The Sultry Cult of Pia Zadora (Part Two)

*contains spoilers

The Lonely Lady is a much better prospect, both as a movie and performance by Pia. The script is by far an improvement on Fake-Out despite its reputation. Incidentally, Matt Cimber was first attached to the project but he was replaced.

Based on the Harold Robbins bestseller (1976), The Lonely Lady has long been consigned to the trash-bin of film history. But in its own way it is a cult film.

Robbins said his bestseller was inspired by memories of Jacqueline Susann (1918-74 lung cancer), author of Valley of the Dolls, whose death prompted The Lonely Lady.

Valley of the Dolls (1967) trailer

Nominated for eleven Golden Raspberry Awards, The Lonely Lady won six – including one for Pia – and Pia has stated publicly that she wanted her husband to buy it and “hide it somewhere”.

In fact, husband Rik had already, without credit, put up half the money for the budget. Filmed in Italy, despite being set mainly in the United States, the film is Pia’s third starring role.

The Lonely Lady (1983) trailer

It starts with her turning up in a red dress at the Oscars with the song Lonely Lady playing over the credits in what is obviously dubbed post sync sound.

It is obviously not filmed in Hollywood. It is one of those once removed/faux Hollywood stories lifted by that very fact. It’s a kind of hyper unreality/reality. But this gives it an edge, where Pia’s character is all the more pronounced and dare I say… believable. She transcends the material or the material transcends her. It’s all very strange and in a universe of its own as the best cult movies are.

The Lonely Lady then goes into flashback where Pia wins an award for creative writing at high school. It seems she was a good girl, who immediately falls in with the wrong crowd.

Evil Ray Liotta in first role

“It looks like a penis,” says one character, played by Ray Liotta (1954-) in his first role, about her award. It aint her Golden Globe or Razzie!

Liotta’s character, who would get charged with sexual assault these days for his pawing of Pia, goes as far as to assault her sexually with a garden hose nozzle in front of her new found ‘friends’.

It all happens in a famous screenwriter’s yard, played by Lloyd Bochner (1924-2005 cancer), and he saves poor Pia from further torture and they become friends.

“I guess I grew up and realised by limitations,” says Bochner about poetry as mentor and student fall in love and decide to marry.

Blu-ray cover

All despite a giant age gap and a mother who won’t agree. In real life, Pia ditched her stage mother and got her own agent. I have no idea what her mother thought of her marriage to Riklis and I’m sure Pia didn’t care anyway. Pia did it her way.

“I not listening to this!,” her mother repeats and cringes for her little girl.

After the wedding, she loses her virginity to Bochner but after ten seconds he’s impotent. “It’s been a very tiring day,” he says shutting the bedroom door behind him.

Despite what’s missing in the bedroom, her relationship leads to a career development as she joins her husband on the set of his latest movie as an assistant. She oversteps the mark though when she retypes his scenes into something better. It’s the kiss of death for their relationship as he takes the credit.

Pia is left alone

“Can we have another bottle?,” asks Pia, showing her fondness for the grape again. “It’s cheaper than self-respect”. Now. Now.

It is while she is drinking at the restaurant that she is impressed by a creep named Vinnie Dacosta (Joseph Cali, 1950-) who will figure later in the movie.

I know Pia loves or loved a white but it shouldn’t be through any lack of self-respect. This actress, despite giving her all in her first movie and this one as well, has been dismissed as a person along with her work, like very few in the industry and at the beginning of a budding career. The critics and Hollywood are cruel. It must have been soul destroying and enough to turn anyone to drink.

Whether her relationship with her older husband in The Lonely Lady reflected her bedroom at home with Riklis in the end can only be speculated at – but she had children and there were no reported affairs – so it must have been a happy union while it lasted.

Aenigma (1987) trailer

Back to the movie and there is an appearance by the late Jared Martin (1941-2017 pancreatic cancer) who was in Lucio Fulci’s Aenigma (1987), as a vain actor who sleeps with Pia but couldn’t give a shit when she becomes pregnant.

After an abortion, she falls in with evil Dacosta who uses women while promising Hollywood success. Little does Pia know that she has sold her soul while inadvertently using her body on the casting couch to screenwriting success. She loses perspective as her relationship with Dacosta takes over as agents ignore her writing work. But “a girl’s gotta eat” she says as she works as a hostess at Dacosta’s nightclub. It’s that old adage from Reader’s Digest that life is what happens to you while you are making other plans.

Pia falls for the wrong guy

“If I write for anyone, Vinnie, I write for me!,” exclaims Pia, emoting pretty well.

It’s one of the key lines in the film and it is after this that her character’s mental health declines. She is dominated by this man both sexually and mentally and is being humiliated in the bargain.

