Harrelson faced similar charges after Harrelson backed out of the independent picture Benny & Joon to co-star alongside Demi Moore in the erotic drama Indecent Proposal. While the case was eventually settled out of court for just $500,000, Mazzocone was determined for both Basinger and the film industry as a whole to be held accountable for breaking contracts with production companies. ‘She damaged my picture and my life,’ he told the New York Times. ‘I have a lot of bills to pay, and she’s going to pay me.’
In order to face the strength of both Basinger and her powerful representatives, Mazzocone recruited the services of noted attorney Patricia Glaser. The central argument of their case was that Basinger had made enough of a commitment to her role in Boxing Helena, including requesting changes to the screenplay, that her oral agreement should be as legally binding as a written contract. As per the negotiations made with Main Line Pictures, Basinger was required to work on the project for a total of six weeks and in return she would have received a star–sized dressing room, a state-of-the-art VCR, treadmill, and area to relax in between takes, with a compensation that would equal approximately $3m. According to an article published by the Los Angeles Times in March 1993, Basinger’s decision to exit the project cost the producers in excess of $6.4m, resulting in Mazzocone’s decision to file the lawsuit. During the subsequent trial, Basinger implied that Lynch’s changes to the script that she had requested were inadequate, leading to her decision to withdraw. ‘I told her they were laughable,’ Basinger informed the jury. ‘I told her it was like bad television, the worst television writing in history.’
An independent production company taking a Hollywood actress to court was depicted by the press as a David and Goliath-type story, the tale of an underdog refusing to be intimidated by its powerful adversary. Having first practiced law in 1973, Glaser formed the Los Angeles-based Glaser Weil fifteen years later and initially made a name for herself, as revealed in an article published by Los Angeles Magazine in 1998, through several cases for MGM. Glaser was aware of Basinger’s star power, but perhaps not prepared for the media circus that would surround the trial. ‘I was referred back a thousand years ago by a mutual friend,’ explained Glaser. ‘There were five long forms drafted, the death of which was the execution copy that is actually, albeit not signed, completely and utterly negotiated. So we met with witnesses, Carl’s deposition was taken, and obviously Kim Basinger’s deposition was taken. So she was asked point blank, ‘Are there any other films where there isn’t a signed agreement?’ And she testified, under oath, in her deposition, and repeated it at trial, that with every movie she’d ever done up until that point, there was a signed form. And when we asked her after her deposition to produce those signed long forms, sort of holding our breath, there was one. And the rest of them didn’t even have a deal memo signed.’
Even as Main Line Pictures started the ball rolling on the lawsuit against Basinger and her representatives, Mazzocone and Lynch once again started a search to find an actress that could bring the character of Helena to life. With both Madonna and Basinger having proved that major stars could be troublesome, the two began to rethink their approach. Meanwhile, however, the constant delays caused their other star to walk from the project. ‘I needed to get on with my life,’ admitted Ed Harris, who reluctantly stepped away from the role of Nick Cavanaugh. ‘Boxing Helena was not my dream. It faded for me. I did put my career on hold for them. I had a pay-or-play deal. I have not been paid; I decided not to play.’ Despite the delays that Boxing Helena had caused for Harris, he delivered one of the most acclaimed performances of his career the following year in the ensemble Glengarry Glen Ross. In the aftermath of his departure, the filmmakers now required a new beauty and a new man to obsess over her. ‘They dropped out for personal reasons,’ confirmed Lynch. ‘I asked a lot of them. Putting somebody in a box, and being that person in a box, it’s very difficult.’
Helena sits propped up like some kind of ghoulish ornament. The beauty of her face remains, but without her arms and legs she is nothing but a torso, breasts and buttocks that can be admired as he places her in her box, displaying her imperfections much like the statue that poses in the hallway. Nick seems oblivious to the sick game that he is playing, having removed her limbs in order to make Helena his property. And all the hostility and emasculations do little to curb his spirit. He dresses her, bathes her, and represents her only connection to the outside world, yet he remains nothing to her. She mocks and berates him regardless of what power he has over her, and while he must know he can never win her heart, he is still determined to succeed. ‘It doesn’t matter,’ she declares. ‘It doesn’t change anything.’ But he insists that no other man has cared for her as much as he does, and so the more she is forced to rely on him, the more she becomes dependant on his love. She fears she is now too worthless to be loved by anyone else, and in some sick and twisted way through all their abuse they have found each other.
