In 2006, I was invited by the now-defunct label Subversive Cinema to work on special features for a highly-anticipated DVD release of the legendary 1976 adult musical adaptation of ALICE IN WONDERLAND. A difficult task, since many in the cast worked under pseudonyms, director Bud Townsend had died years before, and most importantly, the star of the film had not been heard from publicly in many years. Therefore, this essay was written for inclusion on the DVD as an attempt to speak on her behalf, say what I think she would say, and start tipping the balance the other way against the years of scandal talk. I long hoped that she would read this and privately say that yes, I nailed it, somebody understands, thus making any sort of public statement from her unnecessary anyway.
Unfortunately, when the disc was ready for market, Subversive was out of money and closing its doors for good, so the essay was omitted from the release. In honor of her birthday this day, I am finally making it publicly available here...
If one believes, as the Jesuits say, "Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man," then it is not too far-fetched to say that soon after, give me a significant celebrity crush of that child, and I will give you the woman he will search for as a man.
"Let’s say it was the moondust
That drifted down from heaven
That sparkled on your shoulders
And nestled in your eyes"
– Terry Black
When I was ten years old, my worldview would be irrevocably changed through the act of my father taking me to see Ivan Reitman’s MEATBALLS, the compromise film for tweeners ready to get away from kiddie fare and parents who could not in good conscience take their children to watch ANIMAL HOUSE. By the time that movie was over, I would elevate Bill Murray to the iconic level of cool my father likely held for Steve McQueen, and I would harbor enormously unrealistic expectations of summer camp for the remainder of my childhood. But while I had to respect Bill for focusing his romantic pursuits on the butch counselor played by Kate Lynch, my youthful affections were zeroed in on the next most prominent female at the camp, A.L., as portrayed by Kristine DeBell.
You remember A.L., don’t you? The energetic C.I.T. with the blond hair and the freckles and the husky voice? Still one of only four people in recorded history who could sport long socks with Dr. Scholl sandals and make it look fashionable? She and Wheels were the hottest couple last summer, but it was uncertain they would rekindle their romance again. Can you summon back that memory now? Remember when you heard her voice break with misty joy as, bless him, Wheels remembered their anniversary? That smile bloomed on her face and you were melting with happiness for her, weren’t you? If you were a boy like me, you promised yourself right then and there you were going to do the same thing for your girlfriend…once you were old enough to have one, of course. Much like a future generation of young women would aspire to a boyfriend like John Cusack’s immortal Lloyd Dobler in SAY ANYTHING, many boys like me hoped they’d meet a girl like Kristine’s A.L.
In the 10 most active years of her currently dormant career, the appearance of Kristine DeBell in a film or television show was a welcome occasion. Like many actresses of the modern age, Kristine got her start as one of the fresh faces of the hot-button Ford Modeling Agency, but unlike the glamorous but intimidating and off-limits appearance of the other famous alumni, she always radiated friendliness and approachability. For boys like me in a pubescent state of confusion, with voices and confidence always ready to crack, Kristine drew us in because she struck as not only pretty, but kind; the type of girl who wouldn’t laugh in your face after you stumbled over your initial request for a date. Perhaps this was a hindrance in terms of acting versatility, relegating her to a series of roles as girlfriends or friends of girlfriends, but it was also a gift because in those roles, she embodied what the average viewer at home was seeking in their own friendships. Whether she was a bored call girl who’d sooner watch The Beatles on TV in I WANNA HOLD YOUR HAND, or barely concealing her awe at daredevil boyfriend Jackie Chan in BATTLE CREEK BRAWL, or tempting genial Judge Harry Stone with rock star life in a beloved "NIGHT COURT" episode, you didn’t so much think you were watching an actress in a role, as you imagined you were looking at somebody like you living in extraordinary circumstance. Kristine was definitely the Girl Next Door, in all the high notes a pop songwriter could conjure up.
