MASCARA (1983)

Robert Kerman, playing the CEO of a company called T&A Imports, saunters up to the desk of his secretary, Harriet (Lisa De Leeuw), and inquires about a bagel that he has ordered. He then asks her to accompany him to his office as he has to give dictation. Given that this is a hardcore pornographic film in which the audience has already been served with a cross-cut sex scene between two different couples, there is a reasonable expectation where the boss and secretary scenario will go.

That it doesn’t go as we think it will is but one of the many fascinating details in Mascara, a 1983 film fully credited to Henri Pachard (née Ron Sullivan) but, in fact, was photographed and mostly helmed by producer Roberta Findlay, with Pachard only handling directorial duties in the hardcore moments. What begins as a rather routine sex picture develops into a unique and heartfelt character study that concerns itself with ideas regarding personality and the power of sexual allure far more than it does sex itself. This is not to say that Mascara is somehow lacking as a porn film. Far from it, in fact. Findlay and co-producer/composer Walter Sear were incredibly smart to hire Pachard to write the film and direct the hardcore moments as the sex scenes here have a peppier step than they sometimes do in her other pictures.

But the true focus in Mascara is the relationship between Harriet and Lucy (Lee Carroll), a prostitute with whom Harriet becomes interested in helping her with her own sexual hang ups. It’s a little like Pygmalion but Harriet doesn’t quite come to the story as a sexual novice. In fact, the opening sequence shows her enthusiastically accepting an invite to a blind double date with her friend (Tiffany Clark) and also being the catalyst in keeping the evening going when her friend is looking to go home. However, all of Harriet’s sexual encounters are vanilla one-night stands that leave her wanting more and she feels that Lucy, who is servicing Harriet’s boss during business hours, might just very well be the person to help her in leveling up.

While Mascara is a pretty spartan piece, it’s made up of little character details that broaden it, such as Lucy’s fully stocked bar from which she doesn’t imbibe and her dispassionate attitude about her sex work that she performs with a staged enthusiasm that makes it look all too real to the clients. Harriet’s buttoned-down willingness to walk on the wild side without the danger afforded to women who actually engage in sex-work raises questions that actually get articulated where they might have been glossed over in a less thoughtful piece. Additionally, in almost every sexual encounter that occurs after the first one, there are small snatches of realism that makes the viewer want to more about the johns, most especially the strange couple played by Bobby Astyr and Mistress Candice, and a couple of work buddies (George Payne and Jamie St. James) who Harriet picks up in a bar to fulfill her MMF threesome fantasy (though poor Jamie St. James oscillates between looking completely petrified or like he would rather be having sex with just George Payne).

Findlay does an incredible job lensing everything but even more beautiful is her use of color both in-camera and in the match-match design of the women’s wardrobe as Lucy and Harriet often finding themselves clothed in garments that bear the same hue. Also striking is the depth of the relationship between the two which is conveyed really well despite the film’s running time of less than 90 minutes. This is a film that is really about two lonely women who have a need for each other beyond a starchy teacher/student relationship. But it’s also admirable that Mascara refuses to take the subject matter too lightly and that the proceedings don’t devolve into something that would cheapen a film which genuinely has as much gravity and character development as a likeminded mainstream film.

But Mascara really soars due to the performances by Lisa De Leeuw and Lee Carrol. As Harriet, De Leeuw conveys a certain dowdiness without ever going to such lengths that it’s completely not-buyable. In terms of genuine acting skill, De Leeuw was always one of the best in her class and Mascara afforded her one of her greatest dramatic roles. But it is Lee Carrol who steals the show. As the hooker with a heart (though not necessarily made of gold), Carrol shows anger, pathos, love, care, and delivers all of it with a live-wire energy that is reminiscent of Sylvia Miles cooking on all burners. Brassy, loud, vulgar, intimidating, and forward mix with a sense of uncertainty, melancholy, and sadness in a performance that is truly outstanding. Additionally, Walter Sear’s percolating, droning electronic score is perfectly moody and evocative.

If Mascara needs anything, it’s about fifteen more minutes of character development to make the transitions less jarring. For example, there could have easily been a brief sequence involving Lucy’s emotionally empty day as a sex worker before she finds Harriet’s earring which prompts her call to her. And, as presented, Mascara seems to occupy a space that takes place over the course of about three or four days when it would seem that the transformation from being curious about slightly kinky things to actually being blindly sent out as a stunt trick on a professional job in Manhattan would take at least a couple of weeks.

In our current culture, hardcore pornography is generally seen as a punchline or it is relegated to the trash as the ordained shame surrounding sex won’t allow most people to get out of their heads long enough to see any value in it. Of course, this is a real shame because behind all the dumb sniggering and smarmy “brown chicken, brown cow” exclamations is a subgenre of cinema that is worthy of attention and, for all the efforts of the talent involved, should be taken more seriously. If there’s a film that serves as a good example as to why, it’s most definitely Mascara.

(C) Copyright 2022, Patrick Crain

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