Experience Necessary: Deborah Harry in Videodrome

Traveling through the subterranean portals of Videodrome like an introverted wraith, Deborah Harry carries herself with the wry, burned-out, but still titillated instincts of a voyager buying a one-way ticket for the outer limits. A vivid, smallish part can either anchor or undo a risky, conceptually spiky film like David Cronenberg’s viscerally deranged phantasia: Harry’s presence grounds it in acute, self-aware reality. A dangerous and damaged one, to be sure, but this woman’s no stranger to the trenches of experience. Disorder doesn’t faze her; it’s what she knows like the man-made scars on the back of her hand.

Incisively underacting what could be a standard-issue woman-in-jeopardy/hero-bait role, Harry disassembles the Hitchcock-y sex-symbolism of her character and rearranges it as a mobile construct, part armor and part canvas. She casts a spell of stillness that establishes a taut equilibrium of self-preservation and self-destruction. There isn’t the usual sense of an actor’s physique that seems socially sculptured, as if the blocking and persona were a unified, prefab front. Instead, there’s a feeling of guardedness and compulsivity, private drives camouflaged by off-the-cuff slackness. Masochism is as a front that masks something more enigmatic and disturbing: transmissions from the nethermind.

As Videodrome literalizes the notion of a pornographic excess-pool gurgling up from the voyeuristic unconscious of consumer capitalism, Harry’s Dr. Nicki Brand is a perfectly named nexus of goods (media star) and services (therapist). In contrast to James Woods’s flamboyantly slime-soaked video programmer Max Renn, she couches her deviant impulses in casual “Do you have any pornos?” quasi-passivity. “Do you want to try a few things?” Her disembodied voice (befitting Nicki’s day job as a radio shrink) seems to take on an agency of its own within Cronenberg’s grimy, claustrophobic borders. (Free-falling through the lower echelons of urban space, the movie excavates images of a Toronto that for once could pass for a neighborhood of New York: Hell’s Kitchenette.)

Harry plays both against and with “type” here. A good-sized pop star with the New Wave sensation Blondie (“Blondie is a band,” the ads had to remind fans, who just assumed the singer was Blondie), she was used to making a movable pastiche of generic expectations: girl-group tropes, B-movie plots, sex-kitten ennui, nouvelle vagrancy, and cartoon capering. Nicki Brand is toned-down, brunette, slouching toward ambivalence, a Warholian mash-up of Factory girls (Edie Sedgwick, Nico) with then-current eighties call-in radio staples Dr. Ruth (Westheimer) and Dr. Laura (Schlessinger). Harry channels a wonderful, borderline absurdist synergy that extends from there to the sordid sangfroid of the Velvet Underground, William Burroughs, and The Adventures of Phoebe Zeit-Geist backward through the dissociative fugue of Detour’s Ann Savage and bumpy-road puckishness of The Big Steal’s Jane Greer.

In Cronenberg’s interstitial grab bag of hard-boiled insinuation, future shock-corridors, and tactile cheekiness, Harry is a cryptic operator reversing appearances like forklift gears. So while all the film’s focus is on aroused/tormented male consciousness and Nicki’s apparent objectification, when Max is drawn into a shadow world of secret video transmissions and mind-control experiments, she sheds her nominal identity and reappears as a figment—or a root—of his hallucinations. Prodded, probed, and penetrated, he’s now the Guinea pig and she’s the one calling the shots, or at least doing the edge-play-by-play: his mind and physique is the point-of-entry for these experiments in out-of-body modification and behavioral control—to the point a Betamax (no pun intended) tape can be inserted into his torso to “program” him.

Harry makes her role work because she isn’t consumed, or defined, by the dizzying transition from person to dreamlife persona. There’s something slightly anachronistic about her—one of Blondie’s strengths was her (and its) knowing appropriation of flaky, pre-Warhol reference points. (The band’s first album was almost the rock equivalent of a Frank Tashlin movie.) Cronenberg’s sense of outrageous comedy sets up a brisk descent into madness and paranoia and sexual dysmorphia: a kinky-junkie bad trip. Harry traverses it with her seen-it-all veteran’s shrug, but she wouldn’t seem out of place in a pre-Code Hollywood oldie bantering with Jean Harlow or Joan Blondell either. James Woods has a likewise double-jointed quality, sneering with a brash nihilism that ping-pongs between noir wisecracks and the sallow psychic make-up of Harry’s CBGB’s contemporary Richard Hell. “Take out your Swiss Army knife,” she instructs him on their first date, “and cut me here.” It’s a long way from It Happened One Night—but maybe not as far as you think.

Harry’s ability to approach S&M as a logical extension of Date Night rituals goes hand-in-handcuff with Cronenberg’s clinical fascination with perversity as an instrument of dream logic—a laboratory for human self-experimentation. And corporate, post-corporeal exploitation—virtual reality before the Internet. She was asked at the time what she thought about her character and answered: “Nicki doesn’t carry the story; she doesn’t have enough screen time to make a difference.” But she makes all the difference—instead of being some assembly-line vanilla parade float, Harry has the slightly zonked demeanor of someone who wears the words “I can take it” like a championship belt. Nicki Brand comes on like a shrunken violet, but she packs the emotional hook of Jake LaMotta.

She might be the first postmodern tough cookie, a persona she wields to startling effect in the scene below. We hear and see Nicki purring unflappably from her sound booth: “I’ve got your number, haven’t I?” (It’s like a glass diving bell—or fish tank—that’s been lowered into an office building’s aggressively neutered lobby.) Image and tone aren’t in psychological sync, as Max loiters with dubious intent and the camera pushes in on the therapist. Counseling a distraught female listener in a manner both provoking and empathetic, she’s pushing the caller’s buttons for the benefit of the audience while engaging her in simulated intimacy. Nicki sounds like a mind-gaming dominatrix yet looks like someone on her way to the gym—a disarming, disconcerting compound of world-weariness and commonplace impassivity. Registering the tearful confession in a manner that’s at once emotionally attuned and attenuated, half-smiling at Max outside her glass enclosure, she firmly commands the slavish neurotic: “They’ll tell you where to get help, lover.” But just before that, her mask of composure cracks just slightly. Her left eye twitches in involuntary spasm, or a tiny, deliberate bit of S&M foreshadowing.

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