With both Madonna and Kim Basinger revealing to Lynch how untrustworthy Hollywood stars can be, she was forced to search outside of the A-list celebrity circle. Their search would take her somewhere more familiar, to an actress she had bonded with during her visits to the set of Twin Peaks. While the central concept surrounded the murder of Laura Palmer, many viewers had become fascinated with a peculiar young character who had enchanted the FBI agent tasked with solving the crime. Sherilyn Fenn was just two weeks shy of her twenty-fourth birthday when she travelled to Washington in the northwest region of the United States to portray the enigmatic Audrey Horne. While this would prove to be her breakout role, Fenn was already a veteran of both film and television, having started her career in the Cameron Crowe comedy The Wild Life at the age of nineteen. ‘I met an agent and he was a jerk,’ she recalled. ‘Then I met another agent, Cynthia Campos-Greenberg, and she really inspired me. She taught me things. She lit a fire in me that I didn’t know existed. I started to want to act for reasons other than wanting to be a movie star.’
Fenn would not be a stranger to the kind of nudity that would be demanded of her with Boxing Helena, having appeared topless in both The Wraith and Meridian, and full-frontal in the erotic drama Two Moon Junction. But it was Twin Peaks that first brought her to the attention of a wide audience. ‘Audrey wasn’t in the script,’ she revealed to The Daily Telegraph. ‘David wrote her for me. I was there like all of the other girls in my age range, auditioning to play either Shelly or Donna. I was considered a very inconsequential character, and a lot of what I wore was my own clothes.’ Despite the small part initially played in the show, the phenomenal success of Twin Peaks turned her into a cult icon. ‘It changed my career completely,’ she admitted. ‘The character kept growing and evolving. Those characters don’t come along often. Doors opened all of a sudden. I was viable. People would consider me for bigger roles.’ Her performance as Audrey also prompted David Lynch to offer Fenn a minor role in his surreal road movie Wild at Heart, but it would be Audrey Horne that she will be forever known as.
As Twin Peaks first hit the air, Fenn decided to pose naked for Playboy, gracing the front cover and further boosting her profile. Despite the minor notoriety of Two Moon Junction, her first lead role, she would later express regret for starring in the picture. ‘I’ve come to peace with it now,’ she said in 2017. ‘I was naïve about some things. My manager at the time said, ‘Now they can’t ignore you anymore.’ Well, great, what am I supposed to do with that?! As you get older, you see that clichés exist because they’re real.’ With Boxing Helena, she found her most challenging role to date. Madonna, one of the most provocative stars of the eighties, had allegedly backed out for fear that it would ruin her chance of landing her dream role, and Basinger, it would be revealed during the trial, had issues over the film’s nudity and sexual content, but Sherilyn Fenn would remain committed to the role, and finally, five years after Philippe Caland first approached Jennifer Lynch with the pitch, cameras finally began rolling on Boxing Helena.
With Ed Harris having bowed out following Basinger’s departure, Mazzocone and Lynch desperately searched for an actor to take on the part of Nick Cavanaugh. English-born Julian Sands had spent the eighties forging a career as a respected character actor with such acclaimed dramas as The Killing Fields and A Room with a View, before gradually finding work for American production companies with such low-key pictures as Siesta, but it would be the 1989 horror film Warlock that afforded him his breakthrough role. This would prove a refreshing change after a succession of British dramas, ‘As a warlock, I am the prince of malevolence. He’s so totally bad there is something attractive and pure about his evil,’ he told the Los Angeles Times. ‘I’ve always accepted roles purely on the worth of the screenplays. I don’t make it a point to seek macho characterisations. I like to work. If a script comes in that appeals to me, I take it.’ One element that Boxing Helena would not require from Sands was macho characterisations, as his character is metaphorically castrated by the object of his affection and humiliated on a regular basis.
