flirting with controversy

ginaWendkosScreenwriter Gina Wendkos, whose film “Coyote Ugly,” about the rowdy, female-run nightspot of the same name, knows the ins and outs of the New York bar scene.  During the 1980s, when she staged elaborate performance-art pieces at places like La Mama and the Performance Garage, Wendkos worked in bars and clubs to make ends meet.

“I’ve hat-checked, I’ve bartended, I’ve danced.  There’s really nothing I haven’t done except take my clothes off,” Wendkos recalled.

Another thing Wendkos knows is that not everyone will embrace the in-your-face, strut-your-stuff sexuality portrayed in the movie, which took $17.3 million at the box office in its opening weekend.

“I expect critics will accuse me of exploiting women, I’ve heard a lot of that,” Wendkos said last week in an interview at her home in the Hollywood Hills.  “But I don’t think I exploit women at all–I think I empower them.  The girl that owns the bar, Lil [portrayed by Maria Bello], she’s so full of force, personal force.  And all the girls are sexy, they’re hot, but they’re not objects of sexuality.  They are sexuality.”

Just what kind of sexy are we talking about here?

In the movie, the bartenders, hot babes dressed in tight leather pants and clingy halter tops, periodically jump up on the bar and whip the mostly male crowd into a frenzy with their provocative dance moves–a sort of MTV bump-and-grind version of country line dancing–and douse each other with water and liquor.

Furthermore, the girls, or coyotes as they’re affectionately referred to, are encouraged to accept drinks from customers (tequila or whiskey shorts, straight up) and are told to appear “available”–but not actually be available–all while on the job.  And when the new girl on staff, a wide-eyed Jersey girl (Piper Perabo) demurs from taking tough-talking broad, promptly fires her on the spot.

So are the antics showcased in the film examples of the types of questionable working conditions that exploit women?  Or does the movie simply communicate a new spirit of assertive, if not downright aggressive, female sexuality like the kind portrayed on HBO’s brash and raunchy sitcom “Sex and the City”?

Wendkos claims it’s the latter.  And she disputes the argument that it’s offensive for a woman to make a living by flaunting her sexuality.

“These women are not fragile,” said Wendkos.  “That’s why I hate political correctness, because it strips women of their power.  Like [women are] gentle creatures that need all this protection.  I think PC is ruinous for women.”

More than a few movie reviewers called “Coyote Ugly” a 2000 version of the 1980s zeitgeist film “Flashdance.”

“They’re similar in that both movies are about a girl chasing her dream against the odds and finding her voice and her talent through exhibitionist behavior.  But [in “Flashdance”] the sexuality was much more feminine.  ‘Coyote’ has a more in-your-face sexuality.”

But ironically, for all the attention the film and its sexy ad campaign are getting, “Coyote Ugly” is actually a PG-13-rated Cinderella story and there’s nary a foul word uttered or a bare breast in sight.  And it’s released under Disney’s Touchstone banner no less.

“I’m thrilled it’s PG-13,” said Wendkos, “My 13-year-old niece is going with all her friends.  I’m proud of it; I don’t think it’s sleazy at all.”

Wendkos, a petite brunet woman who looks like she could be one of the “Coyote Ugly” girls herself, considers her own experience as a taxi-dancer more demeaning than what the coyote girls do.

“I danced at a very strange bar, a mob bar, called Blue Parrot,” Wendkos remembered.  “The customer would buy a drink for 6 or 7 bucks, and a dance would be [an additional 10].  But I only worked on tips, the house got the rest.  In fact, I had to pay the house to work there.

“I was an object.  It was like, ‘Here’s 20 bucks, I’ll dance with you, you’re my object.’  The coyote girls own their sexuality.”

coyoteUglyIt seems a fine line but for Wendkos the distinction is control.  “Are you behaving this way to be an ornament to a man or are you behaving this way because you’re full of self-choice?”

And that goes for the characters of the drama she’s developing for Showtime: high-priced call girls.

“One call girl said to me, and in a way I agree with her, ‘I now plenty of girls in this town that have married really rich Beverly Hills guys–and not for love–and they’re the bigger whores.  Because I might do a trick two times a day but the rest of the day is mine.  These other women are whores 24-7.'”

But whether you’re a coyote or a high-class prostitute, the emphasis is undoubtedly on youth, beauty and sexiness.  Some question whether that’s the right image for Hollywood to portray in this post-feminist world.

For Wendkos it’s not so much a case of how it should be as how it is.  “It’s like any other business.  Beauty is the thing that opens the door.  That’s as true in waitressing and and call-girling as it is in anything short of true science.  People gravitate toward beauty.”

And the bar stuff in the movie is very much the real deal, noted Wendkos, who spent time at the real Coyote Ugly while writing the script.  In fact, on a recent weekend, said Wendkos, the bartenders made $800 apiece in tips in one night.

Wendkos, who is single, in unpretentious and a study in contrasts.  Born to expatriate-artist parents in Florence, Italy, she and her family returned to the States when her father took a job as the resident portrait painter at the Fountainbleu Hotel in Miami Beach.  After her father died when Wendkos was in junior high school, the family moved to New York City and Wendkos went on to get her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in fine art at the Maryland Institute College of Art.

But Wendkos now disavows the art world.  “I don’t like painting.  I hardly like art,” she said.  “I have a bad feeling about art.  I don’t like modern art, I hate it in fact.  I think it’s a scam.”

Similarly, Wendkos, who was a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts grant for original playwriting for her work “Dinosaurs” and was the darling of the Los Angeles theater scene in the late 1980s and early 1990s, had never even seen or read a play before a boyfriend dragged her to see “Torch Song Trilogy” in the 1980s in New York.

And though she is the sole writer given screen credit for “Coyote Ugly,” she readily admits that writers Kevin Smith, Todd Graff and Jeff Nathanson all contributed to “Coyote.”

“Jerry typically brings in a lot of writers,” she says without a trace of ego.  “That’s his technique and I think it really works.”

In the meantime, Wendkos is taking her “Coyote” success, and criticism, in stride.  “It’s not a pretentious movie,” she said.  “It doesn’t have huge ambitions.  It’s a small movie about a small girl from a small town with big dreams.  I love it.”

– Kathleen Craughwell [Los Angeles Times]