PRINT February 1994


Six Degrees of Separation

There is something morally anemic about Six Degrees of Separation. On Broadway, where it ran like a Restoration comedy on poppers, the messier social issues of John Guare’s play were folded in on themselves—as if a perfect sheet of dough covered everything with a creamy ubiquitousness. That the scary plight of the hustling black antihero is left willfully unresolved in order to serve up an epiphany of conscience to its careless white heroine caused nary a whisper of discontent.

The play’s premise concerns a young man who claims to be the son of Sidney Poitier in order to insinuate himself into an affluent urban household, which, as a result of his intrusion, is politely but irrevocably shattered. The story is true in its essentials—it was reported with great gusto by the New York Times hack in the mid ’80s—and there was never any doubt that the young man was guilty of misrepresentation and psychological trespass; but, as in the play, he neither stole nor inflicted bodily harm. He merely, desperately, lived out his fantasy in the midst of other people’s superior reality. As theater, the equation played with a tipsy logic, topical daring and comic invention striking a balance that offset the plot’s conventional pieties. As a movie, Six Degrees relentlessly yaks at you. A clammy rot sets in, and the theatrical artifice turns morally toxic under its celluloid sheen.

To tell the truth, I had high hopes for the movie. Here at last was a film with an art-dealer protagonist played neither by Madonna (Body of Evidence) nor Kim Basinger (9 1/2 Weeks). Nor was there even anything to indicate that the dealer’s animating principle was to be sadism (Body of Evidence), masochism (9 1/2 Weeks), felony (Terence Stamp in Legal Eagles), or screaming bias (Bronson Pinchot in Beverly Hills Cop). Unfortunately, from the opening shots of the dealer’s Fifth Avenue apartment, I got the heebie-jeebies. The place looks like the inside of a sack of potpourri. Trying to sell a painting out of all that ambience would be as futile as competing for a piece of raw meat in a shark tank. As the textured interior began to fill up with fatuous sallies between the dealer and his wife, I began to long for Hollywood’s old, salacious take on the art world. Anything would be preferable to Six Degrees’ overupholstered cocoon, where sadism is socking a tapestried pillow and masochism is smiling when someone spills wine on the Chinese rug.

Stockard Channing’s reading of the play’s protagonist, Ouisa Kitteridge, remains remarkable. As in the original production, Channing turns in a poignant, elegantly loopy performance. Unfortunately, her acting (like everyone else’s) is on thespian time, which is very much at odds with movie time. Will Smith, rap-music and sitcom star, is sweetly earnest as the interloper, but while he does just fine, he isn’t taken to the slippery edge where a black, gay, self-hating WASP-lover might be as dangerous as he is either seductive or tragic. Without that edge, the panic he unleashes among his platitudinous white hosts doesn’t make a whit of sense; Smith’s so puppyish it’s never clear why Channing doesn’t just shut up and adopt him. As the art-dealer husband, Donald Sutherland goes all flat and avuncular. The part calls for a silky grifter who can flip a Matisse as insouciantly as an omelette, but Sutherland seems to be playing Santa in a made-for-TV version of Miracle on 34th Street. They should have just resurrected Terence Stamp from his gorgeously reptilian turn in Legal Eagles.

Actually, Six Degrees is very much a galumphy version of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema, in which Stamp starred back in 1968. His part in the film is the Will Smith part, but instead of talking his hosts to a higher consciousness he literally fucks them round the bourgeois bend—mother, father, sister, brother, maid, each in turn is thrown for a different kind of socio-religio-politico loop. The director of Six Degrees, Fred Schepisi, is no Pasolini. He’s simply a flexible commercial director who, after a great Australian beginning with The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, has grown accommodatingly bigger and blander in Hollywood.

Six Degrees also brought to mind Waris Hussein’s The Possession of Joel Delaney, 1972, an effective wacko take on the them of social dysfunctionality in Manhattan. In Possession, Shirley MacLaine plays an affluent divorced mother of two. Her adored younger brother (Perry King) is suddenly, horrifically possessed by the vengeful spirit of a psychotic Puerto Rican murderer named Antonio Perez. As the brother’s behavior goes from erratic to lethal, the film starts chopping away at MacLaine’s haut-bourgeois sense of entitlement like a baloney slicer on overdrive. The police: chop. The medical profession: chop. The psychiatric establishment: chop. The sanctity of the home: chop. Family values: big chop! Eventually, through the aegis of an exmaid who despises her, MacLaine ends up at a Santeria exorcism in Spanish Harlem with the mother of Antonio Perez. There, for the first time in her life, she tries to connect with something that hasn’t been delivered to her townhouse in a Tiffany-blue box. The movie ultimately goes way too far over the top, but its final resolution, in which MacLaine is herself possessed by Perez, is certainly more cathartic than Stockard Channing striding up Park Avenue in a designer suit, transformed by the awareness that she too is responsible for the way things are. Well isn’t that nice? Give me bloody retribution any day.

Richard Flood is the director of the Barbara Gladstone Gallery, New York.