Control Nathan and Clint: Glitter (2001)
Welcome to the latest installment in Control Nathan and Clint. It’s the column where we give the living Saints who contribute to the Nathan Rabin’s Happy Cast and/or Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place’s Patreon accounts an opportunity to choose between which of two impossibly dodgy-looking motion pictures Clint and I must watch, and then talk about for the podcast.
Since A Star is Born is the big non symbiote-themed movie opening in theaters this week I figured we’d give you a choice between Ninja Assassin, a film vehicle for Korean pop star Rain that is about a ninja assassin, or Mariah Carey’s 2001 embarrassment Glitter. I actually meant to pit Ninja Assassin against Burlesque but I couldn’t switch my options once the poll had launched so it looks like the universe is once again angrily demanding that I watch and write about Mariah Carey’s glossy valentine to herself and her cult.
Here’s the thing: I have seen Glitter a whole bunch of times. I have written about it a whole bunch. If I remember correctly, I reviewed it upon its theatrical release, covered it again for the Commentary Tracks of the Damned feature over at The A.V Club and revisited it again for My World of Flops. You might imagine I have nothing more to say about it at this point. You would be right but when it won the poll, I was duty-bound to experience its cheesy magic all over again.
The movie begins with its most affecting scene. It’s the hazy 1970s and a girl who will grow up to be Carey’s Billy Frank is watching her talented but deeply inebriated and irresponsible mother perform for a bar full of sad drunks. It’s no place for a child, or an adult either, really.
The timid younger version of our heroine is beckoned onstage by her proud if profoundly misguided mother, opens her mouth and out comes THAT voice, that five-octave, look-at-me, shattering glass, bazillion-selling, world-conquering money-maker. A star is born! Just like in that one movie, What Price Hollywood! But the mother is too far gone to be able to take care of her daughter, so she grows up in the group home system, dreaming of the day her mother will become well enough to come back for her.
We then skip ahead to the 1980s, where Billie and her best friends Louise (Da Brat) and Roxanne (Tia Texada) spend their evenings in nightclubs where they come to the attention of Timothy Walker (Terence Howard), a low-level music industry shark with a very literal killer instinct who has Billy provide ghost vocals for a gorgeous but talentless pop singer he’s managing played by Padma Lakshmi.
Billy eventually breaks free from Timothy when she’s discovered and mentored by her soon-to-be boyfriend Julian “Dice” Black (Max Beesley), a hotshot fixture of New York night life so good he was named Spin’s DJ of the year for 1983 despite the magazine not launching for another two years. I know that might seem like nitpicking, and it is, but that flub epitomizes the carelessness and shoddiness of the movie’s 80s Retro Dance Party-deep evocation of its time period and cultural milieu.
Dice sees star quality in Billy, so he buys her contract for one hundred thousand dollars and sets about making her a star despite his squeamishness over anybody seeing her breasts. Dice seems to want his girlfriend, collaborator and protege to wear a burqa or itchy flannel housecoat at all times; time and again he expresses anger and mortification that sexy dance divas are sometimes asked to pose or perform in sexually suggestive ways.
Our man Dice, who, come to think of it, might alternately be Quaker or a Shaker, wants Billy to perform covered from head to to keep sinful men from thinking unclean and un-pure thoughts about her and her body.
Dice, alas, is Glitter’s feeble answer to Norman or Jackson Maine; he’s more Norman Lame. Where the various iterations of Norman Maine are soulful and obscene, verbose and explosively, incontestably talented, deeply sad and overflowing with a mad hunger for connection, for purpose, for something, anything to keep them from self-destructing, Dice is just an asshole. A douchebag. A pasty loser. That’s all there is to his character. He’s just a jerk and when he’s killed I laughed a deeply satisfying, Nelson Muntz-style chuckle at his expense.
Dice is paradoxically unforgettable in his utter forgettability. Indeed, this fiendishly non-charismatic goober is one of the reasons I find myself attracted to this weird little camp oddity, which is at once deeply personal and utterly generic
Don’t get me wrong. Mariah Carey is terrible as Mariah Carey in Glitter, AKA Mariah Carey in The Mariah Carey Story. But the movie betrays her at every turn. After all, how can you have sexual chemistry with a soggy loaf of stale white bread like Dice?
