Zalman King had a lengthy career as an actor, from the mid-60s to the early 80s. The only movie I’ve seen him in was the sci-fi horror cult “classic” Galaxy of Terror from 1981. After co-writing the screenplay to Adrian Lyne’s erotic drama 9-and-a-half Weeks (1986) with Patricia Knopp he re-invented himself as a filmmaker of erotic fare. Firstly with Two Moon Junction in 1988, starring a young Sherilyn Fenn (yet to become a household name with the success of Twin Peaks), and then in 1990 with his directorial follow up Wild Orchid (also co-penned with Knopp), starring Mickey Rourke, Jacqueline Bisset, and introducing Carré Otis, who had been a teenage model, fast becoming the visage du jour of the fashion world.
King became very successful making erotic dramas, most notably the Red Shoe Diaries series for cable television. But it was the international success of both 9-and-a-half Weeks and Wild Orchid, which cost $US7m and made $US100m worldwide that enabled him to leave the acting world behind. The Europeans loved Wild Orchid, but it performed poorly elsewhere (notching up a couple of Razzie nominations for Rourke and Otis). I saw it on its original theatrical release; like everyone else I was curious about the controversy surrounding the movie’s major sex scene, and I won’t lie, I’ve always had a hardened soft spot for a lush, erotic movie, but Wild Orchid is not a a very decent one, my memory of it had been blurred through deep rose-coloured glasses.
At the time of its production Mickey Rourke had already made moves into the world of boxing. As a result he’d had facial reconstruction, and you can see there is definitely something different about his appearance, compared to the Mickey Rourke of Angel Heart two years earlier. He looks puffy (cheek implants and a brow lift), a result of recent surgery and the humidity of Rio, where the movie was filmed. It wouldn’t be long before he would be unrecognisable, the rugged good looks gone, replaced by years of pummelling in the ring, and more and more plastic surgery.
Rourke and Otis married shortly after Wild Orchid was completed, and it’s undeniable there is a chemistry between them, but it doesn’t make for compelling viewing. Otis is no thespian, and Rourke is sleepwalking, in complete French vanilla (read: over-tanned) mode. Meanwhile Jacqueline Bisset chews every last piece of scenery she’s placed amidst. A young Bruce Greenwood plays a small part and, surprisingly, gets his kit off, although it’s very doubtful that’s his taut naked butt on screen. Spanish star Assumpta Serna, star of Almodovar’s searingly erotic Matador (1986), also has a small role, but neither of these accomplished actors are able to lift Wild Orchid’s tame game.
Otis plays Emily, a smart, young, beautiful ingenue who travels to NYC and immediately gets a job with a law firm. Her first job is to fly to South America with one of the firm’s top executives, Claudia (Bisset), to assist on a hotel sale. It is here in exotic Rio that Otis meets Wheeler (Rourke), a wealthy mystery man who swiftly makes Emily both his muse and his conquest. Otis is used as a pawn for Wheeler’s perverse gratification, yet she falls for his wily charms, even if he is a creepy sleaze machine with major intimacy problems.
Not even the locations of Salvadar, Bahia, and Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, can save Wild Orchid from floundering in the tepid shallow end of the pool. The writing's on the wall from the moment a porn-flavoured saxophone wails over a blistering sunset silhouette as the movie's opening montage and garish title credit fills the screen. Later, a local couple are having passionate, but oh-so-very choreographed sex in a derelict hotel, with Emily as awkward voyeur. Later still, a sultry masquerade dance, and sex with a stranger while el creepo looks on, do little to stir the loins. But not even the long anticipated, apparently unsimulated (though both actors deny it) intercourse between Wheeler and Emily, which happens in the movie’s final minutes, raises the brow. It was this “torrid” scene which made the MPAA threaten to slap the movie with the dreaded X rating. So King trimmed a few overhead shots (revealing pubic hair, and slightly more convincing rhythmic action from both parties) and the movie was given the far more distributable R-rating. But, let's call this spade a spade, even the uncut version holds little raunch factor.
Wild Orchid was the flower that scuttled Rourke’s acting career for more than ten years. It’s strictly one for the Mickey Rourke completists, the Carré Otis enthusiasts, or the Jacqueline Bisset aficionados. Now I'm feeling the strange urge to re-watch Nicolas Cage's Zandalee ...