23 October 2016

Sting Like a Butterfly

James M Cain wrote a controversial novel on a touchy topic made into an even more contentious movie of the same name.

It’s less than fair to suggest the film ended the career of Orson Welles, but some critics noted it capped the actor’s substantial body of work on a low note. Further, the production virtually finished the profession of its actress, turning her name into fodder for barbed late-night television jokes.

The Film

The actress was Pia Zadora and the movie was Butterfly based on Cain’s The Butterfly.

I overlooked the original in theatres, but a third of a century after its release, I decided to take a critical look at it. To my surprise, it’s not an awful film.
  1. Stacy Keach, known to private eye fans as Mike Hammer, put in an earnest and solid low-key performance as Jess Tyler. He provided the backbone of the story, but more than that, he played a nuanced there-but-for-the-grace-of-God character who made mistake after mistake even as the audience begged him not to.
  2. Orson Welles is claimed to have been drunk on the set. Whether or not that’s true, I hazard he turned in a sly performance, one he fully intended to. Suggesting substantial improvements would be difficult.
  3. Any actress bordering on age 30 who can convincingly portray a 16-year-old (19 in the novel) is doing something right. To be sure, Pia Zadora’s baby-fat cheeks helped, but more than that took place. She’d started as a child actress at age eight on Broadway and developed a singing career, but Hollywood hated her for reasons that had nothing to do with the film.
Pia Zadora
© Pia Zadora
So what went wrong?

The Butterfly Effect

Born to parents in the theatre (father a violinist, mother a Broadway costume supervisor), Pia adapted part of her mother’s maiden name, Zadorowski, as her stage name. She sang and acted in a number of child rôles. At age 19, she met a man 32 years older than she, Meshulam Riklis, an investor and businessman. They married five years later. She became the Dubonnet Girl in commercials for the apéritif in which Riklis had a financial interest.

Riklis encouraged his wife’s career, perhaps a bit too much. When Pia Zadora starred in Butterfly, he bought billboards promoting her.

The movie industry didn’t like that. In fact, they resented it. When the Golden Globes presented her with Best New Star of the Year, Hollywood turned on her and where Hollywood went, the public followed. Awards of a Golden Raspberry for Worst Actress, Worst New Star and Worst New Star of the Decade were only the tip of the freeze-out iceberg. Late-night television comics relentlessly mocked her, celebrity magazines ridiculed her. While the New York Times actually liked the film, they said the petite Miss Zadora looked “stunted, like a Brigitte Bardot who's been recycled through a kitchen compactor,” an unnecessarily hurtful allegation both unfair and untrue. She appeared in a few more B-movies, but her film career was over.

But not all was lost. In a perverse way, her haters had given her name recognition, and she would eventually receive a sort of vindication. Movie-goers who didn’t stay for the credits roll didn’t realize she’d sung the sultry title song in Butterfly, “It’s Wrong For Me To Love You”. Her next-to-last film was Voyage of the Rock Aliens– ‘rock’ in this case meant rock-n-roll. In it, she sang many of the songs from her follow-up album, Let's Dance Tonight.

That’s when people learned Pia Zadora could sing!

And sing well. She rebooted her career singing in Europe and established a number of international hits. This was no aberration. In 1985, she barely missed the Grammy Award for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance with the song ‘Rock It Out’, losing to Tina Turner's ‘Better Be Good to Me’.

Sinatra © Zadora
She became friends with Frank Sinatra when she headlined in Las Vegas. He persuaded her to turn to standards. Her subsequent album Pia & Phil referred to her backup group, none other than the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

Late-night talk hosts invited her back and Johnny Carson apologized for Tonight Show punchlines at her expense. Pia had made her comeback.

The Book

The Butterfly’s title might sound like a cosy, but Cain dismisses mean-streets-of-the-city noir to show us the truly dark, forbidden love and death in the depths of a West Virginia coal mine. While the book is a crime story with a mystery, it’s also a thinly disguised melodrama and a thin volume at that.

Cain said he intended an entirely different effects-of-the-Depression novel. When Steinbeck published Grapes of Wrath, Cain aborted his plans, eventually plucking The Butterfly out of the scraps of his writings and research.

Oedipus Wrecks

Many consider the subject matter creepy– incest. We tend to associate the practice with opposite extremes of society. On the one hand, royalty intermarried, not merely European kings, queens, and offspring, but Asian and Egyptian rulers too. In a dizzying myriad of ways, Norse, Greek and Roman gods bounded in and out of beds in an assortment of peculiar combinations.

The Judeo-Christian Bible is loaded with examples of incest, where theological theorists argue that God suspended the laws of incest. A few examples include Cain and Abraham and their sister/wives, not to mention Lot and his determined daughters. Presumably the descendants of Noah suffered a shallow dating pool as well. Lest you think Americans are above it all, celebrities– our own sordid royalty– have occasionally been said to engage in incest as well.

At the other extreme, we look down on poor folk in the hills 'n' hollers of Appalachia, the Ozarks, and places not yet despoiled by 7-11s, strip malls, and WalMarts. Deliverance has become a code word where mountain dew drinkin’ types marry relatives, just as in Carbon City, West Virginia, the setting of The Butterfly.

And yet…


Cain toys with us by recognizing a phenomenon called ‘Genetic Sexual Attraction’. GSA is a serious matter studied by psychologists and biologists. Apparently GSA is biologically programmed into us.

