Give the people what they want! That is Hollywood’s mantra. In 1982, what people wanted was a gross story about a teenage harlot using her feminine wiles to seduce her own father. Goodness knows why the people wanted this, but they did. The people further requested that the girl and her dad be played by Pia Zadora and Stacy Keach. And then the people said they’d like the film to feature cameos by Ed McMahon and Orson Welles. “OK,” Hollywood said, “now we think you’re just messing with us.” But Hollywood called the people’s bluff and made “Butterfly,” a lubricious cinema fart that meets all of the above criteria and presumably satisfied the people’s craving for incest-based melodramas.
The year is 1937. The location is Nevada. The air is dusty. The forecast calls for sleaze with a chance of fondling. A truck driver picks up a hitchhiker, a sultry, pie-faced girl of few words who immediately starts seducing him, only to abruptly ditch him once he has gone out of his way to deliver her to the tiny town that was her destination. We cut to the next scene, where the same girl is sitting on the porch of a small shack, making the same kind of overtures toward the man who lives there. We think: Isn’t this more or less what the first scene was about? Are we stuck in a loop? Will this movie be nothing more than scene after scene of hapless men being sexually aroused and then dismissed by a teenage girl? We hope not, because we’ve already seen that movie, and it was called high school.
The man is Jess Tyler (Stacy Keach). His job is to live in this shack and keep scavengers away from the defunct silver mine behind it. Maybe it doesn’t sound like much of a career, living in a shack so you can babysit a hole in the ground. Really, any occupation that requires you to live in a shack probably will not be very rewarding. But Jess is a simple man with simple needs. Mine-tending and shack-dwelling are the only things he knows.
The girl assails Jess with a never-ending stream of smutty double-entendre. “Is there something you want?” he asks when he first sees her, since he has no idea who she is or what she’s doing here at his shack/place of business. “How can I tell till I know what you got?” is her kittenish and ungrammatical reply. She seems to know a lot about his past, including that he was married to a floozy who ran off with another man 10 years ago and took their two daughters with her. The girl says, “Don’t it get lonely out here? Or is just milking that cow enough for you?” I should point out that Jess had just finished literally milking an actual cow when the girl said this, though knowing the context only makes it slightly less filthy.
After several minutes of flirting with Jess and indicating that she wishes to make sexytimes with him, the girl finally reveals that her name is Kady and she’s his daughter. Yes, his daughter. That’s obviously not a very good pick-up line, so you can see why she saved it for last. She was only 7 when she left, and she’s a busty 17 now, which is why Jess didn’t recognize her. First hot chick he’s met in years who wanted to sleep with him, and wouldn’t you know it…!
Kady further reveals that her mom’s still a floozy, that she picked up her floozy ways, and that Kady had a baby of her own a month ago. The child’s father is the son of the rich people who own the very silver mine now being guarded by Jess and his shack, the Gillespies. Remember that detail, because it will be important in the next sentence. Kady figures that even though the mine is defunct, it still has SOME silver left in it, and since the Gillespies won’t let their son marry her, she’s entitled to take some of their silver. The law probably isn’t on her side, but that’s OK. She’ll just have sex with the law until the law changes its mind.
Daddy, being a man of scruples and integrity, doesn’t cotton to Kady’s plan to steal from his employer. Nor does he cotton to Kady’s habit of undressing seductively in front of him, or hopping into the bath basin all nude-like when he’s sitting in the same room. Actually, Jess does cotton to all of this, but he wishes he didn’t. A man ain’t supposed to cotton to his own daughter! Nor is a daughter supposed to intentionally arouse her father’s cottonings!
During the bath scene, Kady begs Jess to come over and rub her sore shoulders. He does. Then she guides his hands to her breasts. “You’re my daughter, Kady!” he protests. “I’m a woman, too!” she answers, guiding his hand in a south-southwesterly direction. Pia Zadora passes for 17 here, but don’t worry, she was actually 27 when the film was made. Nonetheless, this is the point in the movie where you start feeling like you need a hot, scalding shower. The feeling will increase over the course of the film, and subside only after you are dead.
Jess manages to resist his daughter’s sexual advances, but he relents on the stealing-silver-from-the-mine thing. Meanwhile, Kady tries to make Daddy jealous by foolin’ around with every available man in the depressed mining town. Jess and the townsfolk keeping pointing out that Kady’s mom was also notoriously trampy, so, you know, whaddaya gonna do? Kady’s mom, named Belle (of course), frequently referenced but so far unseen, starts to become a mythical, larger-than-life figure to us. And on this point, the movie delivers. Belle (played by Lois Nettleton) toddles into town after a while, on the arm of her oily new husband, and she’s as hilariously boozy and cheap as we’d hoped, with clown-like makeup and a hacking cough. No sooner has she arrived than she tries to kill her husband with a knitting needle and then dies of tuberculosis. Amazing comedy-sketch drunken whore mom, we hardly knew you.
My, but there’s a lot of plot in this movie! A lot of films would be content to dump a pile of skeevy incest on the screen and call it a day, but not “Butterfly”! “Butterfly” takes its five-pound plot bag and crams it with ten pounds of plot. I haven’t even mentioned the Gillespie kid showing up, and our introduction to his parents, who are played by Ed McMahon and June Lockhart. Nor am I going to mention it! Because the more important thing is that Jess learns he’s not actually Kady’s father, which means having sex with her will not be illegal but merely very creepy! So they do it! Uh, with Kady still under the illusion that Jess is her father. You know that thing where it’s kind of hot to do it with a girl who thinks she’s committing incest? It’s like that.
Just when you think they couldn’t stuff any more ridiculous plot twists into this thing, Jess and Kady get caught and are put on trial for incest, and the judge is Orson Welles. And why wouldn’t the judge be Orson Welles? You give me one good reason why the judge in a trashy soap opera starring a nude Pia Zadora wouldn’t be played by one of history’s greatest filmmakers! It’s like when Ingmar Bergman did a cameo in “Showgirls.”
Orson Welles’ greatest contribution to the film is when it becomes crucial to know whether a tertiary character named Ed Lamey has a particular birthmark on his stomach, and the Honorable Judge Citizen Kane issues this command: “Let the court see your stomach, Lamey!”
Oh, and over the closing credits Pia Zadora sings a song called “It’s Wrong for Me to Love You” — which is exactly the title I’d have come up with on my own if you’d asked me to provide a satiric example of what a wrong-headed incest movie’s theme song might be. Sometimes truth is stranger than satire!