Black Widow, which came out in 1987, was controversial at the time for a few reasons. The movie wasn’t a standard thriller or procedural, since there was no longer any suspense about whodunnit. Theresa Russell’s femme fatale antagonist was undoubtedly the villain of the piece, revealed at the get-go. There was still plenty of suspense in the film, just of an interpersonal nature. Debra Winger, the hero and FBI agent on Russell’s trail, was, atypically for a big budget Hollywood production, also a woman — still pretty much unheard of in the movies.
But Winger’s character not only had to fight for the right to pursue the case of multiple murders of rich men, but convince her boss that the perpetrator was female, as his attitude is clear, “A complex series of seductions and murders. That’s not something you see a woman do.” She is convinced even obssessed, that her suspect is a Black Widow, “Which part do you figure a woman isn’t up to, the seduction or the murder?”
The much-vaunted lesbian subtext was just that. There are definitely some girl/girl moments. But the film never commits to a full-on romance between the two women. Winger’s character Alex may be attracted to her quarry, but more importantly to the story, Alex is attracted to a deeper, female-ness about Russell’s character Catharine. Catharine uses her power, femininity, and sexuality to attract and entrap men (including the misfortunate Dennis Hopper and Nicol Williamson). Like the black widow spider (and the movie’s tagline) she mates and she kills. Catharine tries to explain her attraction to her prey, “I loved them all.” It’s what she knows. Alex, until she meets Catharine, uses her femininity not at all.
As accomplished as serial killer Catharine is at her deadly work and Alex is at her job, they are both struggling to assert their true identities. Catharine keeps changing hairstyles and husbands and getting richer and richer — and more and more bored. The time passing in the movie isn’t clear, but apparently living is jet-set lifestyle isn’t enough for Catharine. It’s the selection of her next victim and the hunt that keeps her going.
As frustrated as some viewers might be at the cloudy depiction of the women’s growing relationship, today it would have been probably presented merely as sex scenes. By keeping Catharine’s motives ambiguous and Alex’s confused, we actually get a more complex, intellectual cat and mouse game. It is left open-ended, for the viewer to decide how deeply their affections lie.
Usually two women set against each other in a movie are just vying for the leading man’s attention. Roger Ebert, in his review at the time, wanted the film to follow the lesbian love story more openly, but I think that would have resulted in just a weaker version of Diabolique. He wrote in his review, “Why not follow a more cynical, truly diabolical course — something inspired by the soul of film noir? Why not have Winger fall completely under the spell of the black widow and stand by while the tycoon is murdered so the two women can live happily ever after? And then end on an eerie note as Winger begins to wonder if Russell can trust her with the secret?” Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Basic Instinct was still five years away.
But through time spent with Catharine, and Catharine’s latest potential victim, a rich Hawaiian entrepreneur played by Sami Frey, Alex is finally able to find her true female power. Catharine even helps her along the way. At the end of the film Alex may have got her woman (incarcerated), but what she really gets is her own womanly self. She can now move forward, still a good investigator, but also a stronger woman. The sexual-politics question is of course, has she discovered or acknowledged her lesbian identity, or just her female sexual power? Or both?
Black Widow is a sexy movie, but not just for the obvious reasons of Theresa Russell looking fabulous in her various incarnations, and some close encounters for the two women in the water. The kiss scene is more Judas than soft-core. It is a movie that highlights how women role-play in their sexual relationships. Catharine is a master at becoming the right woman for the right man, and possibly woman. The Black Widow is great to look at, but she is also smart, and if it suits her, funny, as she tells an acquisitive private investigator, “Mr. Shin, I’ll tell you two things about me: I’m very rich. And I’m very wealthy.”
There are echoes of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, with Alex and Catharine as two aspects of the same woman, a la Madeleine and Judy in that film. In Black Widow Winger also gets to be the Jimmy Stewart part, unraveling Catharine’s web. According to IMDb, “Debra Winger was given the choice of the two roles in Black Widow; she chose the role of the FBI agent, because she didn’t understand the motivation as to why the Black Widow kills, so the title role went to Theresa Russell.” Thank goodness for that. I can’t even imagine Winger in the Black Widow role. Russell has an aloof sexiness that works perfectly. What makes the movie interesting to watch is the team — the two women are great together. That is what the movie hinges on, the push-pull of their relationship. Two female stars getting to spar off one another in a thriller, something men get to do in the movies every day.