Lenz on Cinema is a continuing series of articles examining the history of cinema through the filmography of actress Kay Lenz.
Sexuality played a big role in Kay Lenz’s early career. Many of her early roles featured her entering into a sexual relationship with a much older man. She has appeared in the sex magazines Partner, High Society, Celebrity Sleuth, and Celebrity Skin (which recounted her career in its 2011 issue about Classic Nudes from the 1970’s and 1980’s). In 1984, she starred in the music video for Rod Stewart’s Infatuation, in which she undresses in front of her window and appears throughout the video in various bikinis.
No two films better represent this part of her career than Fast-Walking (1982) and Stripped to Kill (1987), in which Lenz plays a prostitute with sinister intentions and a cop that goes undercover as a stripper. Made on low budgets, both of these roles feature Lenz as a highly sexualized yet active character.
(Warning: Spoilers ahead)
Fast-Walking (1982) follows the story of Frank “Fast-Walking” Miniver (James Woods), a Security Guard at a prison who becomes involved in a scheme to break Black Revolutionary William Galliot (Robert Hooks) out. Fast-Walking works at the prison and procures clients for his Cousin’s brothel on the side, which she runs out of the back of a grocery store. Little does he know, his other cousin, Wasco (Tim McIntire), plans to become the prison’s primary drug dealer and will destroy anybody who gets in his way.
Co-written, produced, and directed by Stanley Kubrick’s former producer James B. Harris, it is a fun pulpy independent movie that sits somewhere between the serious crime dramas of the 1970’s and the fun crime thrillers of the 1980’s. The film opens with a shot of James Woods smoking a joint while discussing his version of the American dream with a fellow guard (Charles Weldon). Harris is a very good director and knows how to create good visuals while also emphasizing actors’ great performances. This movie has a great cast that includes many familiar faces to independent cinema in the 1970’s and 1980’s such as M. Emmet Walsh, Susan Tyrell, Lance Legault, and Kubrick regular Timothy Carey. Harris would make two more crime films after this one: Cop (1988) starring Woods and Boiling Point (1993) with Wesley Snipes and Dennis Hopper.
This film exists in a trashy sweaty world. It features nudity, much of which is not sexy. Harris and cinematographer King Baggot often light naked human beings in a very unflattering manner that emphasizes grime and filth rather than beauty. It also features M. Emmet Walsh naked for a brief comedy scene. Furthermore, almost every character in Fast-Walking comes across as the sleaziest version of a film noir character.Probably the most likable character is Robert Hooks’ Galliot. Fast-Walking refers to himself and his family as “us rednecks” at one point. Lenz plays Moke, a role similar the Femme Fatale archetype who ends up working at the brothel. These aesthetic choices make the film reflect ugliness rather than beauty.
However, the film’s best embodiment probably comes in its antiestablishment hero, Fast-Walking. This character exists in a morally grey area where he often performs noble acts when it comes to black men, but just as often acts in a sleazy underhanded manner toward women. Nothing demonstrates this better than his relationship with Moke. A large part of the movie involves who is seducing who. He auditions Moke for the brothel by having sex with her and comparing her services with taking a used car for a spin around the block. When Fast-Walking does not give her the job, she pulls out a gun on him and threatens to shoot his penis off. She decides against it as “it’s the only thing he has going for him.” This gives more credence to the fact that this is a sleazy character in a violent world. There’s also a cringe-inducing scene where Fast-Walking kisses Moke, she slaps him and tells him “never to do that again.” He then kisses her again, which causes her to consent to having sex with him in his car. This sort of characterization demonstrates the film’s morally ambiguous nature.
Stripped to Kill
In Stripped to Kill, Lenz plays detective Cody Sheehan, who must go undercover as a stripper to find out who has been killing strippers. While reluctant at first, Sheehan finds herself drawn to stripping.
