The Sultry Cult of Pia Zadora (Part One)

*contains spoilers

If it weren’t for my respect and obsession as a schoolkid for actor James Franciscus, I might have never known and fallen for Pia Zadora.

Ever since Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), Franciscus was cool, made even more cool by his evil Paul Diller in Killer Fish (1979) which I saw on VHS.

Pia Zadora

I had never seen him in a movie at the theatre though and little did I know he was at the end of his career when Butterfly came along in 1982.

It was only a guest role for Franciscus but for a fourteen year old who had good girl pin-ups Farrah Fawcett (1947-4009 cancer) and Jacqueline Bisset  (1944-) – Pia was a revelation.

She was a bad girl and she was younger, petite and sexy.

Pia was born in 1954 of Italian-American and Polish ancestry. With a stage mother and a shy personality, she took acting lessons, where at age seven she was discovered by Burgess Meredith.

Chosen from 100 auditioning children, she was soon cast in a play with legend Tallulah Bankhead. It was Bankhead who gave her a life lesson when she told the young Pia: “You do what you want to do”.

She listened and followed her bug to perform.

Santa Claus Conquers The Martians (1964) trailer

Still only a child, she appeared in the cult bad movie Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964) as a Martian child named Girmar. The anxiety from her shyness would pass as she appeared in plays such as We Take the Town with Robert Preston (1918-87 lung cancer) as well as showing off her dancing skills in Dames at Sea as Ruby Keeler (1909-93 kidney cancer) and Lola in Damn Yankees.

It was while she was on the road that she met her first husband Meshulam Riklis (1923-2019), a multimillionaire and thirty years her senior. They would marry in 1977 and he would father her first two children. He would also bankroll her first three starring feature films.

The first was Butterfly, which won her a Golden Globe for Best New Star of the Year. Then came the film Fake-Out set in Las Vegas and then, finally, the film Riklis produced without credit, the much-maligned The Lonely Lady.

The Lonely Lady was universally panned and Pia was made the butt of jokes on such shows as The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson (1925-2005 emphysema).

Pia on the porch in Butterfly

So with a film career seemingly in ruins, Pia went back to recording and nightclub performances. She had already created her own show at the Riviera hotel in Las Vegas back in 1977, around the time she married Riklis, who incidentally, owned a controlling share of the Riviera.

Before Butterfly came along, she opened for Wayne Newton (1942-), Neil Sedaka (1939-) and Tony Bennett (1926-). Upon marrying ‘Rick’, Pia’s husband thought he could brand her in the movies and so Butterfly was born.

Her marriage to ‘Rik’ ended in 1993 and a couple of years later she would marry for another six years and produce her son Jordon.

In the ensuing years she would be a fulltime mother to Jordon as he was on the spectrum with autism. It was a commitment that won her the Ambassador for Autism Award in 2017.

Let’s discuss Butterfly, which was shot near Las Vegas in Good Springs, Nevada.

Pia plays Kady, a young woman, probably in her teens, who turns up at her father’s place one day in the desert having hitchhiked from her “home”.

The screenplay is based on a lesser novel by author James M Cain who wrote The Postman Always Rings Twice and Mildred Pierce. The flashback of the novel by the Stacy Keach character, who plays Pia’s father, has been removed.

Butterfly has a good cast of B-Grade actors such as Stuart Whitman (1928-), Lois Nettleton (1927-2008 lung cancer), Edward Albert (1951-2006 lung cancer), Orson Welles (1915-85 heart attack), June Lockhart (1925-) and, of course, Franciscus (1934-91 emphysema).

Butterfly (1982) trailer

The film is basically a B-movie because of its material and stars, as well as its budget, but it is given a lift by director Matt Cimber’s (1936-) soft-focus cinematography and nice period detail. The film is set in 1937.

Pia is a bit of a bad girl, well, more of a naughty girl really. She has already had a baby out of wedlock. She still has a perfect bod though, which she shows off – eventually seducing her ‘father’.

