Once upon a time (1986) in a galaxy far, far away (well, Florida and Puerto Rico), Brooke Shields faced the cameras as the redheaded newshound-cum-clotheshorse Brenda Starr, in the film version of Dale Messick’s comic strip. The movie was set to open soon after. We’ve been tapping our fingers in anticipation ever since. Legal wars raged over who owned which rights to what. In the meantime, Shields graduated from Princeton, kept busy with a billion parties, print ads, commercials and Bob Hope TV specials and waited for Starr to make her a star. Finally, the film is slated to bow any day now, which is as specific as the flick’s flacks will get.
There’s been so much negative insider buzz about Brooke’s Brenda that you might be harboring a hope that the damned thing turned out all right. Get over it. Brenda is not as bad as the also-rans that Hollywood traditionally dumps on us before Labor Day (see “The Dogs of Summer,” page 82); it’s a heap worse. After the lively opening credits, things go dead. Cartoonist Mike Randall, an irredeemably bland Tony Peck (Gregory’s son), is drawing the latest Brenda Starr strip, which shows our heroine again risking her life for a scoop. Then the cartoon comes to life, and Brenda (now Shields) argues with her creator about what to do next. The artist falls in love with his creation, so he draws himself into the strip to protect her. Disney movies from Mary Poppins to Who Framed Roger Rabbit excel at this mix of animation and live action. But Illusion Arts is no Disney.
In fact, the entire movie is agonizingly amateurish, as if the sets and props were picked up at the same garage sale where they found the script The story, set in 1948, focuses on Starr’s most dangerous assignment: She must trek to the jungles of South America and track down a former Nazi scientist whose secret formula for a rocket fuel could be used to destroy the world if Starr doesn’t beat an army of spies to the punch. The plot’s unfortunate resemblance to Disney’s vastly superior Rocketeer is further underscored by the presence of Timothy Dalton, whose wickedly funny turn as the Nazi villain in that film only makes his walk-through as Brenda’s twitty, eye-patch-wearing love foil, Basil St. John, seem twice as leaden. The only savvy move in this dumb film was made by Delia Ephron, who signed on to polish the script by Noreen Stone and James David Buchanan and then used a phony name (Jenny Wolkind) so this travesty wouldn’t be on her record.
It’s astonishing that Shields, Dalton and director Robert Ellis Miller (Reuben, Reuben) have been fighting to open the film, considering the damage it will do to their reputations. For my money, Teri Shields (Brooke’s mother) earned her $120,000 salary as executive consultant by saying early on that the film wasn’t ready to be released. Still, you’ve got to hand it to Brooke. With Bob Mackie costumes that make the statuesque actress look like a deranged Big Bird and dialogue that would sink a Streep, she gives it a go. It’s almost touching to watch her near the end. Astride two crocodiles that she’s using as water skis, Shields seems blissfully unaware that she’s riding this Titanic of a movie into an iceberg of critical and public scorn.