Warlock would open up a whole new world to Sands, one that would require working with elaborate make-up and special effects, and so the following year he returned to the fantasy genre once again with the box office hit Arachnophobia. The film, which explored an outbreak of deadly spiders in a small American town, would traumatise a generation of children. ‘I discovered that I’m not afraid of spiders and that I actually like them, but I know that a lot of people are,’ he stated. ’There’s that one scene where I’m totally covered in them. This was all made pre-digital, so to get that shot I had to lie down and have a mask over my face with a tube, and they would drop eighty-to-a-hundred spiders down the tube, and at the last minute pull the mask away. So, it meant that for five or ten minutes, I had a hundred spiders on my face and I just sort of had to be in a zen place.’ Sands would continue to earn acclaim during this time with memorable performances in The Sun Also Shines at Night and David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch, but while his characters had previously been defined as either sympathetic or an antagonist, Boxing Helena would demand both from him.
The casting of Sands would prove beneficial for Lynch, who would alter the depiction of Nick due to the influence of new actor. ‘He opened my eyes to all sorts of things about Nick that I hadn’t allowed for,’ she revealed. ‘I wanted him to be attractive, and I wanted him to be somebody you could fall in love with through your heart, less than your eyes. And I think because he is a very masculine, big, strong man, he was very willing to castrate himself emotionally, and physically, onscreen, and that’s a very bold, brave thing to do. And it was appropriate to the character. And I think he really leant some genuine softness and humour to what otherwise could have simply been grinding.’ Unlike many in the industry, Sands shared Lynch’s vision of the script. ‘It was seen to be exploitative, brutal, and grotesque,’ he said. ‘It had, within it, great beauty and romance, and feeling, even if it all got a little warped. I love working with Jennifer. It’s interesting that young people, who weren’t necessarily alive when we made the film, approach me often and want to talk about it.’
It is unlikely that Nick would have been depicted in the same pathetic manner had Ed Harris remained onboard, and with Basinger’s reluctance to embrace Helena’s more vicious qualities her performance would have been far different to that of Fenn. ‘It would have been a different film if we had signed the original cast,’ admitted Lynch. But this would not be the first time that Fenn signed onto a project she felt intimidated by. ‘The nudity in Two Moon Junction was really scary, but that’s one of the reasons I did it,’ she explained. ‘I didn’t want to make choices that would always put me in a place that was comfortable and secure. I had never done nudity. I’m not the kind of person who runs down the beach in a G-string, so I thought, ‘God, how would I respond to these situations?’ I thought interesting things would happen and I would grow. Interesting things did happen. I cried at the end of all my love scenes.’ While Boxing Helena would not require full-frontal nudity, the humiliation that her character was forced to endure proved as emotionally exhausting.
As Helena begins to understand who Nick truly is, she sees him as a tragic figure and gradually her sympathy turns to affection. She tries to offer him a sexual fantasy where he is with a dream woman, a girl that desires his touch, and through this fantasy he imagines them together. This is the sexual togetherness that he has longed for as long as he can remember, and even though in reality his head rests on her lap, in his mind they make passionate love. That night Nick brings back a young woman to the house and they have sex in the lounge where Helena can watch, purely so he can prove that he can be a confident lover and earn her validation. Helena watches on, craving for the same kind of intimacy. A reluctant bond has grown between them, and while she tries to hide the fact, she has clearly developed feelings for her captor. But how much longer can this charade continue? Surely it is only a matter of time before what he has done to Helena is discovered by the outside world.