Pia loses her way as an artist and this may reflect on her real life with her choice of role in Fake-Out. Perhaps she should have taken more care in approving Rik’s choice of screenplay baubles. But in the case of The Lonely Lady, really, no-one else could have seriously played the role with the degree of success/failure Pia brought it. It was a brave choice for Pia to make this movie, even if it was apparently also ‘bought’ for her.

There are sex scenes as Pia appears naked on a billiard table and is then ‘bought’ from Dacosta by an aging foreign couple as a sex toy. All under the pretence of reading a script! There’s that hyper reality/unreality again as Pia is pimped out by Riklis to Italy to make The Lonely Lady.

Your script is beautiful…

The Lonely Lady script may not be as beautiful as Pia’s lips and eyes, according to the older foreign woman who wants to seduce her, but ultimately the script is brave enough to stick it up the Oscars and the Razzies.

“Your script is beautiful, everything is beautiful…” as Pia is groomed for her first lesbian experience. Pia was protected from this in real life by husband Riklis’ money but in the case of the Hollywood casting couch whether you want to do it or you don’t – it happens. Lesbians are rampant in the movie business too!

The humiliation of this experience for Pia’s character, plus the sight of Dacosta partying naked with a couple of ‘actresses’ sends poor Pia totally off the deep end as she wrecks her apartment and hallucinates. Mental illness in Hollywood is also rarely talked about until more recently and even then it is often kept under wraps.

Pia drowns her sorrows

The Hollywood Dream can end this way. See the life of Barbara Payton as another example.

While her paranoia is called “drug-induced”, including alcohol and cocaine, the breakdown is total as Pia veers from catatonic to screaming at the very touch of a man. Fortunately she has the health insurance to cover a hospital stay.

The reality/unreality may be “hyper” but it is certainly not something discussed or portrayed in movies in such a blunt fashion in the early 1980s. For people to have been laughing at these scenes upon the film’s initial release seems callous and cruel, especially within the Hollywood context. The privileged may laugh!

Pia recovers her sanity through writing and decides to write what she knows best – her story.

“This is me, it’s my story, it’s my child, it’s a part of me – how can you ask me to give it away?,” she argues with her gay director friend played by Anthony Holland (1928-88 suicide, suffering AIDS), when they discuss a possible deal to make her script a movie reality.

Actor Anthony Holland

He answers her: “In this business, there is only one creed – make the movie. Make the movie!!”.

It’s the second key line in The Lonely Lady and one of the most valid in film history. They talk about Pia’s child and how they can make it live.

Despite all the abortions in movie history, script and womb wise: “It’s the movie that matters!”

The Lonely Lady in reality was made and it lives in screen history, despite Pia’s regrets about it. But that’s not the end of the movie… So Pia’s script is offered to the producers… but only for another lesbian experience…

Pia’s Oscar/Razzie speech

And we’re back at the Oscars/Razzies where Pia wins the Best Original Screenplay, stunning audiences with her speech when she says: “The price of success is very high, especially for a woman. I don’t suppose I’m the only one who’s had to f#*k her way to the top!”

This third key moment, which ends the movie, is the most honest statement ever to be made to film audiences about the truth behind Hollywood ever since its inception. It is so honest that no-one has really ever made it in reality – despite being the honest to God truth. Here “hyper” reality/unreality have become one and The Lonely Lady is one of the great cautionary tales to be seen in the #MeToo era of victims. The lesbian victims have yet to be addressed publicly in Hollywood.

The Lonely Lady (1983) TV spot

Pia doesn’t learn her lesson with men/women immediately, but when she does, she turns Hollywood on its head in front of billions of viewers and literally tells them where they can stick their Oscar/Razzie. She walks out of the Oscars and her Hollywood career. Cue audience falling over themselves laughing! Bastards!!

Incidentally, her screenplay was called The Hold-Out. Any relation to Fake-Out? That one certainly deserved a Razzie and not The Lonely Lady.

The Voyage of the Rock Aliens (1984) trailer

Pia would follow this movie with the transformative The Voyage of the Rock Aliens (1984) a colourful, fun and very silly sci-fi musical which showed she really preferred to sing than be an actress anyway.

Pia’s mugshot

I don’t believe Pia Zadora deliberately slept her way to the top or bottom – whichever you may see it. Obviously she started honestly in show business. Her movie career was purely incidental and the product of a benevolent husband who truly idolised her. Sadly he could not shield her from the film critics and media but what she achieved needed more than an ounce of beauty and talent, something she proved she had.

Pia today

Several years ago, Pia was arrested for using a garden hose to spray her then sixteen-year-old autistic son to get him to go to bed. Obviously “tired and emotional” rather than call her drunk, her son called the police. She was sentenced to undergo anger management. Since then she collected her award for her dedication in the field of autism. Photos of her today show a vivacious and glowing Pia, who knows she has achieved something terrific.

Pia Zadora’s cult of sultry and beguiling beauty is captured in Butterfly – her career cult is enshrined forever in The Lonely Lady. Lift a glass, preferably something bubbly and white, to Pia!

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