Writer-director Ron Shelton, who scored a major hit about minor-league baseball and sex in Bull Durham, now turns to Southern politics and sex. His film is based on a 1959 scandal involving Blaze Starr, a redheaded, twenty-eight-year-old stripper, and Earl K. Long, the sixty-five-year-old good ol’ boy governor of Louisiana. Earl, brother of Huey Long, had already served three terms when he met Blaze. His itch for her helped cost him a fourth.
It all sounds juicier than Shelton makes it. As Long, Paul Newman — with unruly white hair but still Hollywood handsome — ogles Blaze’s pasty-covered breasts (“That’s quite a pair of rascals you got”) and even wears his boots to bed “for traction.” But his acting rarely cuts beneath the surface. Newcomer Lolita Davidovich has the requisite bounce for Blaze but little of the brass. Shelton averts his gaze from the lowdown side of stripping just as he ignores the ambiguities of the governor’s self-interest in championing black voting rights.
Shelton obviously wants to distill something innocent and romantic from a relationship the world saw as sleazy. A noble mission. But he’s left out a few essentials — like the facts. Long was married while he carried on with Blaze, and Blaze, in the process of divorcing a Baltimore club owner, had recently beaten up her husband’s girlfriend. It’s all in Blaze’s 1974 biography, which Shelton used as a source. But there’s nary a mention in this decorous Disney production. Shelton has actually made two colorful, outsized public figures seem smaller than life.