Brenda Starr, a campy movie adaptation of the long-running “Brenda Starr, Reporter” comic strip starring Brooke Shields, was shot in 1986 but shelved for three years and barely released in theaters in 1989. A notorious flop, it was pulled shortly after release and has avoided cult movie attention despite being stuffed with queer themes and a Timothy Dalton in an eye patch. Josh Fruhlinger of The Comics Curmudgeon talks to John Leavitt about respecting source material, the aesthetics of newspaper strips, the varied nature of gender performance, and the use of alligators as water skis.
John Leavitt: What were your memories of the Brenda Starr comic strip before this movie?
Josh Fruhlinger: Well, first off, I should say that I read Brenda Starr as a child (it was the only continuity comic in the Buffalo News) and was FASCINATED BY IT. for no reason I can properly explain, though, I never picked it up again when I started doing the comics blog professionally. My excuse was that it wasn’t carried by the websites I used to get my comics.
BTW Wikipedia calls it by its full proper name, “Brenda Starr, Reporter”.
John: Get it, Starr Reporter?
Josh: OMG I literally did not get that until this very moment.
Things I remember about Brenda Starr, Reporter:
*She was a reporter who solved mysteries/had adventures.
*She had many romances but her ongoing true love was the mysterious “Basil” who came into her life occasionally because he was off having his own adventures. He had an eye patch and I think raised orchids?
*She and Basil had a daughter who just appeared in the strip one day as a 7-10-ish-year-old and looked like a tiny Brenda Starr but also had an eye patch (mono-oculism is hereditary??? IS BRENDA STARR A LAMARCKIAN TRACT?)
*She also had a female freckled boss (?) named Hank who wore suits & bow ties and had a flat-top; first portrayal of a baby butch in mass media?
John: I had no idea who she was before this, I knew the name from the Blondie song “Rip Her To Shreds” and some comics history lessons on her creator being one of the first, if not the first woman with a mass syndicated soap strip. I gathered she was a Lois Lane type, but without Superman. Basil is straight up Tuxedo Rose.
He is literally wearing a tux and cape.
Josh: It’s worth noting that all the writers and illustrators the strip ever had were women, which has RELEVANCE to the film (foreshadowing) but original creator Dalia Messick deliberately went by the gender-ambiguous “Dale” in her byline.
John: There have been MULTIPLE attempts to get Brenda on TV btw. She was even the subject of some actual newsreel serials.
Josh: There’s overlap in tone between continuity strips (which is the industry term for both soap opera and adventure strips) and those old serials.
John: Who do you think the audience for this was supposed to be?
Josh: I literally don’t know. The thing is, comics could traditionally boast a very wide readership because they were in so many newspapers but that doesn’t always translate to people seeking it out. Let’s talk about the movie, which, despite its 4-star rating on IMDB, is not what I’d call SHOCKINGLY awful, though it definitely isn’t good.
John: It has a 35% rating on Rotten Tomatoes which I feel is uncharitable. Before we get started, this has to be mentioned: This is a movie where Brenda rides alligators as water skis. We need to get that out of the way
Josh: Of course.
I swear the polka-dot dress is an homage to Roy Lichtenstein or Ben-Day dot shading in general.
John: I also want to be open and say the instant this movie started I was on board with it. Totally, completely committed. This movie does not half-ass it and I appreciated that. YES BE THIS GOOFY. Please have a character called “Cash Wallstreet” whose heart is as cold as the money in his bank. Do not apologize for what you are.
Also, as a cartoonist, everything the artist Matt does wrong in the opening I have done ten thousand times.
Josh: What was the moment you realized how goofy it was?
John: When Matt started talking to the comic strip.
Josh: For me it was when she flips over the racist Irish caricature in midair so she lands on him and crushes him to death, which is in the opening five minutes.
For those reading at home: Matt (played by Gregory Peck’s son Tony, who looks basically like a blond Gregory Peck, which is kind of distracting) is the replacement artist for Brenda Starr, the comic strip, and in the opening scene she basically walks off panel and refuses to be in the strip. So he draws himself into it to follow her and convince her to come back to work or else he’ll lose his job.
John: We have to get this out of the way as well — Tony Peck plays Matt super duper gay. And it’s not accidental, it’s lampshaded. There is a suffusion of queerness in this movie and not just the camp tone or OUTFITS BY BOB MACKIE. Look at his hairdo! Or The Strangely Sexual Carnival scene which seems to exist solely so he can leer at sweaty shirtless men.
(All movies should have strangely sexual carnival scenes.)
This better not awaken anything inside me.
…which is why his creepy crush on Brenda from out of nowhere in the last act doesn’t land at all.
Josh: For me it fits into the whole framing story about the artist and Brenda interacting, which I was not on board with to be honest.
John: It does allow for some oddly inspired bits, like Matt’s Malkovich moment reading his own story as a comic strip.
