Lenz on Cinema is a continuing series of articles examining the history of cinema through the filmography of actress Kay Lenz.
In an audio commentary for Stripped to Kill (1987), actress Kay Lenz discusses how she works on a project with director Katt Shea. She said that she tends to make films and TV shows and then move on pretty quickly without reflecting too much on the work. She sees films as a way of acting out a fantasy. She previously echoes this sentiment in a 1989 people magazine article.
Since 1993, Lenz has appeared on television mostly as a guest star. She has appeared in such shows as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (2000-2015), House (2004-2012), and former brother-in-law Shaun Cassidy’s Cover Me: Based on a True Life of an FBI Family (2000-2001). When she does appear in movies, it tends to be a supporting role or cameo appearance.
(Warning: Spoilers ahead.)
Hardboiled Roles: ‘Physical Evidence’ and ‘A Gun, A Car, A Blonde’
For most of the late 1980’s through 1990’s, Lenz played more hardboiled characters. She reteamed with Stripped to Kill (1987) director Katt Shea to play the brief role of a police Sargent in Streets (1990). In the family comedy, The Adventures of Ragtime (1998), Lenz plays a serious police detective trying to catch animal kidnappers Shelley Long and Jay Thomas. Ragtime credits her as a special appearance. Of the crime films, Physical Evidence (1989) and A Gun, A Car, A Blonde (1997) illustrate this part of Lenz’s career.
The last film directed by famed writer Michael Crichton, Physical Evidence stars Burt Reynolds as grizzled ex-cop Joe Paris, who has been accused of murdering a Bartender. Theresa Russell plays his plucky young attorney, Jennifer Hudson. Lenz plays Deborah Quinn, a battered wife who agrees to testify about Paris’s whereabouts as long as her husband is not in the room.
Originally written as a sequel to Jagged Edge (1985), Physical Evidence bears a closer resemblance to Sydney Pollack’s Absence of Malice (1981). Malice follows Michael Gallagher (Paul Newman) after he becomes a suspect in a kidnapping and probable murder when Newspaper reporter Megan Carter (Sally Field) writes a story about him. Malice is a serious drama, while Evidence plays as an absurd thriller.
Evidence comes across as a more of a product than Malice. Every one of these characters corresponds to a character in Absence of Malice (except for Hudson’s stock broker boyfriend (Ted McGinley)), but the characters in Evidence come across as character types more than real people. Paris seems like a composite of Dirty Harry, John Rambo, and Michael Gallagher based on how the script presents him. Both Carter and Hudson are incompetent at their job, but Hudson comes off as almost childish in the way she acts (especially when she flips off opposing attorney Ned Beatty outside of the courtroom). Absence of Malice also features a character similar to Lenz’s played by Melinda Dillon (who was Oscar nominated for her role). The character in Malice works because she has a more controversial reason for not wanting to tell her story to the press (she had an abortion while working at a Catholic school). With Lenz, she paid to have her abusive husband killed by the Bartender. While not impossible, this backstory seems more contrived and outlandish than the more grounded characterizations of Absence of Malice. Evidence also utilizes Lenz’s backstory more for plot reasons than examining the ethical implications of it. Dillon killing herself off screen also feels like a real turning point in the story, while Lenz’s murder comes across as another plot point.
Part of this came from who wrote the films. Journalist Kurt Luedtke wrote the original draft for Malice, and the film cares deeply for journalistic integrity. The mystery story adds up to a little more than a plot device to get Gallagher into the story. Evidence cares deeply about the mystery and that becomes the main thrust of the story. Christine (1983) screenwriter Bill Phillips wrote Evidence with story credit going to producer Martin Ransohoff’s son, Steve. Pollack also filmed Malice on real Florida locations to add to the realism.
With that said, Evidence has a zing to its dialogue and characterizations that makes it fun to watch. At one point, Reynolds refers to Russell’s uppity boyfriend as “his Gucciness.” Crichton’s awkward directing style also makes the film come across as silly rather than heartbreaking.
A Girl, A Car, A Blonde (1997) came from Stefani Ames and Billy Bob Thornton’s writing partner, Tom Epperson (this is one of two credits Epperson has separate from his work with Thornton). Lenz says the genesis of this movie came from somebody saying the title was the three elements that were needed to create a financially successful movie.
