The first time I came across Some Call It Loving it scared me. Or, more accurately, its VHS box disturbed me with its image of two women—one of them bald and almost alien in appearance—cradling each other in bed. Above them: the title of the film rendered in an almost-sinister font. Dropped awkwardly next to them: The image of a disheveled Richard Pryor. Though we grew up deep in the Ohio suburbs of the 1980s, my friends and I had the fortune to live near a video store whose owner had adventurous tastes. We prided ourselves on seeking out oddities, but this one we let pass. What kind of movie was this?
When I finally rented it on my own one night, I still didn’t have a good answer to that question. Loosely adapted from the John Collier story “Sleeping Beauty,” the 1973 film stars Zalman King as Robert Troy, a stonefaced jazz saxophonist who lives in luxury in a coastal California mansion filled with decades of accumulated bric-a-brac, from carousel animals to jukeboxes. It’s not his wealth that allows for the luxury, however, but that of his lover Scarlett (Carol White), whose affections he shares with their housemate and sometime servant Angelica (Veronica Anderson). The three have a shifting but apparently functional erotic power dynamic that the film never clearly defines—and would be less intriguing if it did.
Yet in spite of the seemingly bottomless wealth and endless sexual adventuring, Robert remains unhappy. King would later make his name as a director and producer of high-gloss films like Two Moon Junction and Wild Orchid and the long-running series Red Shoe Diaries, softcore fantasies of escape and tastefully edited erotic encounters. Here he plays a man apparently wrung out by having all his fantasies come true. Whether it’s a case of an actor finding the limitations of his range or a conscious choice, King’s unwillingness or inability to convey emotion works for the film. Whatever he’s been through, and whatever pleasure it’s brought him, has left him exhausted.
Something stirs in him, however, while wandering a traveling circus one night. Passing attractions like the Prison On Wheels (which promises a chance to see everyone from Al Capone to Charles Manson behind its bars), Robert moves to the Sleeping Beauty tent, wherein lies Jennifer (Tisa Farrow, younger sister of Mia Farrow), attended by a “Doctor” who tells the crowd she’s been asleep for eight years. The “red-blooded sportsmen” in the crowd are invited to kiss her for a dollar with this caveat: “He who awakens the sleeping beauty is in danger of awakening himself.” That’s just huckster talk, of course, but though he doesn’t take the phony doctor up on his offer, Robert soon finds it to be true.
Purchasing Jennifer for $20,000—a price that includes a van with the words “Sleeping Beauty” painted on the side—Robert brings her back to the mansion and, after refraining from giving her the drug that’s kept her asleep for so long, he watches as she awakes, gives her a home in Scarlett’s house, and then falls for her as he and his housemates try to find a way to fit her into their odd arrangement. Yet as accepting as Scarlett and Angelica are of their new addition, Robert begins to struggle when he realizes his attraction to her has much to do with her remaining untouched by the casual debauchery he’s come to accept as a part of everyday life.
Some Call It Loving was the second film of writer/director James B. Harris, who got his start in the movie business as Stanley Kubrick’s producer on The Killing, Paths Of Glory, and Lolita. This lush, dreamy film has little in common with Kubrick’s style, even if it does share some thematic concerns with Lolita. A child when she began her slumber, Jennifer has the body of a woman but no experience with adulthood. The film’s centerpiece is a fantasy prom date that climaxes with Jennifer and Robert dancing to Nat King Cole’s “The Very Thought of You,” a tableau of innocent romance. But though Jennifer responds to the scenario, it’s Robert’s fantasy and not hers, and should they push it too far, the innocence that Robert finds so attractive would disappear. Despite his experiences, and his knowledge of the world, he’s hung up on some past vision of purity. It’s almost certainly no coincidence that Jennifer’s eight-year slumber forced her to miss most of the ’60s. She’s like a visitor from a world that doesn’t exist any more, one that’s growing sweeter and better the deeper it recedes into memory.
I wasn’t alone in discovering Some Call It Loving on VHS. There wasn’t much of a chance to discover it any other way. After earning some respect at Cannes, it staggered its way through theaters over the next few years, drawing mostly puzzled notices along the way. Writing in The New York Times, A.H. Weiler dismissed it as “pretentious.” He’s not entirely wrong. On the audio commentary of the newly released, lovingly restored Blu-ray edition—the first release from Etiquette Pictures, an offshoot of Vinegar Syndrome, which has earned a following restoring vintage smut—even Harris calls the leisurely paced film indulgent. But losing that indulgence would lose the film’s immersive effect, the way it forces viewers to live in the Robert’s eerily hermetic world of pleasure. It would also make Pryor’s occasional appearances as Robert’s junkie artist best friend Jeff less jarring. If Robert lives too little in the real world, Jeff lives too much in it. Both choices can take their toll.
An early champion, critic Jonathan Rosenbaum understood it would be off-putting to many. Writing on the occasion of its U.K. release in 1975, Rosenbaum noted “Spectators who like to keep their fairy tales innocent, their pornography sordid, their allegories obvious and their dreams intact are bound to be disconcerted.” That’s an apt description for a film that never tries too hard to live up to anyone’s expectations, hinting at sex scenes that never arrive—or prove more odd than arousing—and mysteries that never get revealed, leaving those who stumble across it to wonder what kind of movie they’d just seen before realizing they’d never seen anything quite like it.