The Revision Redux: Brenda Starr

Other than the 1945 film serial, Brenda Starr has been adapted two more times to date, once as TV movie in 1976 and once as theatrical film that was produced in 1986 but wasn’t released until 1989 in Europe and 1992 in the U.S.

Of the two, TV’s Brenda Starr (1976, directed by Mel Stuart) one is the preferable one, which isn’t to say it’s particularly great.  Jill St. John as Brenda does a serviceable job and the character as she’s presented here with some suitable updates to the ’70s. It at least tries to capture the delightful weirdness of the strip. The plot revolves around voodoo (and yes, that’s problematic) and a billionaire who faked his own death.

The fact it was directed by Stuart, a competent to good director, may make you think it’s going to be better than it is. Make no mistakes: This is definitely a ’70s made-for-TV movie and it’s not trying to be more than that. St. John at least feels a bit more like Brenda Starr but she’s still not quite there. Despite the wide-ranging story (it takes place in Brazil!), there’s not much sense of place. It was clearly all studio backlots and other California locations.

Honestly, I watched this two days ago and I’m struggling to remember that much of it. I took some notes but after a while, I got bored of doing that because I mostly got bored of watching this. Brenda Starr should not be boring!

I do have to say that while this is neither a good adaptation of the comic nor a particularly good movie, it at least approached the source material with some appreciation and understanding of it. So, really, at least it tried.

There are two kind things I can say about Brenda Starr (1989, directed by Robert Ellis Miller) and they are that the Bob Mackie dresses are great and while I think Brooke Shields was miscast, it seems like she was having fun.

That’s it. Because I am pretty sure that beyond this movie hating its audience and its own existence, it hates me personally. I’m not sure how that works, really, but this movie definitely felt like a personal attack.

The movie opens with Mike (Tony Peck) who is the resentful artist for the Brenda Starr comic strip. I find it pretty offensive that Mike, a man, is drawing Brenda Starr in this movie since, in reality, Brenda Starr only had all-women creative teams, even after Dale Messick stopped writing and drawing it. I also find it offensive that he doesn’t enjoy what seems to be a reasonably-well paying artistic gig. And mostly, I just find Mike’s entire existence in this movie offensive because there’s no point in him being here.

But that’s really only the first of poorly thought choices this movie makes.

OK, so Brenda Starr (Shields) talks back to Mike and then takes control of her own story. This could have been fun, but the movie never quite finds the right tone. It wants to be cartoony and stylized but it also seems to actively show contempt for its source material. Some of it wants to be campy and self-aware but it doesn’t want to commit. This movie feels ashamed of being based on a comic strip and wants you to feel ashamed for watching it.

Mike draws himself in the comic and tracks Brenda down. They end up in Brazil (of course) trying to chase down some secret formula for alternative fuel. More or less. I think this movie gave up on having a coherent plot after the first 20 minutes.

Timothy Dalton does make a pretty decent Basil St. John but he drops in and out of the movie so much that he’s not enough of a presence. The movie’s insistence at pushing Mike to the forefront is pretty exhausting, especially since Peck and Shields have zero chemistry.

I really wanted to like Shields here and she does her best, but she’s just a bit too young and breathless to really pull off being a tough, independent reporter. Shields reportedly really looked up to the Brenda Starr character, and that shows through in her acting, but she still feels like someone just playing dress-up.

I knew this was going to be bad. Everyone said it was going to be bad. I had my expectations pretty low. Still, I was not expecting it to be this bad. It’s one of the worst movies I’ve seen and not in a way that’s fun or charming.

Fortunately, though, I never need to watch this again.

I really hope someone figures out what to do with Brenda Starr, whether it’s something set in the past or a modern update. The character and the comic strip are great and the adaptations have not done Brenda nor Messick justice. Maybe we’ll get one that does one day.

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