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Cinemode: Cleopatra Jones: A Tribute to Tamara Dobson

This story originally ran on July 13, 2010. We offer it up again today in honor of model, actress and style-and-feminist inspiration Tamara Dobson, who died on this day in 2006.

The formula couldn’t be more basic: Take one six-foot-two former model and add one of the world’s top fashion designers and get one of the great movies of fashion history, right? Well, Cleopatra Jones, released on July 13, 1973, should be ranked up there alongside The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Letty Lynton; instead, it’s the film you never heard of. Starring the statuesque Tamara Dobson costumed exclusively by superstar designer Giorgio di Sant’Angelo (he later dropped the “di”), Cleopatra Jones is like a sharp and focused capsule collection from the apex of Sant’Angelo design. Given that the designer’s own career barely eked out of the Seventies, the film could be considered a retrospective of his work in motion—karate kicks included.

Cleopatra Jones likely fell into obscurity because it fits into the genre of so-called blaxploitation films, the handful of movies made—often by black directors and producers, including Gordon Parks and Melvin van Peebles—for black urban audiences through the 1970s. Those films generally portrayed black Americans as jive-talking bad-asses, and Cleopatra Jones certainly has that territory covered. But the title character, a couture-clad special agent working to eliminate international drug trafficking, deserves special attention. Jones is a female boss calling the shots and earning the sometimes fawning respect of men in a man’s world. She travels the globe and dresses like a supermodel with an unlimited bankroll, but it’s all performed with so little pretention that you get the sense Jones is well aware that the joke is good-naturedly on everyone else. Drug dealers and cops stumble around like the Three Stooges without Moe while Jones sashays through the film in complete control of herself as both a woman and a cop. Her character has it all: brains, valor, humor, beauty, style and integrity. Unlike modern movie heroines—if you can find them—Jones doesn’t apologize for who she is with a giggle or wink. She even has a strong, sensitive and supportive boyfriend (played by former NFL footballer-cum-poet/painter/actor Bernie Casey) who seeks out her advice and patiently waits while she fights crime in the Middle East. From the tip of the exotic feather bobbing in her fedora to the toes of her purple platform boots, Jones is an intelligent, savvy, badass role model.

All that said, Cleopatra Jones is no French Connection and Dobson is not, say, Meryl Streep. The filmmaking is good but the script bounces between sincerity and absurdity and the acting is often atrocious. The dangling carrot that gets the viewer over the bumps is Dobson’s wardrobe, a gumball machine of stretch fabrics, African textiles, silver lamé and so much fur you wonder if Sant’Angelo didn’t personally render a handful of species entirely extinct. Cleopatra Jones and its sequel, Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold, are the only films the designer ever worked on, and it’s clear he had fun with it: Dobson gets a new outfit for nearly every scene and even puts a few to double-duty: a ring of African basketry is whipped off her head to knock out a bad guy and reveal a fab babushka; a diaphanous pantsuit is bared beneath a long fur vest and a maxi-skirt is unwrapped to expose a riotously patterned bodysuit layered over thick tights for the final fight scene.

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Anti-fur activists will groan in dismay from the opening scene to the last. Literally hundreds of minks were skinned for Jones’s debut outfit alone: a hooded, floor-length fur coat trimmed with dozens of dangling tails worn in the heat of the Afghan desert, a nod, no doubt, to Sant’Angelo’s famous 1968 photo shoot in the Painted Desert for Vogue. The rest of the film only gets furrier, with vests and jackets—one featuring an entire filleted fox face on the back—providing neutral relief on outfits entirely color-blocked in cherry-red, sapphire, tangerine, fuschia and metallics. With her six-foot-two-inch frame, dark skin and T-top Corvette (the top retracts as the door opens to accommodate her afro) Jones has the fashion chops of a Daphne Guinness or Grace Jones.

Cleopatra Jones may never break away from comparisons to Pam Greer flicks and other movies of the genre, which is a shame. Like a cheeky comic book character, Jones is more like Wonder Woman, just more believable and much better dressed. —Ali Basye

Cinemode is OTDIF’s ongoing compilation of the world’s most stylish films, a must-see list for fans of fashion. From Klute to Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Shaft, some of the greatest style inspiration comes from the characters and costumes in film. Bookmark Cinemode and check back often to read the growing list. The reviews, written with an eye specifically toward fashion, are added to On This Day In Fashion on the anniversary of the film’s release date.

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