Since Cinemascore began operation in 1979 only 21? 22? Possibly more? films have received the lowest score. In this series I’ll be reviewing those films. This week, Hollywood’s skeeviest filmmaker asks us to imagine a world where nobody wants to fuck Bo Derek, and succeeds.
So What is it?
To understand what Bolero is, you first need to understand who made it.
Derek Delevan Harris was born in 1926, if not quite to Hollywood Royalty, then at least to Hollywood petite bourgeoisie. His father was an actor and director and his mother an actress. At 18, the well-connected and dashingly handsome Harris was scouted by both David O. Selznick and the US Army and was given bit parts in two films and one war. After his stint in the military, Harris returned to film where he caught the eye of Humphrey Bogart, who gave him the name John Derek (because I guess when Humphrey Bogart gets your name wrong you go to the courthouse and correct it) and cast him in what would be his breakout role. John Derek had a nice, if unremarkable, acting career, with Solute favorite Scandal Sheet as a particular highlight. By the mid-60s, Derek was bored of acting, and transitioned to directing, screenwriting, and producing. This period of his career was less praiseworthy, but he seemed to get steady work.
Overall, John Derek is probably much better known for his personal life than his professional one. In 1948 he married Pati Behrs, a prima ballerina and grandniece to Leo Tolstoy who had spent the War in occupied Paris, hiding Jewish and Romani refugees from the Nazis. Uniquely among Derek’s relationships, Behrs was actually a few years older than him. Derek and Behrs had two children together, but the marriage was short-lived. In 1955 Derek abandoned his wife and 2 children (aged 5 and 2) for a 19-year-old model and aspiring actress named Ursula Andress, who did not speak English at the time. Derek and Andress were married for about a decade, but when her career began to take off, the marriage collapsed due to jealousy and infidelity. Despite the marriage troubles, Derek photographed Andress for her first Playboy spread in 1965, a service he would later provide for each of his subsequent wives.
By 1966 Derek and Andress were divorced, and the now 40-year-old Derek was dating 24-year-old television actress Linda Evans (Big Valley, Dynasty). With Derek’s alimony payments outpacing his film earnings, Evans supported the pair financially. Derek also began influencing her career, directing her in the movie Childish Things (boasting the evocative tagline: “Tale of the Cock – a love story as real as now!“) as well as pressuring her into a Playboy spread, and generally pulling her away from her more financially viable television work. The two were officially married in 1968, although the marriage didn’t last long.
In 1973 the couple traveled to Greece along with a 16-year-old high school dropout named Mary Cathleen Collin in order to make a film (eventually) titled Fantasies. During the shoot, Evans discovered her husband, now 47, was having an affair with the 16-year-old Collin. She left and dissolved the marriage immediately, while Derek stayed in Europe with Collin, fearing arrest if he returned to the states.
John Derek found it difficult to sell Fantasies, perhaps because the film is a love story between two siblings that features a number of underaged nude scenes. Despite this set back, the couple remained together, marrying in 1976 once it was legal. Collins continued to work at her acting career, and eventually caught her big break in 1979 with an iconic part in the film 10, by then performing under the stage name Bo Derek.
The Dereks were quick to capitalize on Bo’s sudden fame, finally finding a buyer for the long-shelved Fantasies, arranging a number of Playboy spreads (naturally), and after A Change Of The Seasons flopped (which had begun production before 10, but increased Derek’s role after it hit), John took control of her career, writing, directing, producing, and photographing the next decade of her (arguably) artistic output.
The first of these films was a mildly erotic remake of Tarzan, The Ape Man. While widely considered one of the worst films ever made, Tarzan was the best received and most successful of the Derek movies, turning a respectable profit and receiving a fairly glowing review from Roger Ebert (never one to turn his nose up at gratuitous nudity). Perhaps this was due to John handing off writing duties to a more competent screenwriting team (which in true Hollywood fashion, included notorious pedoiphile Gary Goddard). After the success, narrowly defined, of Tarzan, the Dereks pitched a number of movies including an adaptation of the comic book character Dazzler and an Adam and Eve movie, but eventually ended up at Cannon films with Bolero, a light romance intended to fall somewhere between a Tom Jones style sex-romp and an Emmanuelle movie. At the time Cannon had a distribution deal with MGM, and while Bolero wasn’t the only nail in that coffin, the partnership would not last much longer.