A shadow is finally cast over their disturbing relationship when Ray, Helena’s rejected lover, arrives at the house to find them passionately kissing. But what he would discover next was even more horrific. His beautiful and sexy Helena now sits before him with her limbs amputated. And in his horror he declares her a freak. As Ray begins to beat Nick, she screams hysterically for him to stop, having finally seen the truth that Nick loves her no matter what, whereas Ray wanted her only for her perfect body. Seeing her as an abomination he declares, ‘You should die,’ but he is unable to aim his gun towards her. ‘Damn you, she was beautiful,’ he exclaims, to which Nick angrily retorts, ‘She is beautiful.’ Ray beats him until he loses consciousness, the statue of the Venus de Milo crashing down on him as Helena finally declares her love. ‘It did scare me in a lot of ways,’ recalled Fenn. ‘I’m nothing like the character. Helena seems in control, but in that control is a very lost person. She’s forced to deal with everything inside of her.’
All twelve members of the jury stepped one-by-one onto the bus that was waiting outside the courthouse. Attorneys soon made their way to the remaining seats and once all were aboard, they made the short trip through the Los Angeles streets to the building that housed the Writers Guild of America West. It is not uncommon for a court to make an excursion to witness something that would lend perspective to a trial, although in most instances this would be the scene of a crime. On this morning, however, the evidence on display will be an advanced copy of Boxing Helena. Basinger’s defence had rested on two main points: a legally binding contract had not been agreed on, and the actress had felt uncomfortable with the explicit sex scenes that were expected of her. ‘When you’re asked to do a scene in which you are asked to do partial or total nudity, it is important for you to meet that individual you are going to do it with before you agree to do it,’ her attorney, Howard Weitzmen, had told the court. Four jurors had requested to be excused due to their objections over watching a film they perceived as erotic and sadistic, but once this issue was resolved the film was played for the benefit of those men and women who carried the burden of delivering the verdict.
Almost six years after she had written the screenplay, Jennifer Lynch now sat across the court from Kim Basinger as both Patricia Glaser and Howard Weitzman fought to disprove each other’s case. With Judge Judith Chirlin presiding, Basinger’s representatives explained to the jury how their client could not be guilty of a breach of contract. ‘Deals fall apart all the time. To my knowledge, there was no final deal for Kim to star in Boxing Helena,’ claimed her former agent, Bill Block, when he was called to testify on 8 March, 1993. ‘If it had been my understanding that Kim had a legal obligation to star in Boxing Helena, I would never have pursued these other parts for her.’ Prior to her discussion with Carl Mazzocone and Lynch, Basinger had purchased the majority of the two-thousand-acre town of Braselton in north Georgia for a reported $20m, which she hoped to revamp as a tourist attraction. But three years later, in March 1992, the Chicago Tribune ran a story that criticised Basinger’s lack of action on her proposed remodelling of the town. Basinger, meanwhile, would tie the knot with fellow actor Alec Baldwin, whom she first met in 1990 on the set of the romantic comedy The Marrying Man.
While the defence maintained that the explicit content of the screenplay was the motive for Basinger’s withdrawal from Boxing Helena, the prosecution believed they had another motive at heart. ‘The alleged motive, and it’s clear, [was] that ICM was not going to get a commission in connection to this project because the prior agent had made the deal, and so what you have is a new agent not getting any part of the deal,’ explained Glaser in a 2020 interview with the Beverly Hills Bar Association. ‘And that was the allegation, that, at best, [it] was a mixed motive. We thought the prominent motive was not getting pay for that one, ‘So let’s get her out of that and get something where I can get my ten per cent commission.’ Now that was the thrust of our position.’ Despite this, Block remained adamant that wasn’t the case. ‘Don’t get me wrong, I think your word is everything,’ he claimed. ‘But if you’re asking if someone is legally bound by an oral agreement, I’d have to say no.’