"you take the words I say and make them mean
everything they don’t baby you’re obscene
you don’t listen you don’t hear
you’re blinded by the fear that surrounds you"
-- Sam Phillips
Paradoxically, it is this enormous audience goodwill that has rarely been given credit to, yet has certainly contributed to the longevity of, the 800-lb mushroom of Kristine DeBell’s career, her starring role and debut in the 1976 loose musical adaptation of ALICE IN WONDERLAND, one of those films like Frankenheimer’s THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, where the public at large is more familiar with the mythos surrounding the movie than the movie itself. So much misconception has grown over the decades since its release that in most circumstance, it is not even regarded as a movie, but as a punch line to a joke, or a skeleton in a closet, something to be suppressed rather than discussed. A Film That Dare Not Speak Its Name.
Thus, this is as good an occasion as any to set details straight. Yes, ALICE was conceived as a film that would have sex as its point of focus. In the maverick period of filmmaking that arose from the creation of the MPAA and the demise of local censorship boards, many mainstream films had sex and all of its possibilities as their main topic, including Mike Nichols’ CARNAL KNOWLEDGE, Hal Ashby’s SHAMPOO, and Ted Post’s THE HARRAD EXPERIMENT. And yes, ALICE was released in theatres with an X rating. Again, nothing unusual for the time: X ratings, merely denoting content not suitable for minors, appeared on films from all the major studios, including THE DAMNED, TROPIC OF CANCER, POUND, and the 1969 Academy Award-winner for Best Picture MIDNIGHT COWBOY.
Thus the question must be asked as to why there is still a stigma attached to ALICE IN WONDERLAND and DeBell’s performance, when other works and actors that demonstrate a similar candor do not carry one? Why is it that one can rent HENRY & JUNE, another movie carrying an equivalent adults-only rating of NC-17, among all the other films in the drama section, yet one must go through the tavern doors or the beaded curtain to get a copy of ALICE, provided the video store even offers it? And most annoyingly, why is it when you Google actresses who have also given performances of sexual honesty, such as Chloe Sevigny or Kerry Fox, the initial links simply use the word "actress," but if you Google Kristine DeBell, you will be inundated with links perpetuating the highly incorrect and downright rude description "porno star?"
The likely reason for why ALICE IN WONDERLAND inspires nervous reactions to this day is quite troubling. American actress Margo Stilley, who stars in British director Michael Winterbottom’s controversial relationship drama 9 SONGS, provides a concise analysis:
"I suppose coming from a background that tells you, 'Sex is bad, sex is bad, you're going to hell, sex is bad,' and then seeing on the news that the president is having an affair, it's not really put in a good light...What I find in films I see is that sex is always a turning point in action, someone's cheating on someone, or someone dies. It's always the kids having sex in horror films that die. And I didn't like that. And in the sexually explicit films I've seen like [Nagisa Oshima’s IN THE REALM OF THE SENSES, where the heroine emasculates her lover], they're crazy, people don't do that, it's not normal!"
While a blanket statement, the sentiment definitely applies to the performances given by Fox in INTIMACY and Sevigny in THE BROWN BUNNY. Both films' presentation of coupling is at best somber, and ultimately brings the protagonists no happiness; indeed it only furthers their respective sad endings. By contrast, Alice’s encounters during her surrealistic journey may often bewilder or intimidate her, but they prove to be fun. The message is disappointing: if you feature real sex but frame it in pathos, you have an art film, but if you feature real sex and frame it in pleasure, you have a porno film.
And for all its frankness, ALICE cannot be classified as pornography, though it is almost always grouped with it in the minds of fans and foes alike. The understated tone of the adjective "enjoyable" in my previous paragraph is intentional, because it demonstrates the clear division between the former’s portrayal of lovemaking and the unrealistic notions on display in the latter. In pornography, every man is the best lover in the world, every woman is loudly satisfied, and regardless of what clothesline plot is introduced, the sex has no context or motivation; it exists solely to be filmed and viewed.
This contrivance is not on display here. Alice's journey parallels that of her literary counterpart, full of discoveries and adventures that, while interesting, ultimately do not suit her. Her fantasy ends with her finding happiness in conventional monogamy with her true love. If there was ever a message that clearly contradicted the "anything goes best" mentality of pornography, it is this ending. To say ALICE is the same as any number of coarsely-titled productions in the video store back room because they both involve sexual behavior is as ludicrous as saying that a bottle of Veuve Clicquot is the same as a hip flask of Thunderbird because they both contain wine.