As I wrote in my Scalding Hot Takes piece on the most recent A Star is Born, chemistry is largely a matter of whether or not it seems like two characters are fucking, and if so, how mind-blowing the sex must be. Sure enough, Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga seemed like they were having porn star-level sex, only deep and spiritual and shit, in A Star is Born. Billy and Dice, in sharp contrast, seem like they’re either not fucking at all, or having sad, seedy, twenty-second, whiskey and coke-dick-hampered, eyes-closed bad sex, the kind that leaves you sad and sobbing instead of ecstatic and relaxed.
Dice doesn’t just seem like a weirdly asexual figure for a DJ in New York in the 1980s club scene; he actually seems like an anti-sexual creature, a bitchy, hard-drinking hypocritical moralist who can’t stand the idea that people might be thinking sexual thoughts about his sex bomb girlfriend.
As talented as Lady Gaga is, that’s how profoundly, explosively untalented Beesley is here. Beesley has the kind of talentlessness that comes along once in a generation, the kind of wan, forgettable presence that makes you want to sit up in your seat and shout out loud, “That guy sucks!”
Watching Glitter in the outsized glow of Bradley Cooper’s A Star is Born really drives home how shamelessly it steals from the show-business movie perennials. Glitter’s plot and character arcs bear a perhaps legally actionable resemblance to the many different iterations of A Star is Born but it goes beyond that.
Both films are directed by actors: A Star is Born by Cooper, Glitter by Vondie Curtis Hall. Both prominently involve Dice: the limp rag of a leading man in Glitter is of course Julian “Dice” Black. A Star is Born is, of course, primarily a vehicle for 1980s toilet-mouthed 1980 shock comic Andrew “Dice” Clay as Lady Gaga’s star-obsessed failed musician father.
Speaking of the Dice man, both films also have a third-act scenes set at late-night variety sketch comedy shows during which a whole a lot of drama pops off, not unlike Clay’s appearance on Saturday Night Live.
Dice ends coming up snake eyes when Timothy fatally shoots him for not delivering on his promise to give him one hundred grand in exchange for her contract.
Terence Howard is quite famously a terrible human being but a terrific actor with everything that Beesley fatally lacks as a performer: charisma, magnetism, danger, presence, talent, depth, purring menace. Glitter would be a far better movie with Howard in the Dice role. It would single-handedly elevate the role and the film.
Alas, Glitter squanders its best actor in a thankless villain role though he does serve as a catalyst for the climax when he murders Dice, prompting a grief-stricken Billy, who has finally achieved her lifelong dream of selling out Madison Square Garden, to launch into “Never Too Far”, a song symbolizing her tragic love affair with her mentor and soulmate.
If that sounds familiar it’s because it’s nearly identical to the end of the Cooper/Gaga A Star is Born. Gaga’s soaring, heart-tugging, sob-inducing closing number captures the simultaneously operatic and intimate nature of her overwhelming and soul-consuming love for her mentor and soulmate. Carey’s tribute to Dice, in sharp contrast, reflects the nature of their relationship. It’s empty and cold, unconvincing and distant, arbitrary and forgettable.
The same cannot be said of the scene that follows, where Billy’s driver rides all night so that Billy can be reunited with her now clean and sober mother. Billy’s relationship with a mother who stands as both an inspiration and a harrowing cautionary warning of the dangers of making your happiness and professional satisfaction dependent on something as impossible and crazy-making as enduring success in the music industry is emotionally authentic and affecting in a way her relationship with Dice never is.
It may be Stockholm Syndrome, but I find myself coming around on Glitter. It’s not good, by any stretch of the imagination but there’s something poignant about its mawkish sentimentality and enjoyably cheesy about its shameless, unabashed adoration for show-business cliches, the hokier and more familiar the better.
It’s an early aughts version of a 1980s-set, 1930s style show business musical melodrama that could not be more dated, and that’s a big part of what makes it so much guilty fun.
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