The trial of Main Line Pictures, Inc. vs. Basinger could have serious implications upon the film industry if the court ruled in favour of the filmmakers, as that would mean any artist who has made an oral agreement could be legally obligated to fulfil their agreed commitments. Mazzocone had demanded that Basinger pay millions in damages to cover the expenses that were wasted when the production was shut down for a second time. Even with the pressure of the trial, the filmmakers unveiled Boxing Helena at the Sundance Film Festival in late January 1993. Praised and dismissed in equal measures, this would give Lynch a taste of what to expect when the picture was finally released by Orion Pictures in the summer of 1993. ‘It had no chance to be seen through unbiased eyes,’ she declared. Elsewhere, in a separate interview she added, ‘I would love to know why people were so mad at me for telling a crazy fairy-tale. I’m the first to say I didn’t know what I was doing.’
If there was one criticism levelled at the screenplay it was Lynch’s decision to end her story with an it was all a dream twist. Following the attack by Ray, Nick wakes up in the hospital to find Dr. Alan Harrison standing over him, only to be informed that Helena was on the operating table for six hours and is now recovering. Initially confused by this bizarre turn of events, he comes to realise that after Helena was struck by the car Nick had phoned for an ambulance and accompanied her to the hospital, which means her amputations, his blackmailing of Harrison, and his emotional connection with Helena were just figments of his imagination. In truth, he still means nothing to her. So when taking this revelation into consideration, the criticism that Lynch would receive regarding the treatment of Helena could be considered redundant as in reality he neither cut her flesh with a scalpel nor imprisoned her against her will. While most reviews would focus on the so-called misogyny, those that did discuss the plot would remain critical towards how the story came to an end.
Shrouded in controversy and press speculation, Boxing Helena was a box office failure upon its initial release. Opening in a hundred-and-sixty-one screens on 3 September, 1993, the same day that also marked the debuts of the Christopher Lambert science fiction flick Fortress and the Brad Pitt thriller Kalifornia, Lynch’s romantic fantasy made just $787,724 over the Labour Day weekend. Kalifornia, meanwhile, earned $1.2m, and Fortress $4m. The number one slot was once again taken by The Fugitive, released a month earlier, which dominated the box office with another taking of $17.2m. Other popular draws that week included Steven Spielberg’s latest blockbuster Jurassic Park, Hard Target, and Mel Gibson’s directorial debut, The Man Without a Face. ‘I didn’t do this to become the next Spielberg,’ claimed Lynch. ‘I needed to back away a little bit. I learned a lot about people and this business, most of which I didn’t want to know.’ Boxing Helena would fail to reach the top ten, although the controversy would continue with negative reviews that followed in its wake, which would include a Worst Director win at the 14th Golden Raspberry Awards.
‘Boxing Helena is going to be much-maligned, but probably for all the wrong reasons,’ noted the Associated Press. ‘The real reason is Boxing Helena is a bad film, with terrible acting, clichéd dialogue, a silly script, pedestrian camera work, and inferior direction. Much of the blame must be placed with director Jennifer Chambers Lynch, who also wrote the screenplay, and with those who decided to give her the money to make this movie; the producers, Carl Mazzocone, and Philippe Caland (who’s responsible for the story), and executive producers James R. Schaeffer and Larry Sugar.’ The Austin Chronicle would criticise the film for its lack of substance. ‘Forget any expectations you may have had about Boxing Helena‘s treatment of obsessive love, gender roles, the objectification of women, disabilities, or the psychology of prisoners and captors; there isn’t any,’ its writer noted. ‘This film has all the psychological depth of a wading pool.’ Another negative analysis would come from the Deseret News. ‘Writer-director Jennifer Lynch has made a movie that attempts dark comedy and horror, but which instead merely seems simplistic, dull-witted, and misogynistic,’ they said. ‘Add to that a conclusion that proves she does not have the courage of her convictions, and it’s apparent the entire ﬁlm is not very well thought out.’