"Alice, the world is full of ugly things, that you can't change
Pretend it's not that way, it's my idea of faith
You can blow it off and say there's good in nearly everyone
Just give them all a chance
Alice, give them all a chance"
-- Ben Folds
Enough time has been spent discussing the unfounded negative perceptions about ALICE. Better to talk about the goodness of the film, that which has kept it an audience favorite for nearly 30 years. Many elements helped it make the crucial crossover to movie lovers like myself not normally inclined to watch anything of a racy nature – the audacious premise, the catchy songs, the corny jokes, and, through wordplay and irreverence, its surprising faithfulness to the ridiculous nature of Carroll’s original work.
And most importantly, what has drawn and continues to draw viewers is the overwhelming likeability of Kristine DeBell as its star. Kristine is such a nice, kind presence that in the manner that I quickly invested in her happiness during my first viewing of MEATBALLS, proper adults (and probably the occasional high schooler who sneaked a look on cable when the folks were asleep) have found themselves genuinely interested in watching her, as Alice, make her clumsy journey into libidinous liberation. Because she is a nice girl, we can’t feel a detached lust like we could if it were some stereotypical "porno actress." Instead, we identify with her, just as we would in all her roles that would follow later on. Since she is the embodiment of the girl we want to love or to become, her journey is our journey, her sexual awkwardness mirrors our own awkward first discoveries. It’s that spirit that makes the movie something that inspires a grin instead of a leer. Maybe you came for the naughty stuff, but you stayed for the smiles. This jovial attitude was not missed by critics of the time:
"[Its] most pleasant surprise is its star, Kristine DeBell, who projects such a freshness and naivete that she charms us even in scenes where some rather alarming things are going on. I think she has a future in the movies...there's an openness to her expression, a directness to her acting, that's genuinely appealing...She looks just like the healthy blond with wide-set eyes and Toni curls that sat across the aisle in high school -- or should have." -- Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
"Playmate Kristine DeBell, a most engaging cutie, manages the wide-eyed wistfulness as deftly as she executes the [specifically sexual] scenes." –Richard Corliss, Time Magazine
Thus, contrary to the prevailing notions that DeBell was able to have a successful career "despite" her appearance in ALICE, indeed it can and should be argued that her performance is so fetching, she was too good an actress to not move on to better things. And for 10 great years to follow, all of us were able to see Kristine return again and again and radiate that winsome charm.
"I don't why she's leaving, or where she's gonna go,
I guess she's got her reasons but I just don't wanna know,
'Cause for twenty four years I've been living next door to Alice."
-- Mike Chapman, Nicky Chinn
Kristine DeBell has never publicly commented about her experience making ALICE IN WONDERLAND. As long as the media irresponsibly continue to throw around loaded terms like "porno star" to describe her, and discussion of the film is monopolized by the raincoat contingent who leave comments at the IMDb so crude you want to wash their keyboards with soap, she probably will continue not to speak about it. Perhaps the aforementioned Margo Stilley, who has also advanced to plenty of mainstream roles from appearing in 9 SONGS, has a viable hypothesis for Kristine’s mindset at the film’s creation:
"I wanted to make a film about something I really believe in, which is to show sex in a very positive light, as a very important piece of everyday life and a very important piece of a relationship, whether it's successful or unsuccessful...This is a nice thing, it's fun, everyone does it...and when it's someone you're in love with, it's great."
But perhaps also, there is ultimately no need for Kristine to tell the story, because her life has virtually mirrored the film. It is not difficult to fathom that much like Alice, she came into the film’s production somewhat naive, had a good time while it lasted, but chose for the better to leave it all behind. Those of us who have been her fans have no doubt that, just as she sang in one of her stand-out numbers from ALICE, she settled down and got married and moved to a house with a white picket fence filled with kids and a little (erf-erf) puppy.
And as that child who was so pleased to see her character beam on the movie screen is now me, grown-up, I can continue to be glad in the belief that the real woman has also found her happy ending.
In the years since I wrote this essay, I did finally make contact with Kristine DeBell. After a long time out to raise a family, she is in the process of reviving her dormant career. I am very privileged to call her a good friend. She has read what I wrote, and I am posting it with her approval. Thus it gives me extra pleasure that I can share my essay with you as a birthday present to her.
Happy Birthday, A.L., and thank you for the moondust.