The nominations for the 83rd Academy Awards were just announced this week and I’m sure there will be endless debate about who didn’t deserve to get nominated and who was unfairly snubbed. For my money, one of the most unfair snubs in the history of the Oscars was for someone who would have been an absolute shoo-in to win the “Best Actress” award if it wasn’t for a technicality. Before you read this column, I think a fun experiment would be to go back and look at the list of “Best Actress” winners at the Academy Awards during the last twenty years. If I were to ask which one of those Oscar-winning performances was the most obscure and least memorable, I’m willing to wager that many of you would choose Jessica Lange’s win for Blue Sky in 1994. Now, that’s not to say that Jessica Lange didn’t give a good performance in that film, but sixteen years later, does anyone remember anything about Blue Sky?! It’s safe to say that the “Best Actress” field was rather weak in 1994, which is why Linda Fiorentino should have walked away with the award for her acclaimed performance in The Last Seduction. However, this snub cannot really be blamed on the Academy, but rather on the boneheaded distributors who wouldn’t pick up this highly underrated film. After failing to secure a theatrical release, The Last Seduction wound up going straight-to-cable and airing on HBO. However, those who actually watched it started raving about the film and Linda Fiorentino’s performance, and the buzz was strong enough that October Films finally picked it up for distribution and released it theatrically. Fiorentino either won or was nominated for virtually every other acting award that year, but because The Last Seduction played on cable before it played in theatres, it was disqualified from being eligible for any Academy Awards and didn’t get the mainstream accolades it so richly deserved.
The Last Seduction was directed by John Dahl, who had undergone a similar experience with his previous film, Red Rock West. Despite the presence of such stars as Nicolas Cage and Dennis Hopper, distributors were just not interested in giving the film a theatrical release. Like The Last Seduction, Red Rock West was dumped straight-to-cable, but was eventually picked up for a theatrical run after some very rave reviews. Both of these films were neo-noir stories, modernized versions of the film noir crime dramas of the 1940s. What really put The Last Seduction over the top, however, was the presence of one of the coldest, most delightfully evil femme fatale characters in cinema history. When we did our Shouts From the Back Row podcast about villains, we didn’t really get a chance to talk much about who we considered to be the greatest female screen villains of all time, but I’d definitely put Bridget Gregory from The Last Seduction near the top of the list. At the beginning of the film, Bridget (Linda Fiorentino) is working as a telemarketer while her husband, Clay (Bill Pullman), pulls off a drug deal that nets him $700,000. After the two of them get into an argument that results in Clay slapping her, Bridget makes the spontaneous decision to leave him and take off with the money. She decides to hide out in a small town in upstate New York called Beston, and since Clay desperately needs the money in order to pay off a loan shark, he wants to track her down at all costs. While frequenting a local bar, Bridget draws the attention a young resident named Mike Swale (Peter Berg), who has recently returned to his hometown after a disastrous failed marriage in Buffalo and is desperate for any opportunity that will save him from staying in Beston for the rest of his life. It soon becomes obvious to Bridget that he is the ideal mark for her latest scheme, and despite numerous warnings from his friends, Mike falls completely under her spell.
After successfully seducing Mike and getting him absolutely enamoured with her, it becomes pretty obvious that she is planning to enlist his help in a plot to kill her husband. Of course, this is a storyline that has been used in dozens of other film noir thrillers, but no femme fatale has ever been as cold or as diabolical as this one. There have been a lot of memorable femme fatales featured in films just like this one, from Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity to Kathleen Turner in Body Heat. The difference is that in those films, the femme fatale usually presented herself as a sweet, innocent victim at the outset in order to successfully manipulate the protagonist and convince him to commit murder. In The Last Seduction, Bridget Gregory is established as a stone-cold bitch right from the very beginning. However, Bridget is so intelligent and cunning that in spite of her less-than-likable personality, she can still effectively manipulate people into getting what she wants. When Mike makes his first attempt to pick up Bridget at the bar, she reacts so rudely that most rational men would probably not want anything to do with her, yet she senses a certain desperation in Mike and knows how to push all the right buttons with him. Bridget is a person that you would hate to encounter in real life, but is an absolute joy to watch onscreen, and The Last Seduction is one of those unique cases where much of the film’s enjoyment actually comes from rooting for the villain. The male characters in this film are not particularly likable, as Clay is presented as a pretty detestable individual and Mike is far too dim-witted to inspire much sympathy. However, if Mike was too sympathetic, then the character of Bridget wouldn’t be nearly as fun. One of the most radical things about this story is that Mike spends much of the film hoping that he can break through Bridget’s cold persona and make her genuinely love him, but that’s actually the one thing the viewer DOESN’T want to happen! After establishing such a strong villainess, one really hopes that the film doesn’t cop out and lose its nerve by having Bridget reform or find redemption but, to its credit, The Last Seduction remains true to this wonderful character all the way through.
It would be unfair to reveal too much more about The Last Seduction‘s plot because even though you’ve seen this film noir story done many times before, this movie still manages to deliver some genuine surprises. The screenplay by Steve Barancik is filled with sharp, witty dialogue and a lot of darkly funny moments. Some of the plans that Bridget improvises throughout the course of the film are outrageously hilarious, such as when she’s held at gunpoint by a private investigator and gets out of the scrape by compelling to prove the rumour that black men are much more well-endowed! Of course, Linda Fiorentino is just perfect in the role of Bridget, finding the incredibly delicate balance of playing an evil bitch who’s somehow impossible to hate. Even though she wasn’t allowed to receive a much-deserved Oscar for this performance, her career did flourish for a couple of years as she secured major roles in such films as Men in Black and Dogma. However, Fiorentino has pretty much completely retired from acting during the last decade, and no other actress in recent years has even come close to being as memorable a villainess as she was. Unfortunately, because it was ineligible to receive recognition at the Academy Awards, The Last Seduction did kind of fade into obscurity after the initial buzz wore off. It isn’t talked about a lot today and you’ll often find the DVD of this film in the bargain bin at Walmart. The Academy has shown that they recognize the importance of a great villain by awarding consecutive “Best Supporting Actor” Oscars during the last three years to Javier Bardem, Heath Ledger and Christoph Waltz for their memorable villainous performances. That recognition has allowed those villains to become iconic characters, but alas, I think that the lack of recognition for Linda Fiorentino has prevented Bridget Gregory from becoming the iconic femme fatale she should be. However, if you just want to sit back, relax and cheer for someone who’s the embodiment of evil without feeling guilty about it, there aren’t many better options than The Last Seduction.