Trumpterpiece Theater: The Associate (1996)
Trumpterpiece Theater is an occasional column on the film cameos of crazy-haired TV clown and current American President Donald Trump.
One of the myriad problems with Donald Trump being elected President is that he and his ascent are so utterly preposterous, so completely insane and so wildly inconceivable that it makes everything else seem more plausible and realistic by comparison. If Trump can get elected President, anything can happen. That’s not necessarily a good thing. In fact, it’s not a good thing at all.
For example, in 1996’s The Associate, when protagonist Laurel Ayres (Whoopi Goldberg) is experimenting with “locker room talk” when costumed as, and portraying (completely fictional) elderly male financial titan Robert S. Cutty, the best she can come up with is, “I’m just going to take you and bite your booty in the back of my truck.”
Her associates and partners in crime admonish her she’s supposed to be a man and not a moron, as if there is a substantive difference between the two. Before Trump’s ascent, I might have singled out “I’m just going to take you and bite your booty in the back of my truck” as a particularly regrettable, ridiculous burlesque of how men behave from filmmakers whose conception of male behavior seems derived solely from old time political cartoons depicting men as cigar-smoking monsters in top hats and tuxedos, stepping on the suffering soul and spine of the proletariat.
In a world where the people of the United States decided to elect a man on record as bragging about grabbing women by the pussy, however, I can only admire the filmmaker’s restraint. Similarly, The Associate requires an insane amount of suspension of disbelief, but nothing in it is half as ridiculous as Trump’s infamous habit of pretending to be his own publicist so that he can call up reporters and coo and gush about the magnificent things his God of a client Donald Trump was currently up to. Yes, The Associate is moronic and impossible to believe, but then so is Donald Trump, and he is now our President.
Laurel begins the film understandably frustrated that no matter how hard she works, or how successful her ideas are, her status as an African-American woman will keep her from getting the attention, praise, and promotions she deserves. So in a fit of desperation, she decides to create a create a fictional male partner for herself that the misogynists of the business world will be able to admire for having a penis (like them) and also for not being a black woman.
And because The Associate is dumber than a bag of rocks, it reverently recycles one of my favorite idiotic comic tropes: When Laurel first comes up with the idea of creating a front man (literally) for her business endeavors, she does not have a name for him, so in a gag older than vaudeville, she looks at a bottle of Cutty Sark and decides that the mystery man whose genius has all of Wall Street talking will be named Richard P. Cutty.
Once people on Wall Street realize that there is a man with a penis out and about doing business things and also not being a woman, they can’t wait to get into bed with him, literally and metaphorically. I say literally because the elegant Bebe Neuwirth plays Camille Scott, a sexy schemer who isn’t about to let the fact that Richard P. Cutty does not exist as anything other than an insulting ruse perpetuated by a desperate businesswoman keep her from having lusty, passionate sex with Cutty.
“Men want to do business with men. But they want to sleep with us. That’s our power.” Camille tells Laurel earlier in the film, in a line that should have felt insanely, insultingly anachronistic for a film made just two decades ago. But Trump’s rise to power conveys just how far we haven’t come.
In Cutty make-up and prosthetics, our protagonist looks a lot like Val Kilmer with many more decades of bloat and bad plastic surgery. He looks like he’s melting and also has a ponytail more embarrassing than most, but that does not keep Camille from instantly trying to have sex with him the minute she sees him in the flesh. Laurel of course nobly resists Camille’s advances, and encourages her to get ahead through hard work, talent and drive, and not by being a whore, and our cross-dressing hero just barely gets away from the failed seduction with her secret safe.
For a film about the soul-killing poison of sexism (and to an almost perversely lesser degree, racism), The Associate has a huge virgin-whore complex. It neatly separates good, honorable, and more or less asexual women who get ahead in business through hard work and intelligence and perseverance, like Laurel and her brilliant but unassuming actual partner Sally Dugan (Dianne Wiest, in the Dianne Wiest role), from scheming succubi like Camille who use sex not just as a weapon, but as the only weapon in their lady-arsenal.
Of course you can’t make a movie about business and New York in the 1990s and ignore Trump so the rancid orange bloviator briefly pops up for a winking cameo where Cutty’s incredible heat leads to Laurel being let into a fancy restaurant ahead of Trump, leading the gullible and easy-led billionaire to ditch his lunch date in an attempt to get in on some of the heat of this Cutty fellow everyone can’t stop talking about.
The Associate strikes a very timid blow for gender and racial equality but it can’t help but feel like the product of a much earlier time, perhaps because it’s an adaptation of a 1979 French film, which in turn is an adaptation of a novel from the 1920s.
Trump’s presidency casts a long shadow over much of our culture, pop-culture and otherwise. The Associate is a deeply stupid, very 90s bit of escapist fluff. Yet it’s hard not to see somethingprescient in the film’s depiction of a gullible world where a mystery man, an empty suit, can inspire incredible confidence and belief in people pretty much solely by virtue of being a rich dude who is supposed to be a genius at making money. In 1996, this twist on The Emperor’s New Clothes was supposed to be funny. In 2017, it’s just sad.
Trump dialogue in its entirety: “Sorry, I’m going to crash and burn with Cutty. Call me”
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