Zalman King, 1942-2012

Blue-movie maestro and latest of a long line of disparaged women’s-movie masters; 23 May 1942–3 February 2012.

Brad Stevens

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It is a truth universally acknowledged that many of those now regarded as the greatest American filmmakers were initially dismissed by arbiters of taste. Where are we likely to find the modern equivalents of Nicholas Ray, Budd Boetticher or Anthony Mann? One possible candidate is Zalman King, who passed away last February.

King (born Zalman Lefkowitz) was a popular film and television actor during the 1960s and 70s (he is the only Jewish actor to have played Christ on screen, in Michael Campus’s The Passover Plot), but later turned to writing, producing (notably two Alan Rudolph films and Adrian Lyne’s Nine½ Weeks) and directing. His directorial debut Wildfire (1988) suffered from behind-the-scenes interference and was little seen, but his next two films, Two Moon Junction (1988) and Wild Orchid (1989), were enormously successful on video, primarily appealing to female viewers interested in erotica that privileged feminine perspectives.

Like most directors who cater primarily to women (such as Douglas Sirk, George Cukor and John Stahl), King was ignored by ‘serious’ critics, but it was precisely this freedom from critical observation that enabled him to make a string of five notable films that refused to indulge the then-trendy postmodern contempt for emotional involvement in fictional narratives: Blue Movie Blue (1991), Delta of Venus (1994), Shame, Shame, Shame (1997), In God’s Hands (1998) and the sublime Women of the Night (1999).

In a period dominated by masculine values, King dared to portray masculinity as a neurotic flaw, and independent female sexuality not as a castrating threat but rather as a positive force enabling the male to overcome his inhibitions. King’s name is frequently used as a byword for cinematic sleaze – primarily, one assumes, by individuals who have never bothered to actually watch his films. Posterity will hopefully allow a more accurate evaluation.

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