Josh: I sort of resented the fact that they felt like they had to do this framing story at all. It’s like “we’re doing a movie based on a COMIC STRIP, how CRAZY, we need to SOMEHOW WORK WITH THAT or it won’t make sense to anyone”.
Imagine if every Marvel cinematic universe movie had to start with someone in the “real” world interacting with a comic book in some magical way.
John: Batman 66 didn’t need a framing device, and there is A LOT of Batman 66 in this. Honestly the only real problem with the movie is odd pacing. The manic farce scenes go on too long and it needs like 20 minutes chopped out.
Josh: The pacing is VERY weird and I think it’s meant to approximate what reading a continuity strip is actually like. There’s this sequence during the pointless sojourn in Puerto Rico that goes like this: I need a car to get to the airport? Oh the Russians see me! I flee and create a car-horse accident that drops an awning on the Russians! Oh, I drive into the jungle and run out of gas! Oh, I see Basil, dressed as Zorro! I’m on the back of his horse! Suddenly there are two horses! We ride horses onto a plane and fly to the Amazon! That sequence would’ve made sense if each of those beats were a day or two’s strip but on screen it’s a weirdly rushed two minutes.
John: That ties to my larger point, this feels very faithful to the source material. It captures the voice and tone of those old strips. The framing is very comic strip – that snake appearing shot is in every adventure comic ever. The way people are arranged in conversation feels like the awkward way they’d try to get two people talking in a comic panel. Basil says “Can I canoe you?, which is of course delightful.
It reminded me of those YouTube videos where people recreated Mary Worth strips shot by shot.
This movie is not afraid to be exactly what it wants to be. At one point her eyes literally sparkle.
Josh: SEVERAL POINTS. It’s how Basil and artist-man knows she has feelings for them!
John: Basil St. John, played by Timothy Dalton, who by the way looked EERILY LIKE JON HAMM with the eyepatch, is just riffing on his comedic-playboy James Bond.
Josh: This movie came out WHILE HE WAS Bond, right?
John: Yes. He’s James Bond mixed with paperback romance hero. He’s got the mysterious past, the horse-riding, the cursed bloodline, the fancy dinners. All he needs is a Scottish castle.
Josh: I’d forgotten the whole Basil story where he had to drink black orchid serum or he’ll go mad “before his time”. This character in the comic was more menacing honestly, like a gothic love interest.
John: He’s a shojo manga character – the whole thing is very girl’s adventure comics. Brenda solves problems with pluck and shopping and weaponized makeup.
Josh: Yes! Let’s talk about how literally all of Brenda’s badassery involves objects of traditional femininity.
John: Her villain is the super butch Soviet henchwoman.
Josh: YES. I was shipping evil Soviet henchwoman/Hank throughout even though they never meet.
Hank, Brenda’s assistant/boss/co-worker? It’s not clear.
John: Hank has frizzled hair and a black dress and smokes. Henchwoman wears men’s suits and chomps on cigars. Brenda is basically a Barbie doll.
Josh: Brenda is very on #brand. Many of her outfits have giant ‘B’s on them and obviously would in reality be extremely impractical, but they always end up helping her out in the movie. Like when she rescues her dumb artist using pantyhose.
John: She pulls herself up by her purse straps. Literally, her purse is a grappling hook.
Josh: Teaching Matt that MAYBE he shouldn’t be so resistant to drawing dumb girl stuff, which he’s a whiny little brat about, which is why she went on strike. In the strip, she did all these badass things with girly tools and it was just was the way it worked but the movie feels like it has to make it A Thing. It’s the Lesson To Be Learned about what Brenda Starr is all about. Which is part of its meta-mission to make the movie about Brenda Starr as a pre-existing cultural object, rather than just make a movie version of a Brenda Starr story.
John: Why does she need this loser berating her for being girly tagging along? Why can’t she just be Brenda, Starr Reporter and occasionally wear Sara’s fever dream ballgown from Labyrinth? Matt is so superfluous to the movie that he spends most of it knocked out in some form.
Josh: Right. At one point Matt just drinks a potent Brazilian shot and passes out for a very specific amount of time so Basil and Brenda can go have an important plot-advancing scene, and then they come back and wake him up because they need him again. One of the reasons I resented his plot was that there are a LOT of plots, did we need one more?
Brenda has to find the secret formula and fight the Russians and fight her rival newspaper and romance Basil and avoid the Brazilian Nazis (?) and ALSO grapple with the very nature of her universe, which she knows to be a comics-page construct and is remarkably non-freaked out by that.
John: It collects a bunch of plot-threads really fast but the opening scene is super-efficient. It very quickly establishes who she is, what she’s like, what’s at stake, and that this is a universe where rival journalists wear fur wraps to police shootouts.
Appropriate work attire.
Josh: Where journalism rivalries are worth dying and/or killing for.
The whole movie is set in this very specific temporal milieu, which is interesting because the strip was always contemporary. Brenda always functioned in the present day of the publication date, more or less.