So why have I told you this long and horrible story? Because to understand Bolero you need to understand that this is first and foremost a vanity project. This is not a movie about capitalizing on the current it girl’s willingness to do nudity. This is not even a movie about the current it girl wanting to show off. This is a movie about a Hollywood couple wanting the world to watch her have sex with other men. It is a deeply revealing, deeply uncomfortable film. The first time I’ve ever watched a quasi-pornographic film and felt that it was getting off on me.
Let’s get to it.
Bolero opens with footage from Valentino’s The Sheik, so we know this is the classy kind of smut. Lida* “Mac” MacGillivery (*sources can’t agree on the protagonist’s first name, so in the tradition of contemporary reviews she will herein be referred to as Bo –ed.) is in the audience, transfixed, and when the movie ends, she and her friend Catalina (Ana Obregón) passionately flee to the private car waiting for them and discuss their plans for the rest of the movie:
Bo : We can actually ride across the sand dunes and be loved. Oh, actually lie down and be loved. We’re so overdue, as we both know too well.
Catalina: Everything in its time, Mac.
Bo: We are now possibly the most overeducated young women in the country. But in the ways of love, we’re kindergarten toddlers!
This dialog sounds like it was written by an actual sheik. Bo and Catalina are graduating from boarding school, although Derek was 28 at the time and could pass for older. At the graduation Bo strips naked and frolics in a field as her chauffeur, poor George Kennedy, chases her down to cover her up. Bo is shocked that anyone would take a prurient interest in her naked body, and between the dialogue and the performance we start to get the sense that Mac might be developmentally disabled. Poor George Kennedy also has to deliver this skin crawling little monologue;
Poor George: No, I was amazed at how much you’d changed since the last time I saw you without any clothes. I think you were three or four… You’ve grown well.
Bo: I think that was nicely said.
This whole scene is incredibly drawn-out and slowly paced, and the whole thing is scored with schmaltzy Disney-esque music. It’s deeply uncomfortable in a way that’s very hard to put your finger on. Like the movie is trying to convince you that this isn’t sexual at all, but wholesome. Poor George Kennedy’s musings are mercifully interrupted when Bo’s very Scottish lawyer appears to inform her she’s inherited her parents’ fortune. Bo is excited to “become an excessively rich little bitch” (this movie is set in 1921), and then we’re in an Arabian market without any sort of transition at all. This is a very jarringly edited film.
“A Kiss Is Just A Kiss” plays on the soundtrack. The fucking balls on this movie. Bo, Catalina, and Poor George Kennedy are on the hunt for a sheik to alleviate Bo of her virginity. They find one almost immediately, played by Greg Benson, who looks about as much like a sheik as you would expect Greg Benson to. But what he lacks in a suntan he makes up for in steely good looks, and Bo walks over to him and offers up her virginity.
You know, sometimes in this column I indulge in a bit of comedic hyperbole. Christian Slater doesn’t really look like he was cursed by a mummy, and Cameron Diaz doesn’t actually sound like she was from Jupiter. Those are just jokes. But that habit can make it hard to actually convey the things that actually, really, literally happen in some of these films.
Bo: I have come all this way to give you something you may not even want. My virginity.
That’s her opener. Somehow, this incredibly liberated, incredibly wealthy, cripplingly horny woman, who looks like Bo Derek and is outright begging strangers for sex, has been unable to find a single taker. Ah, but finally she is in luck and Sheik Greg Benson is willing to whisk her off to his bed this very instant. Bo, perhaps realizing that at this pace we’re going to be rolling credits in about 8-12 minutes, decides she wants a little romance after all and asks the sheik to indulge in a bit of Valentino-related fantasy.