First time Director Katt Shea had played a small part in Scarface (1983) and starred in a few of Stripped producer Roger Corman’s previous films. Corman would produce all of Shea’s low budget films (including Stripped to Kill 2: Live Girls (1989)) before she made Poison Ivy (1992) for New Line Cinema. Corman would launch the careers of many female filmmakers in the 1980’s, including Shea, Deborah Brock, and Amy Holden Jones. Like most Corman productions, these films would often feature nudity, violence, or humor as their selling points (oftentimes emphasizing violence and nudity). Shea would also work with some of the greats, including cinematographer Phedon Papamichael (who would go on to shoot many of Alexander Payne’s films).
Since this is a low budget film, all the artistic choices matter even more than they would in a larger budget film. In order to save money, the production would use Shea’s jeep and actors would often bring their own clothes. Shea also elevates what could easily be dismal material with good writing and great artistic choices. She uses locations that really make scenes pop off the screen, such as a donut shop shaped like an actual donut. She also chooses to create the stripper’s dream acts rather than the acts they might actually perform.
Most of the cast of the characters besides Lenz are talented strippers that the audience gets to know well as characters. Shea cast real strippers in those roles. The film also includes TV and film veteran Norman Fell and Greg Evigan. Evigan plays Detective Heineman, her partner and eventual lover. Evigan looks and dresses almost like a Brendan Fraser character. This characterization makes sense as Shea said that they often went for the humor in the film rather than playing it straight. Such casting and character decisions add a quirky nature of the film.
The film also creates many suspects before revealing the real killer, with the main suspect becoming a man with his hand in his pocket.
These films present Lenz’s two most sexualized roles. Surprisingly, they are also two of her most active characters in movies.
In Fast-Walking, Moke is torn between two men: Fast-Walking and Wasco. She is a woman who uses her sexuality to manipulate multiple men including Fast-Walking at Wasco’s request. While visiting the prison, Moke masturbates in front of prisoners after Wasco tells her his fantasies. However, she does not expect to develop feelings for Fast-Walking and becomes conflicted about her relationship with him. She knows he’s “a loser,” but still finds herself drawn to him. Meanwhile, Fast-Walking decides that he has to protect her from the sadistic Wasco, but does not realize that she might be more sinister than he expected. With this role, Lenz gets to play a complex morally ambiguous character who none of the male characters seem to know well.
Lenz’s character in Stripped to Kill is almost the complete opposite of her character in Fast-Walking. She plays a tough as nails cop. Like many Erotic stories, Lenz’s Detective Sheehan starts out as shy about her sexuality before embracing it for the act. Her dances are restrained to the point that she dresses in a stereotypical sexy librarian outfit (complete with large glasses) when she gets onstage for one of them. In an audio commentary with Lenz, Katt Shea discusses how the protagonist works at a job that requires her to hide her sexuality. The film mostly works as a character piece until its mystery and horror elements become more prominent in the last fifteen to twenty minutes. It builds an arc of sorts for Sheehan without distracting too much from the mystery.
If there’s one big complaint about Lenz’s movie career in the 1970’s and 1980’s (and even later on), it’s that she often got relegated to the role of wife, girlfriend, daughter, or mother. In the best of these roles, the characters would become interesting in their own right, despite the film giving them little to do. In the worst case scenario, they just exist to be the pretty girlfriend, wife, or daughter of the hero. Even though the characters in Fast-Walking and Stripped are highly sexual, they do not simply exist as arm or eye candy for the male lead and often have conflicting emotions about the situation they are in. She plays a character with a specific mission in both films. Wasco uses Moke in Fast-Walking to kill off revolutionary William Galliot. In Stripped, Sheehan sets out to find the killer only to discover her own erotic fantasies. In both films, she has a central role in the story and has a real conflict to her character.
These two roles represent a culmination of a certain part of Lenz’s career. Both films feature on screen nudity from Lenz meant to be seen sexually. However, in both films, she’s given some of the best roles of her career.
- The strippers in Stripped to Kill watched the music video for Infatuation to get a sense of their co-star.
Lenz, Kay and Katt Shea. Audio Commentary. Stripped to Kill, Scorpion releasing, 2014.