Twenty Dollar Star (1990): Leder of the Pack

A stalwart of the independent movie scene for three decades, Dave’s decided it’s time Paul Leder finally gets the recognition he deserves — and where better to start than with this barely acknowledged masterpiece? Featuring a few quick words with actress Rebecca Holden.

“An independent movie hyphenate.”

That’s how Reuben Leder describes his late father, Paul, and it’s a moniker that fits the filmmaker to a tee.

Director, producer, writer, editor — Paul Leder is the type of creative whose legacy carries the expectation of a bowed shelf of biographies in an offbeat bookstore, each one focusing on a different aspect of his remarkable life and work. Bafflingly there’s none. A peace and nuclear disarmament activist for the bulk of his life, Leder served as an army medic under General Patton during World War II and treated survivors at the liberated Buchenwald concentration camp. From the depths of war-torn Germany, he trod the boards on Broadway, singing and dancing alongside Phil Silvers in Johnny Mercer’s musical, Top Banana. Leder’s film career began at the start of the ‘60s, whereupon he produced The Grass Eater (1961) and Five Minutes to Love (1963); the first two pictures by a similarly seminal craftsman, John Hayes. In both films Leder also acted opposite future ‘Golden Girl’ Rue McClanahan.

Unfortunately Leder would find his burgeoning on-screen career cut short due to a series of inner ear operations that left his hearing severely diminished, which in turn manifested into chronic bouts of vertigo. Moving behind the camera seemed inevitable and although his directorial debut, Marigold Man (1970), failed to make a splash, two of the three films that followed were ultimately the ones he (reluctantly) became best known for: the exploitation classic I Dismember Mama (1972), and the wild Korean monster movie Ape (1976).

1990 brought three films in one year. All, though, had roots in the previous decade.

Goin’ To Chicago remains Leder’s most acclaimed offering. It was shot in 1989 and premiered at the Santa Barbara Film Festival where it picked up two awards in the process. Murder By Numbers was lensed in May ’88, and you’d have to go back the year before that to identify the origins of TWENTY DOLLAR STAR. The camera rolled in summer ’87, but the film didn’t bag a domestic video release until over four years later.

Damaged goods? Hardly. It’s just like so many of Leder’s other ’80s and ’90s flicks, the conundrum of how to market Two Dollar Star was a tough nut to crack.

In this case, Rebecca Holden stars as Lisa Brandon: a beautiful and rich actress/singer with a home in the Hollywood Hills and the keys to a red Corvette. On the face of it, Lisa has it all except the lass is partial to donning a wig, some louche clothing, and handing out blowjobs for twenty dollars a time (hence the title).

Holden had spent the preceding years on a variety of TV shows from April Curtis in Knight Rider to a spell in General Hospital and the Lisa role presented a number of challenges. In Leder, however, Holden discovered an artist thrilled by the thought of compromise and collaboration.

“I got a call from my agent to go audition for Paul,” says the actress. “I remember him being the kindest and most gentle, sweetest man. He spent a lot of time talking to me, and I was quite upfront that I wouldn’t do the nudity that was in the script. I was brought up with very conservative parents who I loved dearly, and I would never have embarrassed them in that way. So it was a decision about my career that I’d made for my own personal reasons. However, Paul kept inviting me back to read, which I was surprised by, because the film did require a lot of nudity and he knew I wouldn’t do it.

“‘Rebecca, we’ll figure it out,’ he would say. ‘To me, the most important thing is the performance, and choosing the right actress to give me that. We’ll work out how to shoot it so that you’re comfortable.’”

“I respected him so much for that, so I agreed to go on this journey with him. It was a very small crew and we had a great time doing it. It did require a lot from me emotionally, but I loved the people he surrounded himself with, and you could tell they were all devoted to him. This film was particularly important to him. I can’t say specifically why, but he did make it clear just how much it meant. I could see that from the time he spent casting it, as well as the number of call backs. I was so determined to bring this to fruition for him.”

Lisa’s dark desire to be part of the seamy Los Angeles underworld stems from a rocky childhood relationship with her father (Dick Sargent) and falling pregnant at the tender age of fifteen (“Her upbringing and her background was so different to mine, but I think I’ve always had an empathy for someone who was hurting,” muses Holden). But even with the pressures of fame and a doting fiancé, Lisa’s lusts are an impossible to sate. Eventually it reaches the point where she has no choice: the desk jockey (Eddie Barth) of the two-bit motel she frequents recognises her one night and hatches an extortion plan. Will this be the moment that Lisa finally gets her life back on track, or is she destined to keep repeating the same mistakes?

The focus on a schizophrenic lifestyle like Lisa’s calls to mind Superman as much as it does Ken Russell’s kissing cousin, Crimes of Passion (1984). For instance, if you see Clark Kent in a suit and a pair of glasses, you still know he’s five seconds away from spandex. Therefore, if you catch sight of an A-list megastar in a bad bouffant and leather skirt, she’ll surely still look a million dollars irrespective of their surroundings. Interestingly, in Twenty Dollar Star, that’s not quite how it works out. Leder’s attention to casting pays dividends. Holden straddles both personas with an impressively broad range, switching from hooker to looker with ease.

Bernard White as Lisa’s ever-fretting PA, Brian, is another excellent addition to the cast. A familiar trait, Leder sketches a prominent gay character without any of the clichés so prevalent in the late ‘80s an artistic consistency to be admired and savoured.

It’s a similar story with the film’s theme of gender roles. “Any woman with sexual desires is a tramp” is line that lands hard, and over the course of an intense sequence with new-found friend Lou Ann (Marilyn Hassett), the two dismantle the public perception of actresses to deliver a stirring feminist polemic that segues into study of how Lisa can move forward.

Despite a lengthy period awaiting distribution, it was big-hitter Paramount who eventually issued Twenty Dollar Star on tape in the U.S. in September 1991, albeit with a model in a little lacy number adorning their cover art to capitalise on the growing trend for erotic thrillers. Intervision released the film a year earlier here in the U.K. but outside the confines of the video store, Two Dollar Star has never graced any digital format and seems to have bypassed TV appearances as well.

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