The Virtues of Chastity
Perhaps in honor of the fourth anniversary of Cher's farewell tour, MGM recently released a DVD edition of Chastity, the 1969 stink bomb featuring the singer's first dramatic role. Shot entirely in Phoenix, this long-lost indie (for which Cher's daughter is named) was written, produced, scored, and some claim directed by Cher's then-husband-of-sorts Sonny Bono. It's been sought after by cinephiles and fans of high camp for decades, in good part because almost no one has seen it since its brief theatrical release.
Chastity bankrupted Sonny and Cher, whose long string of mid-'60s hit records had recently dried up and who were now trying to break into the movie business. Good Times, in which they played themselves, had bombed the year before. When no studio would finance a second movie deal, Sonny hocked the couple's furniture to finance this beguilingly awful film.
Chastity is Cher's Purple Rain, a semi-autobiographical exploitation film shot 15 years before her real film career began with an Oscar-nominated turn in Silkwood. In Chastity she's morose and sarcastic and perfectly dreadful to behold, yet it's impossible not to watch her, a captivating stone peeking out from under pounds of grayish makeup and yards of false eyelashes, mouthing Bono's inane dialogue and occasionally bursting into tears.
More entertaining than the so-bad-it's-good movie itself is the fun of watching a pre-rhinoplasty Cher drifting through Phoenix circa 1969. Here she is, abusing some poor slob in front of Macayo's (Man in car: "Hey, you wanna do a thing, honey?" Chastity: "You gotta have a thing to do a thing, creep"); there she is, picking up a guy in front of Los Olivos; hassling a biddy in St. Mary's Basilica; and ripping off a patron at the Malco Gas station at 16th and Roosevelt streets.
Although he appeared that same year in an anti-drug documentary, Sonny had to have been smoking something while he penned the chaotic script for this slice-of-psych road movie. Chastity is the meandering saga of a hitchhiking teen, played by a stringy-haired, 23-year-old Cher, who runs away from home (literally, in the longest opening shot in cinematic history) and winds up in Phoenix. Chastity, who suffers from schizophrenia and bad dialogue, wanders through town, talking to herself, smoking joints, and stealing money from sweaty men. She picks up a nice Christian parking attendant (the late Stephen Whittaker, with whom Cher had an affair during filming), then steals a car and drives to Mexico, where she applies for work at a cathouse. She has a brief fling with the madam (a thrillingly dreadful Barbara London), who dresses Cher in a baby-doll nightie and chases her through Encanto Kiddieland (which in this movie doubles as Mexico) before seducing her in the lamest lesbian sex scene ever committed to film. Chastity returns to Phoenix, where she suddenly recalls having been sexually molested by her father, causing her to collapse in a heap alongside Dysart Road.
"This film deals with young women's concerns over frigidity, increasing lesbianism and almost repulsion of the institution of marriage," Sonny garbled to the Arizona Republic in a May 1968 article about the movie headlined "Catholic Church Here Pad for Hippie Film." Reporter Esther Clark scolded Sonny and Cher for being hairy and unshowered, and clucked that the "serene atmosphere of St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church [where scenes for the film were shot] 'flipped' today to the hippie beat."
"It was a very big deal that Sonny and Cher were here," recalls former punk-rock star and New Times editor Robert X. Planet. "Phoenix was a tiny spot on the map, and here were these two decadent hippie singers making a movie all over town."
In fact, much of the movie was shot near the old library building on McDowell Road, often without the necessary permits. The film's interiors were mostly lensed at the home of local actor Gary Naylor, who then lived at the intersection of Second Street and McDowell Road.
"The movie people came and looked at my house, which was unbelievably gauche, just really trashy," Naylor says. "Beaded curtains, upholstered walls, a zebra-striped canopy bed -- I had exactly what they wanted. They paid me $100 for five days, which I thought was a huge sum. Plus I got to hang out with Cher!"
Naylor camped out in his own front yard during the filming, which sometimes lasted till the wee hours. "I slept in my VW Bug in the driveway. One night Sonny woke me up because they were filming Cher taking a bubble bath and she wanted to borrow a tee shirt. I nearly fainted. This is the kind of town where you can dine out for decades on a story about getting paid to let Cher use your bathtub."
It's also the kind of town where furniture can become famous. "That hideously ugly sofa in the movie became known as The Chastity Couch," Planet explains. "It really made the rounds, too. I painted it with green fabric paint and used it in a production of Dracula at Phoenix Little Theater a few years later. Then it was in their greenroom for a long time." The Chastity Couch eventually landed on the back porch of costume designer Dean Rowman, who sold it for $10 at a yard sale in 1985. "No one cared that it had been in a Cher movie by that time," Rowman says by phone from his home in Vermont. "She must have been between comebacks when I had that yard sale."
Naylor says it was apparent that Chastity was a no-budget venture. "They were obviously strapped for money," he recalls of the shoot. "They had a tiny crew and Cher arrived in a pickup truck looking like she hadn't bathed in two weeks. This was not Lana Turner starring in Madame X, believe me."
Sonny eventually swung a deal with B-movie schlock house American International Pictures, which dumped Chastity onto the market in late spring 1969. According to Sonny's autobiography, the movie did big business in Idaho, but bombed everywhere else. In an attempt to save the picture, AIP rush-printed a new Chastity poster with Cher's head grafted onto the body of a more buxom lass, but to no avail. Even with bigger boobs, Chastity was dead.
Sonny and Cher were broke and, with their furniture still in hock, forced to sit on the floor of their Bel Air mansion. The duo hit the road to pay Chastity's bills, playing the sleazy hotel lounge circuit, a gig that led to their rebirth as television superstars when a CBS-TV exec caught their new Vegas-style routine. Somewhere in between, Cher gave birth to a baby daughter and, for some reason, the couple named her after their recent flop of a movie.
Chastity was Sonny and Cher's final attempt at playing counterculture hippies, an image they jettisoned in favor of the slicker, more network-friendly personas they sold in the '70s. It's amusing to watch them take one last shot at dissidence before packing it in and selling out, and even more fun to watch Cher traipsing through our sunny backyard in beatnik threads. Like the trailer for the film warned us back then, "Chastity's not a girl, she's a whole other thing!"
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