John: They reference that at the start with the “new styles” she should be wearing.
Josh: It was never 100% clear to me what era Matt was supposed to be writing in but the date of the in-Brendaverse action is very specific: It’s 1948. You see it on a newspaper!
John: His hair and suspenders make him roughly contemporary to the script he’s illustrating.
Josh: And Low-Bid Harry Truman Impersonator gives us a lecture about where the US intelligence apparatus was at the moment of the action.
John: Maybe that explains Matt’s odd attitudes toward girly things. Maybe he’s a self-hating closet case.
Josh: Yeah, let’s talk about that!
John: They take every chance to lampshade Matt’s queerness or lack of traditional masculinity, He’s prissily-exasperated in a very period coded-gay way. During a scene where we’d expect a seduction, Brenda asks him if he “got injured in the war.” He’s also shirtless a suspiciously large number of times.
He’s the pansy foil to Basil St. John’s mysterious yet alluring swashbuckler.
He almost *sashes* out of that bathroom.
Josh: I like when Basil shows up in Puerto Rico and is wearing a Zorro mask for no reason. The way they introduce him is a good nod to how continuity strips work. She asks “have we met before” and he’s like “i don’t know, have we?” The strips have these recurring characters but you always have to be re-introducing them to new readers.
John: It’s the very soap opera part of the soap opera comics, which I like. No other movie has successfully “got” that tone without talking down to it. This feels like a real loving embrace of everything cheesey about the comic strip, in format and content.
Josh: Which makes me all the madder that they had to have Matt in there. They couldn’t just do a movie in a comic strip tone where a super femme lady is also an action hero and those things aren’t just in opposition, her femmeness MAKES her a hero. They have to make the whole thing a COMMENTARY on that, somehow, and Matt is the vehicle for that.
John: I thought he’d end up in some “Duck Amuck” type thing where he can draw in new stuff but nope he’s just a whiny little priss failing his arms around.
Josh: Considering his potentially God-like powers he’s not helpful at all. They have to keep rescuing his ass to the point that the one time he semi-rescues Brenda, I was physically repulsed.
John: Matt has not earned heroic protagonist status. He barely justifies his existence in the movie.
Josh: He has to fall in love with her before he can draw her properly. It’s vaguely Pygmalion-esque, if Pygmalion weren’t a master sculptor but instead was a hired hack who would rather be an architect, brought in to do a job someone else quit.
Although it is heavily implied that Brenda and Basil are definitely doin’ it! That long monologue he gives her about the “cobra grande“ – He’s definitely talking about his dick there, right?
Josh: A snake with ONE EYE, just like Basil St. John!
John: If you stare into his dick you become enchanted, that is what he says to her.
Josh: Does his dick have an eyepatch? We’ll never know because of the deliberately square and mostly sexless tone of the movie.
John: The sexless tone makes the sex/gender stuff pop out a lot more- like Matt being preoccupied by sweaty muscular men rolling around together.
Josh: I guess it gets to the question of what exactly you do with this material that is slightly askew from present-day sensibilities
John: How does the movie jibe with your memories of the strip?
Josh: Pretty well. The edges were a little softened actually, and the “let’s set it in the past” is off to me.
I read it as a kid in the ‘80s, so my memories were that everyone was in 1980s clothes.
Brenda had shoulder pads for days in the 1980s. She did not have to browbeat her dumb artist into opening “Vogue” once in a while.
John: There’s a lot of shoulder pads working tho, it is the 80s version of the 40s.
Josh: Yes. I’d say that the movie is a good cautionary tale about the dangers of adapting things from one medium to another, not least because it ends up being almost as self-referential as the actual movie Adaptation.
Some of the things that you really love about something in one medium just won’t translate and lampshading them won’t make them any better.
Also, the evil butch Soviet Henchwoman needs her own spin-off franchise.
Here the henchwoman is literally stepping on a man to get what she wants.
Josh: BTW Apple’s chat app will NOT stop correcting “henchwoman” to “henchman,” which tells you a lot about how the patriarchy is perpetuated.
John: There’s so much gender performance stuff in here just under the surface.
The rival journalist is basically a drag queen, Matt’s a gay stereotype until the last second, there are multiple butch female characters and the movie is pretty comfortable sexualizing male bodies.
Josh: Brenda herself is one long gender performance, femme-as-badass.
John: Exactly! That’s the lesson Matt has to learn. It’s okay to embrace your feminine side. Maybe this whole movie is his fever dream about coming out – Brenda can kiss all the boys you can’t, Matt. Learn to accept it, embrace it.
Josh: So by learning to love Brenda, he’s learning to love … himself.
John: We could all use a lesson in loving yourself and being comfortable with your personal butch/femme expression from Brenda Starr. Also, huge monogrammed shirts should come back.
Josh: Be the change you want to see in the world, John.