'50 Ft. Woman' stands tall as witty take on era's angst

December 11, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

Nobody makes TV movies like HBO.

"Barbarians at the Gate," "Stalin," "The Josephine Baker Story," "Citizen Cohn," "The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom," and, now, "Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman" with Daryl Hannah at 8 tonight.

What a smart, funny and entertaining film. There are fine performances by Hannah, William Windom and Daniel Baldwin ("Homicide"). The direction, special ef- fects and screenwriting are likely to mean even more Emmys for HBO.

What the filmmakers did is take a 1950s, sci-fi, B movie -- probably better known for its poster than the film itself -- and cleverly remade it into a '90s feminist fable with a sense of humor. Joseph Dougherty wrote the script, Christopher Guest directed, Debra Hill and Hannah produced.

In the film, Hannah plays Nancy Archer, a small-town rich girl who's privately called "poor Nancy" by almost everyone.

She's called that because, besides the money, she has an overbearing and repressive father (Windom) who treats her like a child, and a philandering weasel of a husband (Baldwin) who's trying to get her committed to a sanitarium so he can marry the local manicurist.

One night, Nancy has a close encounter in the desert that eventually results in a "hormone problem" and her growing to be 50 feet tall. With the growth comes a dramatic personality change that results in a new Nancy so assertive she gives special meaning to the lyrics, "I am woman/Hear me roar."

The entire film plays brilliantly as myth and fairy tale. Think Joseph Campbell and the hero myth of separation-initiation-transcendence.

Except this time, the previously males-only role of hero goes to a woman.

But it also plays just as well as 90 minutes of pure entertainment.

There are delightful moments when the film is camp, cool and engaging all at the same time.

At one point -- after Nancy has become 50 feet tall, empowered and about to start righting some wrongs -- her psychiatrist screams, "Nancy, Nancy, stop."

"I'll stop when I find Harry [her slime-ball husband]," Nancy says ominously. "I'm just looking for a little closure, that's all."

"Nancy, don't do this," the doctor says in a bit of perfectly bad, B movie dialogue.

"I've tried, Dr. Cushing," Nancy says. "I've really tried to be all modern and adult and post-feminist, and look what it's gotten me. Well, now I'm taking matters into my own hands."

"What will she do if she finds Harry?" another doctor asks with a trembling voice.

"Ball him up like a used Kleenex," Dr. Cushing says.

"Gooooood," a nurse standing behind them says pleasantly.

Watch the film at that level of fun. And then afterward, go back and savor it in all its gender wisdom and hero-quest braininess.

"It's a comedy first of all," Hannah said in an interview earlier this year. "But it has a little message in there that I think could definitely be called feminist."

"You could call the story of Nancy Archer a positive tale of female empowerment," screenwriter Dougherty added. "But remember, 'Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman' has its roots in the '50s, which means it's also about paranoia -- male paranoia in the face of female empowerment."

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