The film revolves around Richard (Jim Metzler), a man suffering from Spinal cancer who escapes into a fantasy where he plays Detective Rick Stone. Lenz plays Peep, his conniving self-centered sister who has moved in to help take care of Richard. It is one of Lenz’s most unlikable roles. Besides Lenz, the film also stars Andrea Thompson as the object of Richard’s fantasies, John Ritter as his best friend, and Thornton as Lenz’s shady boyfriend. In Richard’s fantasy, Thompson hires him and Ritter plays his bartender. In both reality and fantasy, Lenz and Thornton play the villains of the film.
The film makes a point of making Peep the most unlikable role possible. She buys a painting for her brother because one of the figures in it resembles her. She leaves her brother outside while giving a blowjob to her boyfriend. Eventually, her brother just pays her and Thornton to leave his home. It is probably one of her least sympathetic (if not her least sympathetic) roles.
Mother Lenz: ‘Falling from Grace’ and ‘Gunfighter’s Moon’
For over twenty years, Lenz has mostly played mothers. She played a mother of a guest star on House, The Closer (20015-2012), and other shows. In The Secret Life of Dorks (2013), she reunited with co-star William Katt (her co-star in the horror comedy House (1986)) to play the intimidating parents of the Protagonist’s prom date. While small roles, she and Katt add a few laughs to the film. Of all her maternal movie roles since the 1990’s, Falling from Grace (1992) and Gunfighter’s Moon (1995) stand out due to the weight of Lenz’s role in each film.
Falling from Grace probably has the strangest yet most logical collaboration: it comes from a script written by Larry McMurtry and is directed by John Mellancamp in his directorial debut. As a director, Mellancamp comes from a performing background and often allows whole scenes to play out in wide shots.
It tells the story of country Musician Bud Parks (Mellancamp) returning home, only to find that his old life threatening to destroy his new one.
Lenz plays P.J. Parks, Mellancamp’s former lover, his father’s current lover, and his brother’s current wife. She’s probably the best and most complicated character in the entire movie. In terms of McMurtry’s cannon, she most closely resembles Lois Farrow (Ellen Burtyn) from The Last Picture Show (1971). She even has almost the exact introduction (pulling up in a car) in this film.
The western Gunfighter’s Moon follows dangerous gunfighter Frank Morgan (Lance Henriksen), who comes to the Wyoming town of Red Pine at the request of his former lover, Linda Yarnell (Lenz). Linda’s husband Jordan (David McIlwraith) has become the acting sheriff until convict Jack Morris (Dave Ward) is hanged. Little does Jordan know, Morris’s violent cousin Walt Shannon (Brent Stait) is coming to town.
Both films have Lenz playing women who made decisions and now have to live with them. P.J. carries on a sexual relationship with both Bud and his father, but refuses to leave her husband. She has built a life for herself, is on the PTA, and is an active member of the community. Linda has spent her life telling her life telling her daughter Kristen (Nikki Deloach) that her father died instead of telling her that she is Frank’s daughter. Having made these choices, the films follow how she and other characters react to the consequences of such decisions.
While Kay Lenz’s films and TV shows are not always great, she is usually one of the best parts of them. Her career has stretched from the 1950’s to the present day and covered many different genres and characters. However, she has become most comfortable playing supporting roles in a variety of projects.
Alexander, Michael and Jeannie Park. After Riding a Lifetime of Ups and Downs, Kay Lenz Hits Her Stride with a role in Midnight Caller. People, November 20, 1989. Retrieved from https://people.com/archive/after-riding-a-lifetime-of-ups-and-downs-kay-lenz-hits-her-stride-with-a-role-in-midnight-caller-vol-32-no-21/
Gates, Philippa. Detecting Women Gender and The Hollywood Detective Film. Albany: State University of New York, 2011. Print.
Meyer, Janet L. Sydney Pollack: A Critical Filmography. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 1998. Print.
Lenz, Kay and Katt Shea. Audio Commentary. Stripped to Kill, Scorpion releasing, 2014.
Pond, Steve. In Utah, Playing an Inside Joke. Washington Post, February 3, 1989. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/1989/02/03/in-utah-playing-an-inside-joke/7911f32f-48f4-4d34-8cda-c3427912ce31/?utm_term=.d0f235b614b1