Reading Manuel Puig’s Kiss of the Spider Woman, I kept having this nagging doubt: Is Molina, the self-described homosexual window dresser imprisoned in Buenos Aires for corrupting minors, really a homosexual or a candidate for a transsexual operation? The question actually comes so easily as to wonder why all the people who love the novel and those who love the movie—with William Hurt as heroine Molina—aren’t asking it themselves. Puig’s book is, of course, stacked against Molina in such an obvious way—eight lengthy footnotes are included, explaining away homosexuality by the likes of Freud, Anna Freud, Lang, D.J. West, and Marcuse—that how could it be possible to interpret Molina as anything else? That’s what’s suspicious about the book: it provides these archaic references as a collective apologia about a character that simply isn’t there. Closer to the disguised truth, the novel is unwittingly ahead of its time while the novelist remains stagnant. The tip-off that we’re dealing with someone more than just an old queen comes less than twenty pages into the book: Molina says, “Since a woman’s the best there is...I want to be one.” If a post-adolescent purred this to entice and shock, we’d accept it as part of the process of being an emerging gay—acting out campish vernacular we hope he’ll soon discard. But Molina’s no chicken; he’s middle-aged and adamant. Making a clear separation between real friends and faggots, he says, “As for my friends and myself, we’re a hundred percent female. We don’t go in for those little games because that’s strictly for homos. We’re normal women; we sleep with men.” As shaky as transsexuality may be on physical and psychological grounds, one essential criteria for transsexual candidacy is just what Molina feels: he doesn’t consider himself a man, and much less a homosexual. It’s a sad folly that he calls himself a faggot and engages in homosexual behavior but doesn’t feel homosexual; in fact, he hates homosexuals. And never once does Molina betray his innermost feelings; the character is more faithful to himself than the author is. Puig allows Molina his fantasy—being fucked by a “real man” named Valentin (in the movie Raul Julia), a revolutionary who battles the oppressive Argentine military rule (it’s roughly 1976) and who is jailed in the same cell. Puig extends the fantasy to the ultimate: He explicitly has Molina state that, after having had his desires fulfilled, he’s ready to die—happily! This makes for fermented 40s psychodrama and by no means an accident, but as mechanism, it’s gimcrackery. That spider weaving its fateful web for Molina is the trap of hopelessness. Who the hell could ever die happily with that kind of resolution? Puig sets Molina up to be what’s not really in his own head—a silly chattering old queen—and then strips him of his affectations at the end, turning a 40s heroine into a modern hero. A startling role reversal that may have worked had he been a sissified gay who wanted to be a man. But how can this be when Molina wants desperately to be a woman? The novel isn’t persuasively analytical to the degree and intent Puig rather naively aims for, unless the reader accepts all the footnoted psychobabble. And if a reader does, how can he reconcile it to the character? Kiss of the Spider Woman really isn’t a novel at all—it’s a full-of-holes screenplay in search of actors who have to fill in what’s missing. Because of the raging politics of AIDS at the time, every major American movie company passed on filming the novel, despite the fact—or maybe because—director Hector Babenco wanted Burt Lancaster as Valentin and Richard Gere as Molina. Refusing to give up, Babenco asked Raul Julia, who agreed to do Valentin and suggested what otherwise would seem like an impossibility: William Hurt as Molina. Begging for every dollar, deferring salaries against future profits, they headed to São Paulo to film, only to be met by more resistance. Members of the Brazilian film industry kicked up quite a fuss because Babenco was neither filming in Portuguese nor using indigenous actors for the leads. Then there was the political consideration demanding that the prison in Kiss, set in Buenos Aires, be changed to a nameless South American city in order to reduce alienation of the government of Argentina, as well as to avoid endangering potential grosses from the massive Argentine movie-going public. As if these handicaps weren’t enough, Babenco had never made a movie in English. But he knows the terrain of crud: as with his docudrama Pixote, with its barf-inducing horrors of juvenile dormitories and toilets, he brings to Kiss the decaying textures of grime and slime of cell walls and when one of the character’s suffers from diarrhea, he approaches virtual Smell-o-Vision. He’s a master at shocking sex scenes, taking Pixote’s Oedipal suckling and Molina & Valentin’s anal intercourse and makes them deeply haunting, almost lyrical. William Hurt’s Molina bothered some of the critics who complained that Hurt “does not have one queenly bone in his body. It’s not just that he’s playing a homosexual; he’s playing a raging queen. And he doesn’t have the voice for it, he doesn’t have the gestures for it. It’s a terrible piece of miscasting.” The challenges of acting are dismissed—the bitchers don’t really want to see our better actors take risks. Maybe what they’re carping about it that Hurt at times goes too far, moving beyond their own personal comfort levels. Said Puig: “You won’t recognize him in this film—he’s totally changed. A real transformation. He plays Molina with red hair, flowing gowns.” Surprisingly, Raul Julia holds his own against Hurt’s show: watching and having to respond to Hurt’s tricks might have tempted a co-star to just hand the picture over to him. Julia doesn’t; he thwarts Hurt a bit, and when Julia’s character is rightly perplexed by Molina, frustrated by his steadfast belief that fantasy is better than reality, the confusion and irritation are terrific balances; we can feel his exasperation. And Julia performs the infamous Latin sexual ambivalence with astonishing assurance. Kiss of the Spider Woman fascinates more for what’s not on the screen or the pages than for what’s on them. The relationship between Molina and Valentin is bogus—a self-destructive misfit’s fantasy—but it might have been meaningful and funny had just once either of them had said or hinted that Molina, after getting out of prison, should get himself an appointment with a sex change specialist. It would have given Molina something to be happy about, instead of becoming a victim of the very fascist spiders he conspired with. Romantically sacrificing yourself to your own self-hatred isn’t very heroic if what you hate really isn’t what you are.
Text COPYRIGHT © 2007 RALPH BENNER All Rights Reserved.