Provocative is the word for Pia from the moment the film opens when she seduces a truck driver while she hitches a ride, running off and leaving him with his pants down before he can get off.

The bathtub scene

Then there’s the bathtub scene where she almost seduces Keach as he feels her breasts as she soaks in the milky, soap-filled water.

“It feels good to me, “ she says but Keach says: “It aint right”.

The agenda Pia has throughout the movie is one to get rich quick and get revenge on the father of her child, a rich boy who wouldn’t marry her.

That the material was chosen about Pia and her daddy is a sweet reflection for producer Riklis and his young protégée/lover/wife, something which would come up again in The Lonely Lady.

Pia’s performance in Butterfly has been described as “low rent” and “poor” by critics – but it is not a role which demands great acting ability. It is a role that demands a great level of sultriness and sex appeal, something the pint-sized Pia has in spades as Kady. Her sensuality and simplicity is not a performance – it’s Pia. She is a girl who has been hurt by men but she isn’t about to let that stand in her way.

Soundtrack cover

Pia picks up men in bars as she only wants a drink and have fun even if she is still underage. All she wants to do is “feel good” and no-one, not even her ‘daddy’ is going to stop her – especially after he said no to her in the bathtub.

You could say that Pia’s thesping is all surface level and there is nothing underneath – all that is below the surface is manipulation. And to pull that off isn’t as easy as it looks, unless you believe it comes naturally. For Pia it seems to.

Whether Pia in real life saw Riklis as purely a meal ticket to bankroll her career and live a life of luxury is probably easy to guess. Or maybe not? You could be cynical, but I think that Rik was truly captivated and had faith in the raw sexiness and natural beauty of Pia, despite her limited range as an actress.

More soapy fun!

If anything, Pia went along for the ride, maybe a little unwillingly, to be shown off as something more than a trophy wife. She is a deity to Rik, who had a large naked portrait of Pia on display in their mansion during their marriage – and I would imagine following their divorce. That she went unwillingly as a sexpot may be true because I think Pia preferred the stage and music in particular.

Pia is more manipulative and sexy than say Marilyn Monroe in How to Marry a Millionaire. She is far more earthy even if you can say she has less class. Especially in Butterfly. She is dirt poor but she lives and breathes sex…

Her scene with a judge, played by Orson Welles, is a highlight, as he smells her breath to see if she has alcohol on it, only for it to stir his long dormant loins.

You could be critical of the 80s blowdry hairdos on Zadora and Franciscus when he turns up as Moke Blue, who may or may not be Pia’s real father. The movie caps off his career well. The reason why he retired a couple of years later and smoked himself to death, with a reported three or four packs a day, remains unclear. His career had lost momentum the previous year with the release of Great White halted by a lawsuit by Universal Pictures over plagiarism of Jaws. Great White had the biggest advertising budget for any Italian made movie and was pulled during the campaign. Perhaps it was bitterness and demons over this that pushed Franciscus over the edge. His father had been killed during World War II while he was still a child. I get the idea that some of the cast had a bit of a smoker’s club going when they filmed their scenes together as both Edward Albert and Lois Nettleton both died of smoking related causes.

Orson Wells smells something on Pia’s breath

The title of the film and book relates to a butterfly shaped birthmark, which appears on Pia’s baby’s belly and it is central to the plot of the movie.

The incest theme is dealt with tastefully, resolving itself cleverly and I won’t give too much away as Butterfly is a good movie. The drama is brooding and stark like the landscapes and the poverty-stricken rooms and Keach helps carry the movie in tandem with Pia.

How To Marry A Millionaire (1953) trailer

As Keach says in Butterfly: “Money aint everything” and the film’s box-office as well as the box-office of Pia’s other efforts reflect that, no matter how much you have to spend, it is no guarantee of launching a career into the stratosphere.