Even more luck, the sheik is a pilot and can load Bo up in an experimental bi-plane and be in the desert in a few hours. This next scene is kind of nice. Bo and Sheik Benson are in the desert trying to act out a scene from the silent film where the sheik scoops the heroine onto his horse, but Benson doesn’t have enough control of the horse to pull it off and finally admits, in a posh British accent, that he’s spent his whole life in boarding schools and only actually visited Arabia 3 times in his life. Greg Benson never appeared in another film, and while this isn’t exactly a great performance, he is believably human in a movie where even George Fucking Kennedy comes off stiff and unnatural.
Anyway, Benson is still sheik enough for Bo and they retreat to his tent for one of the most stomach-churning sex scenes to ever feature in a mainstream film. The concept here is suitably erotic; Benson is going to cover a very naked Bo Derek in honey and lick it off her (while her husband films it), but the execution is bizarre. Bo keeps slapping him in the face with her stomach and he looks genuinely annoyed by this. Whatever they’re using as honey is very… fluid, and it’s smearing and dripping off his face. He ends up looking like a xenomorph. This scene also has dialogue cards like in a silent movie, a stylistic choice that is not used anywhere else in the film. After a few minutes of getting honey slapped onto his face, the sheik just falls dead asleep, like he’s been hit with a blow dart. I don’t know, maybe he’s diabetic?
And Bo is back in town having breakfast with her friend Catalina, still a virgin. We never learn how she got out of the tent or back across the “billions of miles of sand”. We’re on the first discarded love interest and the obstacle is he just fell asleep in the middle of foreplay? I guess this is what passes for relatable when you’re 60 and married to a 20-something.
Bo is open to anything for the next stop on the sex tour and suggests Spain, but Catalina is from Spain and doesn’t want to have a sexcapade across her hometown. And then the next scene they’re watching a bullfight in Spain. Bo sets her eyes on a young dashing bullfighter (Andrea Occhipinti) who never kills the bulls. So more of a rodeo clown really. He looks a bit like a young Hugh Jackman and is named Angel. I had a grandmother named Angel. Bo talks to Angel, and is slightly more coy than she was with the sheik, and her and her entourage get invited to dinner. Dinner turns out to be with Angel’s entire family. Bo and Angel make eyes at each other for what felt like five hours, but he leaves without saying goodbye. There’s some mixed signals here, but Angel seems more polite than interested, and really not even that polite. But Bo is hooked and so she bribes a 13-year-old child named Paloma that Angel hangs out with constantly, his “gypsy shadow”, to tell her where he’s gone. At first I thought this girl was his younger sister, but no, just an unrelated child he has a very close relationship with. She’s played by Olivia d’Abo, who was 14 at the time.
Everybody loads up in the car, Bo, Catalina, Paloma, and Poor George Kennedy and all drive out to track down the bullfighter, only to find him having sex with a woman in a hot spring. Olivia says that that’s his girlfriend, they’ve been sleeping together since she turned 14, and it’ll be Olivia’s turn next once she turns 14. Pretty dark turn, but I guess that’s the end of that, on to the next lover- NOPE. Bo is still interested and this is the love interest of the entire movie.
Then the next scene the 14-year-old Olivia d’Abo has a full frontal nude scene. She will have several more throughout the film. This isn’t even like some freak thing where a young actress lied about her age and could pass for older. She looks like a child, she’s playing a child. John Derek began sleeping with Bo Derek while she was an underaged actress filming nude scenes for him. The movie suddenly gets very sad. I didn’t find any interviews with d’Abo talking about the experience, but at least she went on to have a decent career. Fun fact, The Razzies awarded d’Abo “Worst New Star” for this movie. Always classy, those guys.
