There’s a subgenre of the psychotronic film for which, I’ve discovered, I have a particular weakness: the “career suicide” movie, in which A- or B-list Hollywood actors attach themselves to material that’s so out-there they may as well be asking never to work in “reputable” films again. A good example of this would be Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (dir. Robert Aldrich, 1962), which didn’t exactly flop (it earned Bette Davis an Oscar nomination, after all), but which effectively ended both Davis’ and Joan Crawford’s careers as Great Actresses and established them as camp icons, consigning them both to horror parts for the next twenty-five or so years. Interestingly, Faye Dunaway’s decision to play Crawford in Mommie Dearest (1981, dir. Frank Perry) was another act of career suicide—one that came, tragically, at the height of Dunaway’s success. Career-suicide movies seem more common among female actors than male ones; men seem somehow better able to bounce back from a flop, and the missteps seem less fatal, and even less interesting—it doesn’t feel as embarassing to watch, say, Jackie Gleason trapped in the disastrous Skidoo as to watch Carol Kane and Lee Grant in The Mafu Cage (dir. Karen Arthur, 1978).
This truly bizarre film apparently opened the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes when it premiered; lovingly released by Scorpion, the DVD is loaded with great interviews with just about everyone involved with the production. The Mafu Cage is fascinating not because it’s objectively bad—on the contrary, it’s a thoughtful, handsomely made film—but because it puts talented performers in such precarious positions, career-wise. Kane had already won an Oscar nomination for Hester Street in 1975 when she agreed to play Cissy, a mentally unstable artist who has made her home into a jungle-compound-like shrine to her late father (an anthropologist) and who acts out various domestic fantasies with her pet orangutans; Grant, who by this point had won an Oscar and a Best Actress award at Cannes, plays Ellen, Cissy’s mature, responsible sister/caretaker, who at first seems well-adjusted and stable until we slowly realize that she’s not only Cissy’s co-dependent but also her sometime lover. Incest, murder, Carol Kane daubing herself with mud and rolling around with an orangutan…it’s little wonder that Leonard Maltin’s very middlebrow Movie Guide gives The Mafu Cage only one and a half stars. The Mafu Cage is a middlebrow viewer’s worst nightmare, a would-be drama about sisterly bonds that’s actually a decadent, baroque horror film. Miraculously, Grant and Kane both survived this potentially suicidal move, Kane going on to her most successful role on TV’s Taxi, for which she won two Emmy awards. Kane, always an interesting actress, is the most compelling thing about The Mafu Cage; as Cissy, she bounces between states of violent mania and a kind of teasing calm. With her mournful eyes and flowing hair the color of henna, Kane’s eerie, pre-Raphaelite beauty has perhaps never been on fuller display than in this film, a forgotten curiosity that’s deserving of re-discovery.