But not all reviews of Boxing Helena would be negative. While the Baltimore Sun raised the concern that the ‘troubling thing about the film is that it sympathises with Sands, not Fenn, who is viewed as deserving what she gets,’ other writers would praise the themes Lynch had attempted to explore with her screenplay. ‘Boxing Helena, while not the work of a Girl Scout, could also not be mistaken for a film made by a man,’ explained the New York Times. ‘Ms. Lynch’s sense of her heroine’s intrinsic power comes through very clearly, and Helena’s ordeal is not presented as an attack on that power; indeed, Helena’s experience plays more like an eerie fantasy than as anything involving real pain. Though this film is sure to make enemies, it is also guaranteed a cult following on the strength of Ms. Lynch’s odd-but-coherent imagination.’ Perhaps the most surprising positive reaction would come from Gene Siskel, one half of the acclaimed critical duo Siskel & Ebert, who had often lambasted films that explored sexual violence. ‘I went to the theatre to see it expecting the worst,’ he admitted. ‘What I found instead was a brave little movie that explored the provocative issue of how some frustrated men channel their inner inability to love a woman into cruelty.’
The majority of critics had dismissed Boxing Helena as either exploitation, or merely unworthy of the controversy. Described by the Washington Post as ‘grossly overhyped,’ others saw the film as an attack on women and feminine sexuality. ‘It wasn’t really about the film,’ insisted Lynch on the negativity that surrounded Boxing Helena. ‘It was ‘Jennifer Lynch is a horrible person.’ Or I was a woman-hater. I was like, ‘What are you talking about? It’s a fairy-tale! Are you kidding me?’ It’s a movie. Who decided I’m bad? You don’t have to love it, but what’s that got to do with me? No one’s going around saying Quentin Tarantino has a bad soul!’ But she would not be the only member of the Lynch family whose work was often misunderstood and reviled upon its initial release. David Lynch’s highly-anticipated prequel Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me faced similar criticisms and proved to be the second critical disappointment of his career, following his 1984 adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune. But in recent years, Lynch’s Twin Peaks spinoff has been re-evaluated and is now considered ahead of its time by several modern film critics. Perhaps the same fate could befall Boxing Helena.
The critical backlash and controversy that the movie would garner was a burden that Lynch would struggle to overcome, effectively putting her promising career on a standstill while the dust settled around Boxing Helena. ‘The subject matter itself, just the verbal description, sounds violent, anti-feminist, anti-everything. But it’s really a tender love story about how we feel for each other, how we can change to make people love us,’ insisted Lynch. ‘Her loss of limbs is a metaphor for the thievery that goes on in relationships. It’s a bit more mainstream than one would think. The secret of being mainstream is simply that the audience goes in with expectations of a story they’ve never heard before. Rather than heads being blown off, your mind is blown…I just hope that any criticisms don’t taint people’s expectations of the movie. This is not a David Lynch picture. It’s a Jennifer Lynch picture.’
For six long years this had been a part of her life. For more than half a decade Helena had dominated her thoughts and dictated her actions. As she sat in the courtroom watching the attorneys play mind games with each witness, she felt emotionally exhausted. It seemed like a lifetime ago that a man had approached her in a club and pitched her a concept, the story of a woman whose limbs were amputated and her body taken prisoner by a man obsessed with her beauty. What had followed was one tragedy after another, and with each loss she had grown more weary of the concept. But she remained steadfast and fought to bring this vision to fruition. But this determination had also resulted in a lawsuit, a trial against her lead actress, and as she sat alongside her producer, the two seeking justice for the loss that they had endured, one couldn’t help but question whether it was worth all this. But this was more than just filmmakers seeking compensation, this was the independents versus the establishment. And yet even with a mission as noble as this, how much more could one person take?
As with any legal trial, the burden is always on the prosecution to make their case, and in the case of Main Line Pictures, Inc. vs. Basinger this burden was to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Kim Basinger had made a legally-binding commitment to star in the motion picture Boxing Helena. Her decision to withdraw from the project had cost its production company several million dollars in losses, including deals to pre-sale the film overseas, and had forced its filmmakers to abandon principal photography and to return to the drawing board once again. Its producer, Carl Mazzocone, had contacted Patricia Glaser of the Los Angeles litigation firm Glaser Weil to commence legal proceedings against the actress and her representatives. Boxing Helena had already caused a minor stir following the casting and loss of its original star, the pop icon Madonna, but it was the decision of Mazzocone to file a lawsuit against Basinger that would lead his movie into infamy.
