Film Reviews

The Heidi Chronicles

Nick Broomfield's BBC documentary Heidi Fleiss Hollywood Madam runs well over two hours. Think about that for a minute. Compare it to other documentaries about prominent contemporary women--it's much longer than the Maya Lin movie, and only a hair shorter than the one about Leni Riefenstahl. And perhaps what's most maddening about this unconscionable expenditure of time on this Tinseltown nonentity is that, er, um, well . . . it's actually pretty interesting.

This is partly because it's so personal, for a documentary. Broomfield, the gifted Brit who made Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer, cast himself as the main character.

Arriving in Hollywood while Fleiss was awaiting trial, Broomfield expected to interview her right away, but this meeting was delayed when she was placed in a rehab facility after a positive drug test. While waiting for another chance to talk to her, Broomfield and his crew delved into the sleazoid world of her associates--her former lover Ivan Nagy, a film and television director turned pimp, and an older madam known as "Madam Alex" who between them are said to have introduced Fleiss to the world of high-paying prostitution. Broomfield also chatted with several of Fleiss' friends and employees, among them Victoria Sellers, daughter of Peter Sellers and Britt Ekland.

The people in this scummy lot justify themselves and revile and defame each other with a sort of open-faced shamelessness that's pure Hollywood--only in Washington, D.C., might one see its like. Thus, by the time Broomfield actually manages a good, long, on-camera rap session with Fleiss, she seems amazingly likable, at least by comparison.

Broomfield shows the sort-of-pretty young woman with the toothy grin who seemed so vacant and uninteresting on Court TV to be a real person--intelligent, cheerful, no-nonsense, and seemingly far closer to honest than anyone else in the film. Galling though it may be to admit it, there's something rather beguiling about her (a year or so ago, a friend of mine published a confessional article in a weekly about his own fixation with Fleiss, which resulted in several inflated phone bills from calling her 900 line).

Still, the most apocalyptically juicy moment in Heidi Fleiss Hollywood Madam has nothing to do with Fleiss or any of her cronies. Broomfield captured a few jaw-dropping seconds of former LAPD chief Daryl Gates eagerly scarfing up the roll of $100 bills that Broomfield paid him for his interview. The chief then sits down and, with a straight face, explains why, despite his department's vigor in shutting down Fleiss' operation, he never busted his brother--allegedly a frequent Fleiss client.

Barely noticed amid the tributes to Western-movie great and Valley resident Ben Johnson, who passed away last week and will be much missed, was the death of Harold "Herk" Harvey, a film teacher at Kansas University and possibly the most obscure American film director ever to make an important, influential film. Harvey's only feature, the drive-in programmer Carnival of Souls, was made on a shoestring in 1961 (and known, at times, under various other titles). It's the story of a young woman haunted by dancing specters--their leader is chillingly played by Harvey himself--after she walks away from a car accident.

Harvey's livelihoods were advertising and educational/industrial films, and Carnival of Souls is shot in the same flat, pedestrian style associated with that genre. But Harvey used it to wonderfully creepy and touching effect--it may be the most distinctively American ghost story ever told on film. The influence of this small, spare movie has been considerable; it may even be floating around somewhere in the Midwestern-alien feel of the current Fargo.

Wherever the souls of Messrs. Johnson and Harvey may be, I hope it's a carnival.--M. V. Moorhead

Heidi Fleiss Hollywood Madam:
Directed by Nick Broomfield.
(At Valley Art Theatre in Tempe.)

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M.V. Moorhead
Contact: M.V. Moorhead