Lana Clarkson, who was found shot to death in Phil Spector's foyer this week, was never entirely comfortable as a B-movie queen.
For a long time I was the only person reviewing her movies in any kind of depth, and she read the reviews with rapt and disapproving critical attention. All the other "scream queens" were more or less good-natured about their work—I made fun of them because they were making fun of themselves, and the movies were fun because they were spoofing other movies—but Lana was different. She thought Barbarian Queen (1985) was high art—or at least she did when she was in her early 20s.
Lana was a protégé of the great low-budget producer Roger Corman, who gave many famous actors their starts, and he did his best to make her into a genre star. Her obituaries this week say she "starred in" 17 movies, but most of those—Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Scarface, even Deathstalker—were little more than bit parts. She had principal roles in only five films, all of them produced by Corman—Barbarian Queen, Wizards of the Lost Kingdom II (1988), The Haunting of Morella (1990), Barbarian Queen II (1992), and Vice Girls (1996).
Her career coincided with the sword-and-sorcery boom that followed the release of Conan the Barbarian, and the reason Corman picked her to be one of his Amazon warrioresses (long before Xena) was simple: she was 6 feet tall, blonde and buxom. (She seemed to become more buxom in her later movies, but she once wrote me an angry letter wanting the public to know that she had never enhanced herself and was 100 percent natural. Who knows? Maybe they did it with camerawork and special effects.)
At any rate, the problem was that she didn't look 6 feet tall on screen, especially in Barbarian Queen, her first big starring role. She was so thin that her height made her look like Popeye's Olive Oyl. Her arms looked like No. 2 pencils. It didn't seem to affect the popularity of that film, but I noticed that in later roles she had beefed up considerably.
Barbarian Queen, in case you've forgotten, was filmed in Argentina by Hector Olivera, a respected South American director who agreed to slum for Corman in the hopes of breaking into the American market. The movie starts off, like Conan, with some Invading Hordes. The Invading Hordes carry off a few virgins, rape some tribal mothers, fire a few slow-motion arrows through the head, burn some bamboo, and pretty much turn the jungle into East St. Louis.
Lana, as the Barbarian Queen, escapes in a canoe with a couple other ancient bimbo tribeswomen who wear Mary Kay Cosmetics, but first she has to clobber six Mexican guys with a cardboard sword. Finally she speaks her immortal line: "I'll be no man's slave and no man's whore."
Next comes the Journey (where one of the bimbos starts having rape-mares), then, of course, we got your standard Soothsayer (blind old lady), then another gang rape that's necessary to the plot, then the Fortress City (which looks exactly like the Fortress City in the previous Corman classic, The Warrior and the Sorceress), and then, finally, the scene we've all been waiting for: Torture City.
Pretty decent torture scene here, too. "You know," says the evil king, "pain is a wonderful thing. You're much too beautiful a girl to let yourself be broken into dog food for the royal dogs. When I command you to strip your garment off, you do as I say!" Of course, she gets rescued before she becomes food for the royal dogs but after she strips off her garment.
She's even feistier in the sequel, which didn't appear for eight years because it took that long for Barbarian Queen to acquire a following on cable. In BQII,she once again joins a band of warrior Amazons with enormous hooters and cute little leather fighting bikinis, leading a peasant revolt against the corrupt castle-dwelling rulers until she is captured, chained up, and has her blouse ripped off several times—again.
In the sequel she played up her tomboy aspect. She refuses to bathe, frolicking in the forest with her cardboard sword, threatening to fall out of her chiffon nightgown at any moment. Her big line is, "Nobody is going to make a lady out of me!" But the evil king Ankaris tries to tame her by tossing her into the dungeon and threatening her with death unless she reveals ... the Secret of the Scepter, an image aimed squarely at the teenage boys in the audience.
Even though almost all her big roles were historical period pieces, she never forsook her Malibu beach-girl accent. (Years later, Xena copied this and made Californiaese the lingua franca of all breech-cloth-wearing actors.) And even though she was a beautiful woman, she never came across as that sexual.
Her final role of any consequence was Vice Girls, the goofy story of three babe cops on the trail of a serial killer who likes to videotape young runaways right before he turns them into ravioli. The gimmick is that the cops pose as strippers, wearing a special black-leather bra with Nipple Lenses attached to a secret camera, as they smoke out the killer. Lana is the booze-swilling lesbian who sexually assaults her partner in the ladies room, then says, "Well, the Captain SAID you were at my disposal." But her big line is: "You're obedient, Russo. I like that in a love slave."
In all of these movies, Lana was frequently, gloriously nekkid from the waist up. But she was conflicted even about that. One time she discovered some nude publicity stills of herself in a weekly newspaper published in the Bay Area. Outraged, she stormed into Roger Corman's offices and demanded to know how they got there. Corman professed not to know anything about it, marched with her to the publicity department, and forced the hapless publicist to explain himself. After she fumed and threatened for a while, Corman promised her it would never happen again. When she was safely out the door, he turned to the publicist and said, "Don't send the nudes to California. East Coast and Europe only."
Since most of Lana's counterparts in the business were born exhibitionists, I'm sure Corman was taken aback by a woman who was actually embarrassed by her own nudity. I was heartened to hear that in later years she loosened up and started appearing at fan conventions as the Barbarian Queen, apparently embracing the campiness of it all, even as she struggled to find some other niche in the business that would move her beyond the bombshell type. She had done commercials, episodic-TV walk-ons, and was starting to try stand-up comedy.
She hit the brick wall that all actresses contend with when they turn 40, but I'm sure she would have transmogrified into something else and continued to work. One thing I've learned from my contact with hundreds of actors whose names the public scarcely remembers is that what seems like failure to the outside world—the person who can never emerge from bit parts and supporting roles and lives in virtual poverty in L.A. or New York—acquires a certain nobility when you get close to it. You don't do the Barbarian Queen thing for 20 years without loving what you do.
Published by permission of United Press International.