In Department 34 of the Los Angeles Superior Court, Patricia Glaser and Howard Weitzman fought hard for supremacy as they waged war against one another. Kim Basinger had been called to the witness stand to testify to the level of commitment she had given to Boxing Helena. The key question here was whether an oral agreement should be legally-binding. ‘I’ve interviewed too many jurors over the years and they like pieces of paper,’ explained Glaser. ‘They understand what the law is, but it’s best if you have something in writing, because it gives them a sense of comfort that they’re doing the right thing.’ Despite still remaining committed to her directorial debut, with the filming having wrapped in the summer of 1992 and having finally been purchased by Orion Pictures, Lynch was required to make an appearance in court in defence of her film. ‘I participated because I wanted to stand up for myself and the movie,’ she told the media during the trial. ‘I wanted to say, ‘This is not a horror film.’ I had been working seven days a week for three years on this movie. I couldn’t see letting it go in a pile of lies.’
On 24 February, 1993, Glaser presented a memorandum to the court that detailed an agreement that was made between Mazzocone’s Main Line Pictures and Basinger. This included the agreement that would result in the actress receiving approximately $5m in compensation for her six-week involvement in the project. Having been impressed by Lynch’s screenplay, she had authorised her entertainment lawyer, Julie Philips, to negotiate for the role of Helena. But Basinger had first expressed doubts over the film when numerous friends and colleagues scoffed when they discovered that she had agreed to appear in the film. By that point, Boxing Helena had become something of an inside joke in the film industry, as its concept seemed too preposterous and outrageous to even gain a mainstream release. But both Mazzocone and Lynch were determined to see all their hard work come to fruition. During the trial it was insinuated that both Guy McElwaine, and his talent agency ICM, had been the ones to convince Basinger that the role would be a stain on her career.
But how legally-binding should one consider an oral agreement to be? ‘Hollywood has long operated on oral agreements and handshake deals, with only one studio, the Walt Disney Company, insisting on signed contracts,’ reported the Associated Press. ‘Actors rarely sign written agreements; at one point, Basinger signed her name on just two of nine movie contracts. Typically, performers or their agents are given verbal offers to star in motion pictures. Representatives for the actors and the producers then negotiate deal memos, usually a few pages long, highlighting compensation and employment conditions. Longer contracts are drafted, but rarely signed. In the Boxing Helena case, the film’s producers and Basinger’s attorney exchanged half a dozen contract drafts over a three-month period. None were signed, but it appeared to the film’s producers Basinger intended to act in the independently-financed movie. Mazzocone and his attorneys say the thirty-nine-year-old actress promised she would do the film. Basinger also wrote a Boxing Helena song, called the screenplay magical, and suggested a costume designer for the film, according to testimony.’
The most tragic part of the Boxing Helena legacy would be how its release and reputation would be overshadowed by the legal trial. This would be a bone of contention for its creator, Jennifer Lynch. But for Glaser, however, the media circus surrounding the trial proved endlessly fascinating. ‘One of the things I vividly recall was the gallery was packed every day with reporters, and Alec Baldwin, who was then her fiancé, came to court every day,’ explained Glaser. ‘Alec Baldwin, at the time, had a ferocious temper. And you could see when he got angry; literally from his neck up would get red. And my goal was to have him leap over the banister from the gallery, and come over and grab my neck, in front of the jury. I was close a couple of times, but I was never successful.’ While many believed that the Hollywood star would prove victorious, it would be Glaser and Main Line Pictures that won the case. In a vote of nine-to-three, the jury ordered that Basinger pay Main Line $7,421,694 in damages for breach of contract, and a further $1.5m for bad faith denial of the contract. ‘Today I was vindicated beyond all my wildest dreams, said Mazzocone. ‘I’m a little guy in the cog and I stood up for my rights.’
