Picture Sharon Stone with stringy red hair, stripped of lip gloss and flattering camera angles, in the role of a condemned murderess about to face the grim music of lethal injection. What the hell were they thinking? Perhaps another Oscar nomination to bookend the one Stone collected for Casino. Not bloody likely. Last Dance is a prison melodrama that embraces all the cliches that Dead Man Walking artfully dodged. The latter film, in which writer and director Tim Robbins demonstrated the horror of capital punishment without making a martyr of the killer — indelibly played by Sean Penn — serves as a handy club to whack Last Dance for being bogus, manipulative and absurdly old-hat. Susan Hayward’s I Want to Live! did this stuff, and gutsier, nearly 40 years ago.
Last Dance acts tough, but its heart is pure soap opera. The script by Ron Koslow, whose credits (Lifeguard, Firstborn, Into the Night) are more like debits, sells noble suffering with the relentlessness of an infomercial. Last Dance is fiction, freeing Koslow to work over the audience with cheap tears and exploitative suspense. If you think this film won’t stoop to the hokey device of phoning in a temporary reprieve just after the prisoner is strapped down, you don’t know Koslow.
Blame must go also to Bruce Beresford, the Australian director of Breaker Morant and Driving Miss Daisy. Beresford has had flops in his day — remember King David? But never before has the craftsman who is capable of the delicacy of Tender Mercies and the savagery of Black Robe seemed like a hack for hire. The deep South milieu is overdone in the manner of Beresford’s chicken-fried Crimes of the Heart. Last Dance is set in an unnamed Southern state — it was shot expertly by Peter James in Tennessee, Kentucky and South Carolina — resulting in wildly fluctuating corn-pone accents from Pennsylvania’s Stone, New York’s Rob Morrow (as her clemency officer), his fellow New Yorker Peter Gallagher (wasted as Morrow’s bureaucrat brother) and Australia’s Jack Thompson (as the governor of the fair state of wherever it is).
Before the film’s phoniness engulfs all before it, Stone puts up a brave and feisty resistance. Her character, Cindy Liggett, has been in the slammer for 12 years, waiting for the state to lower the boom. Resigned to her fate, she wants nothing to do with Morrow’s Rick Hayes, the lawyer assigned by the clemency board to look for extenuating circumstances that might stir the governor to show mercy. She correctly pegs the visit as a formality so “you can kill me with a clear conscience.” Soon, Rick is afflicted with rescuer’s syndrome, even after she tells him that most of the slick Ricks in her experience have been “worthless, lying, two-faced motherfuckers.”
Without actressy emoting. Stone convincingly establishes Cindy as “wild” — pronounced with a seductively elongated l, as in lusty and lethal. A series of grisly flashbacks to the murder — Cindy was 19 at the time — bear out that wildness. We watch Cindy and her 17-year-old lover boy, Doug (Don Harvey), burglarize a house. That’s when Cindy surprises two hot-looking teens in bed and bludgeons them to a bloody pulp when the girl calls Cindy “a thieving whore.” Her half brother, Billy (talented newcomer Skeet Ulrich), turns her in, and the rest is jail-house history.
Stone is always adept at hard-edged humor. She salvaged the dreadful Diabolique by turning her character into a camp glamour puss. Last Dance allows few opportunities for levity, but Stone grabs what’s available. “Why are they so nice just before they kill you?” she cracks when the warden wheels in her last meal. But instead of telling Cindy’s story and letting Stone act it with the rigor she brought to Casino, Last Dance works itself into a hysterical lather trying to make Cindy’s case: She was an abused kid; her mom’s lover raped Cindy when she was 14; and she had been up for two days robbing houses and smoking crack on the night of the murder, not just drinking beer like Doug testified so he could get his sentence reduced. The district attorney urged the death penalty because the dead boy’s father was his pal. Yadda, yadda, yadda.
No wonder Rick falls in love with Cindy — so does the movie. Heck, not only was she framed, she can draw. That’s right, Cindy takes an art course by mail. Rick brings her a photo of the Taj Mahal for inspiration. Morrow is an intelligent actor of sneaky charm, but even he can’t persuade us to swallow the film’s trumped-up romance. “Did she suck your cock?” asks slimy Doug when Rick visits him in jail. Of course not. The relationship isn’t about sex. Rick is the fuckup in his family. He and Cindy are kindred black sheep. By trying to save her, he can redeem himself.
Last Dance is awash in rehabilitation. Cindy has a visit from her estranged brother and advises him to go straight. She is a friend to the other prisoners, who bang their cups in tribute when Cindy is shipped off to the death house. The governor’s clemency goes not to Cindy but to a black convict with a book on the best-seller list. Talk about your glib, gutless screenwriting.
Stone is known for bringing a feminist twist to her characters, often in defiance of her director’s intentions. Think Basic Instinct. In Last Dance, she shows with eloquent precision the strength Cindy forges in the antiseptic isolation of prison. It’s too bad that Stone didn’t resist Beresford’s insistence that she play all the death-row platitudes — from silent resignation to screaming breakdown. In farewell, Cindy announces, “You’re in my heart, know that,” completing the transformation from slut to saint. Beresford even provides a surprise tear-jerking coda at the Taj Mahal that should shame him all his days. As for Stone, she should stay far, far away from those slick Ricks among filmmakers who promise the truth and deliver the mock.