The Big Idea Behind KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN
A week after returning to Los Angeles, Weisman met Brazilian director Hector Babenco, who was in the States to promote his acclaimed film Pixote (1981), a starkly realistic study of the street kids of Rio de Janeiro. Babenco had an option on the successful Brazilian novel Emperor of the Amazon by Marcio Souza and spoke at length to Weisman about making a film of it. He also mentioned Kiss of the Spider Woman, a book he was eager to make into a movie even though the author was adamant about not granting him the film rights. For a year, Babenco had visited Puig in his apartment, bringing him gifts and talking for hours without being offered so much as a glass of water. "I did everything but sex to seduce him," the director later stated.
Babenco and Weisman were excited about Emperor of the Amazon but couldn't stop talking about Puig's novel. They had already decided on their ideal casting for the role of Molina, an imprisoned homosexual who weaves stories taken from campy old movies to his cellmate, a leftist political prisoner. They wanted Burt Lancaster, and when they went to the talent agency ICM to find an agent to peddle Emperor, they mentioned their other planned project was Kiss of the Spider Woman with Lancaster, as though it were a done deal.
Lancaster's agent Ben Benjamin happened to work for ICM, and when he caught wind of the idea he became curious. He took the idea to Lancaster who read the book and loved it.
Sam Grogg, the former director of education for the American Film Institute and in the early 80s director of the USA Film Festival in Dallas, was doing a Burt Lancaster tribute at the festival. Lancaster showed him Puig's book, which Grogg says was underlined extensively. Lancaster had been thinking a lot about the story and was very enthusiastic about the attention he would get for taking on such a different and risky role.
Word got back to Puig that Lancaster was interested, and the author began to change his mind about Babenco doing Kiss of the Spider Woman. His initial reluctance to grant screen rights stemmed from his feeling that Babenco, as a Latin American director, would only be able to pull off a regional success. But with Lancaster involved he saw the possibility of the international production he always hoped for. He gave the new team the go-ahead.
Even with Lancaster attached, the project was a hard sell in the States due to its story of a gay man and a Marxist in a jail cell in South America. David Weisman called it "a marketing nightmare."
Developing the project as a U.S.-based film was daunting for Babenco, who did not speak English. His first step was to take a crash course at Berlitz while Weisman and others went around Brazil looking for investors.
Babenco decided to have the first draft done in his native Portuguese by the screenwriter of Pixote, Jorge Durán. That helped get the script moving forward. David Weisman then brought in his good friend Leonard Schrader, brother of writer director Paul Schrader. Leonard had worked on Sydney Pollack's Tokyo-based crime drama The Yakuza (1974) and a few solely Japanese productions, as well as his brother's film Blue Collar (1978).
Schrader was a slow and meticulous writer, which could be frustrating under the best of circumstances, but on top of it, Burt Lancaster, who was used to having things done exactly his way, was not at all pleased with his work. Weisman took Schrader's new scenes to Lancaster's office every Saturday. Each time, Lancaster paced furiously, outlining his objections, and at one point, almost hit Weisman with Puig's book. By 1983, Lancaster had his own version of the script and insisted that was how the movie would be done.
Everyone else loved Schrader's script but Lancaster kept rejecting it in favor of his own approach. Babenco was able to communicate one-on-one with the star in Italian and with Weisman in Brazilian but felt that during development and planning meetings, all the others involved were ignoring him while they rattled on in English. Nervous that things were beginning to get out of his control, Babenco insisted on casting a Latin American for the role of Valentin, someone who would be both convincing as a fervent revolutionary and able to speak to him. He instructed Weisman to get in touch with Raul Julia, a Puerto Rico-born actor whose greatest successes to this point had been on stage. Julia said yes, even though there was no money involved, simply because he loved the story and what he had seen of Schrader's script. Weisman, Babenco, and Lancaster watched three of Julia's films. Lancaster approved the casting but was still against the script.
In March 1983, Weisman got a call from Gene Parseghian, who had gotten hold of the script through his business partner, Julia's agent. Parseghian saw in it the perfect vehicle for his client, William Hurt, then a hot commercial property after the success of Body Heat (1981) and The Big Chill (1983). Hurt was considered the thinking-man's leading man, and Parseghian knew the actor was looking for something more challenging and out of the ordinary, so he asked Weisman to consider Hurt if things didn't work out with Lancaster. Leonard Schrader loved the idea of Hurt playing Molina.
Finally, Burt Lancaster's completed script arrived, and it was clear to everyone involved that he was on a different track from the rest of them. Babenco later said the main problem was that Lancaster saw the relationship between the two cellmates as that between the older madame (Molina) and a kid (Valentin). "It was difficult to make him see that they were equals." Babenco also became worried about Lancaster's take on the character after the actor dressed in full drag for him and showed him how he thought Molina should look. It was now obvious the differences would never be worked out, so after 14 months attached to the project, Burt Lancaster dropped out, citing health reasons. (He underwent triple bypass surgery that year.)
At this point, fed up with the Hollywood game and tired of all the delays and conflicts, Babenco decided to just do Kiss of the Spider Woman as a Brazilian production with an all-Brazilian cast. Desperate to salvage the project on its original terms, Weisman called Parseghian and told him Babenco really wanted Hurt, a lie because Babenco didn't even know who Hurt was.
Hurt says he was in Sweden on location for Gorky Park (1983) when Parseghian sent him Schrader's Spider Woman script. He called the agent after only 20 pages to tell him to clear his schedule so that he'd be free to play Molina. According to Babenco, Hurt called him from Finland saying, "Briefly and short, I read the screenplay and like it very much," to which Babenco replied, "Thank you very much, but briefly and short, I am tired of you Americans." Hurt insisted he wanted to do it, even with the knowledge that there was no money to back it and not likely ever to be enough for his usual salary. Babenco agreed to fly to New York one more time to meet with him and Raul Julia.
On the plane to New York, Babenco encountered Sonia Braga, a major star in Brazil and Europe but known only slightly in America for her art house hit Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands (1976), which was loosely remade as the Sally Field comedy Kiss Me Goodbye (1982). According to Braga, she had been playing leads for years and welcomed the opportunity to do the tiny supporting role of Maria, Valentin's upper-class girlfriend.
Hurt and Julia knew each other for a long time and wanted to work together. They agreed to do Kiss of the Spider Woman for very little money in exchange for a share of the profits. Hurt was eager, if intimidated about filling the shoes of one his idols, Lancaster.
In spite of having Hurt attached, Weisman still had trouble getting financing. "I have a wonderful collection of rejection letters." He got some initial start-up funds from his friend Michael Maiello, who had helped back Weisman's earlier films. Maiello brought in Jane Holzer, the former Warhol Factory fixture known as "Baby Jane," who had appeared in Weisman's Ciao Manhattan (1972). The rest of the financing came from a private group of Brazilian investors, the first time such extensive film backing had come from someplace other than that country's usual source, the government.
by Rob Nixon