In late May 1993, two months after the verdict, Basinger filed for Chapter 22 bankruptcy due to having insufficient funds to repay her debt to Main Line. As a result, she was forced to auction off her share in Braselton, causing several residents of the small town to lose their jobs. Basinger would be regularly berated by the media for the crimes which she had been found guilty of committing. ‘There has been no emotion discovered yet that could describe the way I have felt,’ she admitted the following year. ‘If I had to describe the whole thing, I would say that it’s been a very expensive education.’ Despite the legal battle, Lynch maintained that she felt no ill will towards Basinger. ‘I feel sad that she took the advice of a brand new agent who came after we made our deal,’ she said. ‘This was the man who refused to shake my hand, and instead patted me on the head and said to my face, ‘She’s not gonna do your movie, little camper.’ We were forbidden to speak. He felt she shouldn’t be doing this, we were a small firm, and she could get out of it. I think she is an incredibly smart, talented actress who, like most people, can be talked into making choices that aren’t the most humane or reasonable because of the business.’
With the threat of financial disaster and the end of her career, Basinger was forced to throw herself back into her work and immediately signed onto three pictures: the first would be a heist film co-starring Val Kilmer called The Real McCoy, the second a cameo in the comedy sequel Wayne’s World 2, and the final, a remake of The Getaway, marking her second collaboration with Alec Baldwin. ‘I went right into The Getaway after a lot of this stuff happened; two days after, in fact,’ explained the actress. ‘I really buried myself in the work, and I’ve done it ever since. I’ve done it all along; for the last three-and-a-half years, just worked constantly. I have my own agenda to keep myself going. You just sort of say your prayers, ‘God, it’s me and you, pal.’ It always takes the truth a little longer to cross the finish line.’ The aftermath of the Boxing Helena trial may have left her future uncertain, but Basinger refused to admit defeat. A major triumph came when she won her first Academy Award for her performance in the 1997 drama L.A. Confidential. ‘I feel as though I have been through a crash course in life,’ she confessed. ‘It’s been an incredible ride.’
In September 1994, the California Court of Appeal took the surprise decision to reverse the verdict that had been announced at the end of the Main Line Pictures, Inc. vs. Basinger trial, which had forced Basinger to pay almost $9m to Mazzocone’s production company. A panel concluded that the actress should not have been held personally liable for the decisions made by Mighty Wind, Inc. The following month, a bankruptcy judge declared that a new settlement should be reached that was more reasonable, and in the summer of 1995 an agreement of approximately $3.8m, and $600,000 in legal fees, was reached. That August, Judge Chirlin was disciplined for attending the première of Boxing Helena at the invitation of the producers. This action was taken due to the judge having ‘joining in the plaintiff’s celebration of the movie’s release, and the plaintiff’s celebration of its legal victory.’ Further events unfolded when a bankruptcy trustee took legal action against Basinger’s former lawyers for what they considered a mishandling of the case. ‘None of it made any sense, and it was all so misrepresented,’ Basinger later claimed. ‘And the sad part about it is that nothing good became of it.’
Despite the long and arduous road to bring Boxing Helena to the big screen, Jennifer Lynch and Carl Mazzocone found some vindication not only in their legacy victory but the new lease of life that the movie would find on home video, enjoying more success on LaserDisc than it had received on the big screen. For Lynch, the picture was an opportunity to both write and direct her first feature film, and also a chance to explore subjects that were deeply personal to her. ‘Boxing Helena is the result of hope finding its way back, and of dreams and wishes regaining their place of authority,’ she wrote in a letter that accompanied a special edition release on LaserDisc. ‘It is about love. About the wanting. A desire so intense, in fact, that when the Handsome Prince never arrives with the glass slipper, the grave mistake is made of carving his Royal likeness out of the fleshy next door neighbour…the one who won’t stop sending those flowers. Ultimately, a story about forgiveness and self-preservation, Boxing Helena delivers in full a fantasy under which one human being owns another…and proudly, even vividly, demonstrates that there is no emptier purchase. Keep yourself in one piece!’