So, everybody ready for some more laughs? There’s quite a lot of movie left. After having a sensual bath with a child, Bo decides on a new course of action. It turns out this pedophile she’s obsessed with is also an opium addict, so Bo plans to seduce him in an opium den while he’s too drugged out to say no. “The textbook says opium has two faces,” explains Catalina. “First face, killer, in large amounts. Second face, love potions, in small amounts.” “Well, then it seems as long as we’re going to use it, it should be exclusively in the romantic amounts,” replies Bo. Do you see why it was important to learn about John Derek?
Also around this point there’s a long subplot about Bo trying to buy a horse from Angel. At one point she’s got her hand entirely inside the horse’s mouth. I don’t know, I’m a city boy, maybe that’s how you pet a horse but it didn’t look like the horse was enjoying it. Angel doesn’t want to sell her a horse, and he doesn’t want to fuck her because she’s not 14, so enter the opium.
Bo and Catalina get stoned and have an orgasmic reaction to the drugs, way more than they ever do to the sex, and after an excruciatingly long stretch of everyone talking in slow motion, Bo convinces Angel to sell her his entire vineyard. Everyone is so rich in this movie, even the rugged bullfighter who can’t draw crowds because of his soft heart owns an entire estate. Ranch, vineyard, stables. Wealth is often a part of fantasy, but it’s so taken for granted here, and there’s so little awareness of how much Bo comes off as a villain.
Now that Bo has a financial stranglehold over Angel he agrees to sell her the horse and have sex with her. This sex scene is, unsurprisingly, bizarre. Angel sends her to the bedroom to get ready and then falls asleep. Is this a thing that happens to John Derek, or a fetish he has? Bo goes to the bedroom and dresses up like a ghost with a sheet over her head. This is meant to be a ghost, there’s dialogue about it. Once Angel wakes up and Bo is brought back to the mortal realm, they undress and Bo has Angel lie in the bed. Then she sticks her tongue right down his ear canal. Not nibbling or kissing. She stands over him and slowly lowers her tongue right down the very center of his ear canal. It is revolting. I now totally buy that no one has been willing to have sex with this woman.
The sex scene continues and is about as awkward as you would imagine it would be for an actor to rub his genitals against a woman while her husband/his employer watches. The sex is about as graphic as you can get without going hardcore, or showing a penis, but it is also passionless, silent, and scored with the same shmaltzy Disney-esque music as the rest of the film. Well at least they’re pretty.
So that’s it right? She lost her virginity, quest completed. But we’re only about halfway through the movie here. There’s some waffling about, being in love, giving the horse the haircut from 10, setting up the wine business, and then Angel has another bullfight. And he gets gored right in the dick. Not near the dick, not an awkward camera angle, right smack dab in the ol bolero. This is now a movie about Bo Derek being in love with a man who can’t fuck her because his dick was gored by a bull.
And Bo is still in love with him. Sure he might be a dickless junkie pedophile who hates her guts, but they can work through that. Bo proposes marriage, but he says no on account of his dick having been gored by a bull. She promises that she’ll make him hard again, although the problem here seems less mental and more related to the physical condition of his dick post-goring.
Meanwhile, the lawyer from earlier returns, wearing a kilt, and starts flirting with Catalina, who has also been on a quest to lose her virginity and despite being even better looking than Bo and more pleasant to be around, has made even less progress. These two start flirting, and it’s kind of a nice sexy scene. Obregón is clearly struggling with English, but is still a far better performer than Bo Derek, far more comfortable on camera, far more expressive, far more natural with her movements. She’s teasing the lawyer about what’s under his kilt. It’s pretty hot. And then he just starts screaming at her. Weirdest fucking movie. They end up together.
While Bo is trying to figure out a way to breathe life back into her boyfriend’s mangled genitalia, the sheik from earlier reappears and kidnaps her. This would be pretty racist if he weren’t played by the whitest man alive. Everyone gives chase, but the sheik escapes in his plane with Bo tied up in the other seat. She jumps out of the plane, midflight, and that’s the end of the sheik’s story. She’s just back at the estate. There’s no scene of her opening a parachute or landing in the ocean or even arriving back home. Just hard cut, end of story.
