Butterfly (1982) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

After having worked as a child star in a film universally acknowledged to be one of the worst ever made (Santa Claus Conquers the Martians), Pia Zadora disappeared for a couple of decades. When she returned to Hollywood, she soon built a reputation as the ultimate 1980s bimbo. People said that she not only looked like a bim, but she couldn't act worth beans, and she eventually ended up winning a special Razzie as "worst actress of the decade." To be honest, it was amazing that people still remembered her when the decade was over. By the time of the election which summarized the decade for the Razzie folks, Pia had virtually disappeared from the public eye. She was able to achieve the notoriety of being the decade's worst actress based on nothing more than two obscure stinkers made early in the decade: Butterfly (1982) and The Lonely Lady (1983).

Zadora's appeal, if that is the correct word, was her uncanny facial resemblance to a very young teen, despite the fact that she was nearly thirty when she made those two films. You know how it is with guys and young girls. Moreover, Zadora combined her little girl face with a lost puppy neediness and a very impressive womanly body. Put her in a Catholic prep school uniform, and she would have become the richest woman in Japan. Blessed with a decent set of pipes, she also could have become a Broadway-style singer, but for some reason she chose to be an actress instead, and she just never seemed to have the chops for that profession, or so went the conventional wisdom. During and after those two films, she became one of Johnny Carson's instant punch lines, and eventually her entire career seemed to consist of playing herself in skits and spoofs.

I agree with the contemporary reviewers that The Lonely Lady was a genuinely awful movie, and Pia was awful in it. The verdict of history seems to concur. The Lonely Lady actually gives Santa Claus Conquers the Martian a good battle for the dishonor of being the all-time worst Pia Zadora movie in the IMDb ratings. That is an amazing achievement, considering that Santa is rated the 40th worst of all time!

The Lonely Lady destroyed any hope Pia may have had to become a respected actress. The film was nominated for eleven Razzie awards and won six, including all the important ones. Pia, of course, won the "Worst Actress" trophy.

Butterfly also won her a Worst Actress Razzie, but that movie is a whole different kettle of crawdads. It also won her some legitimate positive awards. They loved her at Cannes, and Rex Reed praised Butterfly as if it were the second coming of Battleship Potemkin. Pia was not only nominated for the Golden Globe for Best New Star of the Year in a Motion Picture, but she won the award, and she didn't beat a bunch of nobodies, either. She beat out one of the greatest debuts in film history - Kathleen Turner in Body Heat!! Think about that. The 1982 voters had to choose the hottest newcomer and took Pia Zadora in Butterfly over Kathleen Turner in Body Heat. Pia may have become a universal punch line by 1983, but it is obvious that not everyone thought she sucked in 1982. (In fairness, there have always been rumors that the Golden Globes election was fixed by Zadora's rich husband.)

Butterfly is not a great movie, but it's not so bad at all, and Zadora's limitations were offset by the fact that she was cast perfectly as a Lolita character. Stacy Keach plays a lonely hermit of a miner assigned to guard an abandoned mine out in the desert. Zadora shows up on his doorstep one day, claiming to be his long-lost daughter. She's not exactly the pigtails-and-Barbies kind of daughter. She soon proceeds to show him her naughty bits every chance she gets, and does her best to seduce him. At one point Keach is actually bathing a naked Zadora, scrubbing her breasts, before he finally pulls back and declares, "This isn't right." You have to admire his resolve in that scene, since Keach had been without a woman for a long time, and ripe li'l Zadora was definitely offering the ol' miner a chance to strike the daughterlode. A minor for a miner.

The atmosphere of the film can best be described as "sweat and saxophones" - pretty much what you'd expect from a script based on a steamy James M. Cain story. Unfortunately, Stacy Keach never seemed to get into the rhythm of the film and seemed oblivious to the script's inherent potential for entertaining over-the-top sleaze. He approached the entire project as seriously and professionally as if he were performing Henry V at the Old Vic, or even Vic V and the Oh Henry. The supporting cast, however, cheesed it up. Burl Ives couldn't make his customary Southern Gothic appearance as the sweaty fat authority figure in a Colonel Sanders suit, but Orson Welles filled in for him, and a host of B-list celebs dropped in from time to time, including Stewart Whitman, James Franciscus, and me, I'm Ed McMahon.

The last name is the key to Zadora's infamy. It was McMahon's presence in this film which eventually turned Pia into a standing joke. Carson loved to ride his sidekick, and this project provided ideal grist for Johnny's joke mill. Without McMahon in the cast, Zadora might have simply faded into obscurity like so many other wannabes, but Ed's presence in Butterfly guaranteed Johnny's eternal vigilance, and Johnny did as much as anyone in the world to shape the public's opinions about popular culture.

To tell you the truth, the entire movie is raunchy and melodramatic, but it is much better than the judgment of history and the IMDb voters. The plot is just your typical potboiler, but the film has a lot of positives. Cain is the guy who wrote Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, so his work had both the competence and the sleaziness to provide an ideal vehicle for Pia, and the premise of Butterfly seemed to fit her like a custom-tailored suit. The cinematography captures the isolation and stark beauty of the desert quite effectively, and the score was written by screen legend Ennio Morricone, who has written some of the greatest scores in screen history. (Once Upon a Time in America; The Good The Bad and the Ugly; Days of Heaven, Malena, Nuovo Cinema Paradiso, The Legend of 1900; and about 400 more! That's a not a misprint. He has 486 musical composition credits at IMDb.)

All that plus Ed McMahon, plus Orson Welles. How can you not be interested? You may well find this film highly entertaining in an operatic kind of way. I do.

  The film is now available on a special edition DVD with a new 45-minute featurette which includes interviews with most of the key participants. The film features a full-length commentary by Zadora herself!



All the clear, lingering, unobstructed nudity focuses on Zadora's booty, although she also shows her breasts while she is in the bathtub.

The Critics Vote ...

  • It was nominated for three Golden Globes, winning one.

  • It was also nominated for ten Razzies, winning three, including two for Zadora.

The People Vote ...

The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, it's a C-: a sleazy noir, to be sure, but also fairly enjoyable in certain ways, and the first half hour is quite erotic in an almost demented way.

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