Sexual Hopscotch: Radley Metzger's Score
When we're born, most of us are raised with preconceived notions of what roles we will need to play. Boys play with toys. Girls play with dolls. Later on, one marries the other and produces 2.3 children, works, eats and eventually dies. How droll, right? It's fine for some but what about those who inwardly crave something more? What if the role you're trying to play, much like a too tight sweater, is constricting you, forcing your flesh to practically beg for release? Welcome to the dilemma that young marrieds, Betsy (Lynn Lowry) and Eddie (Cal Culver), face in Radley Metzger's 1974 film, Score.
Based on writer Jerry Douglas' off Broadway play, Score, the film centers around two very distinct married couples both residing in a lovely seaside Croatian village. (A vast difference from the play's urban, New York City location, by the way.) There's the aforementioned Betsy and Eddie, your proto-typical fresh faced, flaxen-haired young American couple who are new to the area thanks to Eddie's marine biologist job. In a funhouse mirror image, there's Elvira (Claire Wilbur, the only cast member who was in the original stage production) and Jack (Gerald Grant). Elvira and Jack are attractive, but instead of golden haired Americana, they both are a little more worldly, a little older and possess dark good looks that have netted them both many a lover. (Together and separately.) Elvira befriends Betsy, who is often left alone during the daytime while Eddie is at work. Unbeknownst to the naïve newlywed, her more sophisticated friend and her charming husband are the gambling kind, with the new couple being the centerpiece of this particular bet. Elvira begins to dip her toes into the water when she has Betsy over one morning and in a move of lurid calculation, invites the local phone repairman, Mike (Carl Parker), to “fix” their phone line. The line is fixed in a jiffy and so is Elvira, as she all too easily seduces the very willing and handsome worker, front and center for perusal by a rather gobsmacked Betsy, who ends up leaving.
Ever the Machiavelli of lust, Elvira has planted an important seed and she and Jack have them over for dinner that night. She already knows that Betsy is not terrifically happy in her marriage, with Eddie spurning her advances in bed earlier that week and then later on, catching him in a moment of self pleasuring in the bathroom. If anything, Eddie is more of the mysterious one, whose outward actions and appearance is a central casting agent's wet dream of “All American Heterosexual Hubbie.” But as the evening progresses, layers of image and social illusion are peeled. The quartet open up a trunk of costumes, with Eddie all too enthusiastically dressing up as a cowboy and Betsy as a sexy dominatrix type, serving as a glorious contrast with her girlish voice and giggle, especially as she begins to get stoned.
Jack's pursuit of Eddie is earnest and yet less predatory feeling than Elvira's of Betsy. But there's a tension with both individuals. At first it is repressive, with the younger of the two clearly wrestling with the turmoil of what social roles have been indoctrinated upon them and what their inner, pure core cravings and needs actually are. Amyl nitrate soon is introduced and the atmosphere grows heady. In a really fascinating and truly smart directorial choice, Elvira's inevitable seduction of Betsy is softcore and while sexual, it feels less like heated need and more of a power transference. Fagin and Svengali have become one, which plays out in a really funny twist at the end of the movie. (It also helped that neither Lowry nor Wilbur were willing to go hardcore.)
With Jack and Eddie, there's not only sexual explicitness, but even more impressive, a sense of tenderness. The more that is revealed about Eddie, it is clear that he has wrangled with feelings for men, including very possibly Betsy's brother, in the past but had tried to paw-bury it in the sand. Jack is less of a wolf in a tailored shirt and more like a sympathetic soul reaching out for physical warmth. He is the sensual, heartful flip of Elvira's more cool-as-a-cucumber lioness. The warmth and emotional need of their coupling is one of the most compelling images from Metzger's impossibly rich and impeccable filmography. Which is a bit like saying which Warhol, Francis Bacon or Paul Klee painting is the best. It is one of the most striking jewels in a treasure chest brimming over with gilded goodies.
The morning after hits with afterglow initially taking on a bittersweet pallor before Mike the repairman comes back and serves as a hilarious catalyst. Score is a fascinating work and, perhaps partially due to its stage origins, is tonally a little different from some of Metzger's other films. Which is interesting given how Metzger has ranged the gamut from melancholy (Camille 2000, The Lickerish Quartet) to light and frothy (The Opening of Misty Beethoven, Barbara Broadcast). Part of this is due to the work bearing so much of writer Jerry Douglas' strong thumbprint, as much as it does Metzger's. Having these two artistic alphas working together is impressive and results in one strong and unique effort.
On Douglas' end, you have a story that explores themes of liberation, repression and tinges of sadness that well up when you are forced to hide or put part of your essential self in a box. There's a bit of humor thrown into the mix for good measure, but the pain of dual life and dual love are smartly touched upon. (These are themes that Douglas as a writer and director would explore with more gravitas in the unjustifiably obscure 1975 adult film, Both Ways. This coincidentally starred Gerald Grant as a husband and father who ends up having an affair with a younger man, making it one of the tiny handful of films to explore male bisexuality in the 70's.) All of this made Douglas a great creative tete-a-tete for Metzger, whose penchance for visual artistry, ranging from locations to the actors themselves has always found the perfect match with his intuition on how his characters connect and interact with each other.
Score manages to avoid the pitfalls of being overly-overly theatrical that some stage to screen adaptations have suffered. There's a smooth fluidity to the entire film, between the on point camerawork, as well as the actors. The perfect core was assembled here, with each actor having that classic Radley Metzger blend of good looks and the talent to back it up. Claire Wilbur is captivating as the smart she-wolf of a housewife, making her a rich match with the gamine charms and curiosity of Lynn Lowry's Betsy. The latter's transformation from a wide-eyed goodie-two-shoes to the veritable lady & the tiger is pulled off smoothly, making it such a great showcase for the often underrated talents of Ms. Lowry.
On the male end of things, both Cal Culver and Gerald Grant are absolutely terrific. Likable, charismatic and vulnerable, it's not a surprise to find out that both guys had backgrounds in the theatre. Culver, who was also previously in the super-nihilistic exploitation film Ginger and would go on to find fame as one of the first gay adult film stars under the nom de porn Casey Donovan, is riveting here as poor, confused Eddie. Culver and Grant, who is charming and sweet in a competitive way as Jack, play off of each other exquisitely. It's interesting that, as female-centric of a filmmaker as Metzger is, that one of the most erotic scenes in his entire career is between two male lovers.
Carl Parker is a lot of fun as the ridiculously good looking phone repairman, Mike. (No phone repair guy has ever looked as good as Parker. Also, note that a pre-Rocky Sylvester Stallone played the role of Mike in the original stage version of Score, while Parker would go on to play the male lead in Metzger's 1975 film, The Image.)
Score is also intriguing because in some ways, it is a time capsule of an era where themes of partner swapping and people copiously using “poppers” were becoming more openly discussed and explored, before the iron gates of conservatism via Ronald Reagan and AIDS put a massive funereal shroud over everything. Yet, all that said, the themes of discovery and power plays within romantic relationships are constantly fluid, giving Score both a dated and yet timeless feel.
In many ways, Score is indicative of what makes a great Radley Metzger film (ie. Visual sumptuousness, an impossibly attractive cast, an air of lightness stirred in with some of the more human implications of intimate situations) mixed in with Jerry Douglas' skills as a writer. It's a film with fun, bite, physical heat and emotional challenges, whose every celluloid frame contains something captivating and vibrant. Every human being is a puzzle and it is just a matter of connecting with that right person, persons or tribe to put yourself together.