Bo tries everything to get her boyfriend’s dick to work. Sexy costumes. Letting him direct her in a series of softcore porn films. Dumping a cage full of parakeets in his lap and running away (he’s in a wheelchair in that scene). Eventually she settles on a surefire method, train to become a bullfighter herself. At first, he’s helpful and encouraging, but after Bo calls him out to watch her ride around naked on a horse, he starts locking himself away in his room the way one might had they been gored in the dick by a bull and a woman kept trying to have sex with them while they were still trying to teach themselves to walk again.
After a few short lessons Bo is ready for a professional bull fight, which she performs in the same stadium where she watched her lover get gored right in his dick. She is more successful, and returns triumphant to Angel’s boudoir for an incredibly awkward seduction scene where she insists he can get hard, and he insists his dick has been gored by a bull.
Angel bites her. Not sexily, but violently, intending to inflict pain. She tells him she’s a better bullfighter than he is (which to be fair, only one of them has been gored in the dick). Things are not going well, but eventually she starts talking about the 14-year-old he fucked, and that cures his goring and the two share a long sex scene while the room fills up with smoke and a neon sign flashes “extacy” behind them. And then there’s a quick scene of them getting married, so you know this is a moral story.
So Why the F?
It’s not entirely clear that Bolero did receive an F. The movie is not logged on CinemaScore’s website, and most lists and retrospectives don’t include it, or any movie released earlier than January 2000. However, there are articles from the early 90s that claim “Bo Derek’s 1984 film Bolero is one of a few that received [an F]”. “Few” is interesting here, and suggests a whole treasure trove of forgotten films, though it’s also possible that the writer is mistaken.
More likely, CinemaScore, notorious for their sloppy methodology, may have simply discarded the bulk of their records pre-2000. It’s also worth noting that CinemaScore typically only conducts surveys on wide release films, something the (pseudo)X-rated Bolero likely didn’t qualify for, but can be commissioned privately by a studio. In those cases the results are not published unless the studio chooses to do so, which they generally wouldn’t for an F marked film. It’s possible someone is speaking out of turn here, and Bolero and other early Fs are not meant to be public knowledge. Or that the F was only embraced later, in an attempt to lean into the film’s notoriety.
Regardless of the reasoning, or even authenticity of the rating, it’s certainly true that Bolero was an unpopular movie, it currently holds a 0% Rotten Tomatoes score, a 2.9 on IMDB, and made many critics ‘worst of the year’ lists back in 84.
In terms of CinemaScore audiences I feel there’s a bit of “I’m shocked, shocked, to find gambling going on at Ricks” here. What exactly did you expect from Bolero? That said, even by the standards of softcore porn, this is a bad movie. Despite a generous amount of nudity, the sex is most often unappealing and awkward. And then there’s the long stretches between sex scenes, which are dull, unfunny, unsexy, unromantic, and all but unintelligible. The dialogue feels like it was written by someone who did not speak English, and Bo Derek’s performance is particularly awful.
This is a vanity project, and like many vanity projects, it shines a spotlight on all of its creators’ insecurities and personal shortcomings. Bo Derek looks far too old for this role, her skin is too tight, her smile too plastered on, her eyes bugging out in every shot. I’m reminded of the reason Robert Redford supposedly gave for turning down The Graduate, “I didn’t look like a virgin even when I was one”. Bo Derek is obviously a beautiful woman, but she just doesn’t work in this role at all, and it feels desperate. And while I don’t know how much opening day audiences would have known about John Derek, his presence and personal history create a an uncomfortable and ever-present subtext to the film.
And then there’s all the pedophilia.
So Were they right?
There’s really no excuse for the underage nudity. It’s troubling, especially considering John Derek’s history, and the lack of safety standards at Cannon films.
If it weren’t for that, I would probably make the case for the movie as uniquely and entertainingly bad. But for as much as I’ve joked around about Disaster Movie, this is one where the filmmakers should have actually faced criminal charges.