Opposing GSA is a debated factor called the Westermarck effect. According to its proponents, this psychological proximation factor blocks, sometimes imperfectly, sexual appeal between close relatives. The effect can and does break down, particularly in cases of at least one absent or absentee parent, and traditional rôles within a family change. When families split apart resulting in divorce and adoption, the Westermarck effect can’t occur.

The percentage of adults who engage in incestuous relationships is unknown, but estimated at fifteen per cent on average and up to 50% among long-separated, reunited relatives. A sizable proportion don’t want to be ‘fixed’. It’s substantial enough to have pro- and con support groups, lawyers and lobbyists, forums, books and blogs, and web sites. After Britain was criticized for punishing sibling couples who remained stubbornly in love, the European Union is trying to figure out how better to handle these situations and possibly decriminalize most adult couplings.

The mainstream public’s introduction came from the columns of Ann Landers and Abigail Van Buren in the 1960s and the first support groups were born. These days, if we hear about the topic at all, it’s usually the result of long-lost relatives, separated at childhood, who find each other… and unexpectedly find each other attractive.

Praising Cain

James M Cain isn’t the only author since Anaïs Nin to dabble with incest, although his 1946 story cleverly works in the recognized psychological stress factors. Novelist Gillian Flynn hinted at ‘twincest’ in her book and film, Gone Girl.

Although Cain played upon reader’s suppositions, he cleverly adopted and adapted this phenomenon for his own purposes, juxtaposing a long-lost Lolita with… Well, you have to read the novel or see the film and choose which ending you prefer.


  1. Great background on an overlooked Cain novel and movie. I think I saw it around the time it first hit cable way back, but don't remember if I liked it or not.

    But what I found particularly interesting is this: "Riklis encouraged his wife’s career, perhaps a bit too much. When Pia Zadora starred in Butterfly, he bought billboards promoting her. The movie industry didn’t like that. In fact, they resented it."

    That is truly a case of the pot calling the kettle black. Have you ever seen Variety or the Hollywood Reporter around awards season and all the slick ads on thick glossy paper and crap they put in there to promote their movies and their stars?

  2. Paul, that's a wonderful, sharp point. I'm terribly naive about the industry: Don't laugh but I've never had a copy of the Hollywood Reporter in my hand. (Yes, I was raised in the woods.)

  3. I'd bet part of the problem was that Riklis was PRIVATELY financing all the publicity for Pia, as opposed to going through the studio and giving a little of the publicity to Keach et al. But who knows. I think the real reason they hated Pia and her husband was for buying Pickfair (the original home of Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford), tearing it down, and replacing it with a new, 25,000 square foot Venetian palazzo. I understand they got a lot of hate mail over that one.

  4. Thanks for this post, Leigh. I've never seen the movie, , but maybe I should--you've made it sound interesting. As for the examples of incest in Genesis, the rabbis have spent millennia fretting about them. They point out that Cain, Noah, and Lot aren't exactly presented as models of good behavior. Cain, of course, is a murderer; Noah and Lot are heavy drinkers who look good only in comparison to the people around them--they both have plenty of flaws. (In fact, some have argued that Lot is essentially raped by his daughters as a punishment--he offers to let the mob threatening his guests rape his daughters, so his daughters end up raping him. And their offspring found countries that often proved dangerous neighbors to Israel.)Abraham's case is more complicated, partly because he definitely is portrayed as a good (though not perfect) man, partly because his relationship to Sarah isn't clear. Twice, when he's afraid powerful rulers will kill him if they know Sarah's his wife, he says she's his sister instead; the second time, when God reprimands him for lying, Abraham defends himself (feebly) by saying she is, in fact, his half-sister. To further complicate matters, the words "sister" and "cousin" were sometimes used interchangeably in ancient Hebrew. And all of these incidents took place long before God revealed the Torah at Sinai, so incest had not yet been declared sinful. One could even argue that God went to the trouble of spelling out detailed laws against incest in Leviticus partly because he wanted to stop the sorts of shenanigans that went on in Genesis.

  5. Eve, I think you're on the mark. Many thought Ricklis 'bought' the Golden Globe and was trying to buy the Oscar, but as Paul points out, the pot was calling the kettle black.

    I wondered about Pickfair two, but the movie came out in 1982 and the lovely Pickfair was demolished 1989-1990 supposedly because of (a) termites and (b) a ghost.

    Bonnie, thanks for fleshing out (pardon the expression) the Biblical details. And I like your conclusion within the Torah putting the kibosh on the earlier antics.

  6. Something’s wrong with the system if an actor wins a Golden Globe and a Raspberry, in the same year, for the same performance.

    Just out of interest, this is who PZ was up against:

    Golden Globes: 1982 - New Star of the Year in a Motion Picture – Other Nominees:
    Elizabeth McGovern (Ragtime)
    Howard E. Rollins Jr.(Ragtime)
    Kathleen Turner (Body Heat)
    Rachel Ward (Sharky's Machine)
    Craig Wasson (Four Friends)

    Did her husband buy the GG? You decide.

  7. Wait, that's not fair. Guy's brains shut down when you mention Kathleen Turner in Body Heat. What was the topic again?

    Thanks for looking that up, ABA!

  8. I read The Butterfly a long time ago. Never saw the movie. As I recall, the man thought the girl was his daughter, but it turned out they weren't related, because she was his ex-wife's child by a different baby daddy. He had sex with her believing it was incest.

  9. That's it, Elizabeth! Got it in one.


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