Pia with husband Riklis

Howard Hughes did it on several occasions and didn’t always succeed with his bevy of starlet girlfriends. At least Rikis was sincere and married Pia – had children with Pia – whereas Hughes… I don’t know, Hughes was a complex character to say the least and I hope to do an article on one of his cult starlets Faith Domergue at a later date.

Pia with Golden Globe

Butterfly has a beautiful Ennio Morricone (1928-) score, they didn’t skimp there, and the end theme song showcases Pia’s lovely voice. She released an album of “Standards” in 2018 which includes a rather good version of Cry Me a River.

She won the Razzie for Worst Actress for Butterfly and there was controversy that she only won her Golden Globe the same year through an expensive press junket paid by Riklis and held at the Riviera Hotel hosting the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.

Incidentally, Pia’s daughter who was born in 1985 was named Kady after her character in Butterfly. It is testament to the couple’s love to have done so.

Pia’s follow-up to Butterfly with producer and director Matt Cimber again is the Las Vegas movie Fake-out. The title, which comes from the act of teasing a man, as well as being fraudulent, is also a riff on the word break-out, since the beginning of the movie is set in a prison.

Fake-Out (1982) trailer

It shows in the opening scenes of the movie that Pia is a fairly good singer with a clip from her nightclub act. She plays an innocent who would rather go to jail for contempt than rat on her gangster boyfriend. Incarcerated in a desert prison as a result, Pia teaches aerobics to the inmates, followed by a shower scene. But Pia’s not one of the girls, in fact she is sexually assaulted by a mean bunch of girls when she is left alone in the shower block. Despite having a stereo in her cell the pride of any millionaire, she wants out, as a giant picture of her boyfriend gazes down upon her.

She is going to testify and is taken to a room at the Riviera hotel under the protection of Las Vegas detectives Telly Savalas (1922-94 prostate cancer) and Desi Arnaz Jr (1953-).

With its often-goofy woodwind music score to what I guess is supposed to be witty lines from Savalas and amusing situations – Cimber’s work on Fake-out is no match for his work on Butterfly. The script doesn’t help.

Pia is still sweet and adorable as a girl who thinks she has a system for Keno.

“Order me a bottle of wine and keep out,” she yells at Desi, when she fails to escape the hotel room from hell. Little does she realise she is in danger from gangsters with high-powered rifles.

Matt Cimber with Jayne Mansfield

I get the idea from Pia’s commentary on the Butterfly DVD that Pia has a fondness for the white grape.

One of the hitmen is actually played by Cimber, who is not the best looking man in the world, and I wonder what drew Jayne Mansfield to marry him back in the 1960s. It must have been love!

Zadora has described the film as a long episode of Kojak and has said she isn’t very proud of the result. There’s another bathtub scene, this time full of bubbles, but it’s all very innocent, except for the glass of wine.

“I was always a girl who couldn’t take to being alone too long,” Pia says to Desi as they are about to kiss, but the phone rings.

Pia is bullied in the showers

It’s all a tease and I think no-one, least of all Cimber, is taking the making of this movie very seriously. He probably had a big tab at the Riviera, along with everyone else in the production, as Riklis was in charge of the hotel at the time. Fake-Out really is a fraud, it’s an ad for the Riviera posing as a movie. And it’s not a very good ad, as the rooms and interiors of the entire hotel look drab and dated. After such a great start with Butterfly it’s a shame Rik gave Pia this movie.

The ‘goofy’ scenes are punctuated with mild violence but the story isn’t very clever. Butterfly was ingenious and you can see why Fake-Out sat originally unreleased before being unceremoniously dumped on VHS. Pia reportedly said she would commit suicide if they released it and the only bright spot in the movie is when a car does a stunt drive around the hotel’s interior. Everyone’s having a good time off-screen as Pia gives a fake emoting scene over a body. It’s a fizzer and Cimber would have better luck when he went on to make Hundra (1983) shortly afterwards.

Let’s take a break and look at Pia’s great achievement of The Lonely Lady in PART TWO.

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