This post is my contribution to the wonderfully comprehensive 1984-athon, hosted by Todd of Forgotten Films. Make sure you check out all the reviews, it’s a truly epic blogathon!
Red, perhaps more than any colour, comes with baggage. It signifies romance, but also danger, passion, revolution, courage, sacrifice… In short, it’s difficult to know how to take this humble hue. This sentiment seeps into the The Woman in Red, the 1984 film directed by a starring Gene Wilder. At the time of its release, Janet Maslin at the New York Times described it as ‘curiously dated’ and, in some ways, the intervening 30 years have not been kind to this lightweight romantic comedy.
Firstly the plot. The film did little to revive the adultery trope, almost treating with too light a hand. Middle-aged married advertising executive Theodore Pierce (Gene Wilder) becomes increasingly obsessed with the enigmatic Charlotte (Kelly LeBrock), the ‘woman in red’, whom he discovers one morning as he arrives for work. As he tries to engineer coincidental meetings, encouraged by his cronies, a case of mistaken identity occurs in the form of Ms Milner (Gilda Radner), a somewhat plain-Jane employee. After several more mishaps (after all, this is a romantic comedy) he finally meets Charlotte and, in an attempt to attract her attention, undergoes an extensive wardrobe makeover. If that all sounds formulaic it’s because it is, but somehow Wilder’s light touch carries the comedy through and although events are implausible, they don’t feel impossible. It’s also interesting to see a man undergo (or at least attempt to) a transformation to attract a woman. Now this doesn’t sound particularly ground-breaking, but in the image obsessed 80s, and set against Hollywood’s persuasive female make-over genre (look better, find love) as seen in Now, Voyager to My Fair Lady and The Enchanted Love to name just three, it’s a refreshing twist.
The Woman in Red knows it owes a debt to the classics – the scene where LeBrocker’s silky red dress is blown up by a well-placed air vent is clearly a direct take on Monroe – but it’s easy to forgive as it’s not pretending to be more than the sum of it’s parts. It’s lightweight and borderline slapstick, but it knows it. The film is actually a remake of a Pardon Mon Affaire, a 1977 French comedy; surely that’s where Wilder’s borderline guileless charm derives. It’s difficult to manage any other actor playing the role in this way and it’s testament to his talent that you can feel sympathy for his entirely self-created scrapes. By forgoing his often-manic air he created a softer, amiable and more believable character. He’s at his best when his ingenuity is put to the test – after all, that’s exactly what you expect from a Wilder character. The ability to avoid assigning blame – it’s not his fault Charlotte is so desirable, she wasn’t deliberately trying to attract his attention – is also refreshing if not revelatory.
LeBrock, a former model, made her acting debut in the film. The character clearly isn’t a stretch and is very one-dimensional – as the woman in red she’s there for one purpose: false promise. The symbolism of the woman in red is so obvious discussion is unnecessary, but Charlotte is an unusual version of the trope. She’s a distraction, but an unwitting one. The red dress isn’t an invitation for attention from an office temptress looking to ensnare unsuspecting colleagues, neither is her air vent moment executed with voyeurism in mind – she simply enjoyed the moment and went back for more. Lucky Theodore just managed to catch more than he bargained for.
In terms of costume, the woman in red has a long and varied cinema history – everyone from Jessica Rabbit to Audrey Hepburn has revelled in the delights of the shade – and The Woman in Red’s costume designer Ruth Myers managed to create an 80s appropriate version that celebrated the garment whilst also creating a new reference. Of course, elements of the dress pay homage to Monroe’s white dress (designed by William Travilla), but it also typifies the era of body-con and sportswear. There are echoes of Flashdance (1983) in the off-shoulder styling and LeBrock’s big curly hair is reminiscent of contemporary pop-culture icons. It might be a more casual dress than the red-dress standard, but that only reinforces Charlotte’s accidental enigma. She didn’t put that dress on because the wanted to be looked at, that just happened because of Theodore’s ingrained associations.
The Woman in Red isn’t a great or challenging movie but it’s an entertaining one. Wilder rescues its more farcical elements, but many of the slapstick routines are cringe-worthy rather than comedic. Although the movie is relatively short, there’s too many crammed in, and this affects plot development and the natural flow – sub-plots are introduced simply for laughs and fail to go anywhere. That said, Wilder wasn’t trying to make The Woman in Red anything other than a lightweight commercial comedy vehicle that tapped into the success of some of the decade’s romantic film greats (think An Officer and a Gentleman (1982), Gregory’s Girl (1981) and Arthur (1981)); it’s not pretending to be anything more than a play-for-laughs comedy with a bit of Hollywood homage thrown in for good measure.