I Should Have Known Better: The Wildly Improbable Story of Heavenly Bodies

Last weekend, at the Canadian Film Centre’s annual barbecue in Toronto, I ran into a couple of old friends who, although they didn’t realize it, were unique among the more than two thousand industry types flowing through the old E.P. Taylor estate.

Neither Doug Taylor nor Lawrence Dane know each other, but in their way, they each have had more effect on Canadian film than practically anyone else at the party. Montreal screenwriter Taylor co-wrote Splice, the last homegrown Canadian film to get a major studio release (from Warner Bros. Pictures) in theaters across North America.

Before that, the only other Canadian production to get a similar release from one of the big Hollywood studios was conceived, co-written, and directed by Dane.The movie was Heavenly Bodies, and MGM released it in February, 1984 in over a thousand theatres–the largest release any Canadian production had to that point.

Heavenly Bodies was supposed to be a mini-budget, quickie TV movie. How it ended up a big MGM release is, as they say, a story–a story I played an often befuddled part in.

It began, as these things tend to, with lunch. I was a freelance magazine writer at the time with a secret yearning to write for the movies – not so secret, actually. I confided it to Larry any number of times. As it turned out, he was an actor with aspirations to be – what else? – a director.

At lunch we decided to collaborate on an idea Larry had about a ruthless paparazzi photographer who gets mixed up with celebrity and murder. To my surprise, we almost immediately optioned the script to a young producer named Robert Lantos, recently relocated from Montreal to Toronto. He and his partner Stephen Roth had offices on either side of a secretary who looked spectacular in a mini-skirt but, in that era of typewriters, could not type.

We no sooner optioned that script, than Larry had another idea: a movie about three young women trying to start up their own workout club, and fighting the big corporate club down the street out to destroy them.

Flashdance, concerning a young woman determined to be a dancer, had become a huge box office hit that was originally written by another Toronto writer, Tom Hedley, a guy we both knew. I thought Larry was nuts– a Flashdance rip-off? Who in the world would be interested in that?

I should have known better.

Despite my best efforts to deter him, Larry pitched the idea to Robert Lantos. Since then, I have sat through countless meetings and lunches with many producers, but to this day I have never seen a producer react to a pitch the way Robert reacted to that one. It was the only time in my life I almost literally saw the light bulb go on over someone’s head.

Soon enough, Larry and I were writing his workout movie together – he had dubbed it Heavenly Bodies, and, for better or worse, that title never changed. What’s more, he convinced Robert to allow him to direct. I could hardly believe it was happening. Every time I turned around, Robert seemed to bring in more co-producers. We met a German who demanded the young women in the film  work out with hula hoops. We managed to avoid the hula hoops.

I’m not sure how I felt about any of this other than to feel like an outsider staring in wonder at the strange scene unfolding before me, certain of one thing – this was never going to get made into a movie. Hula hoops or no hula hoops. We were, after all, a couple of guys who barely had been inside a workout club trying to make a movie about young women running a workout club.

I should have known better.

The next thing I knew, I was inside a converted warehouse full of Spandex-clad women in leg-warmers, Larry behind the camera yelling “Action!” Not only was Heavenly Bodies in production but the tiny TV movie soon began to take on big-budget trappings.

Playboy became involved, and then Hollywood  über producers  Peter Guber and Jon Peters. Giorgio Moroder, who had done the score for Flashdance, oversaw creation of the music. Fabled MGM, home to the likes of Clark Gable and Judy Garland, agreed to release the picture (Robert says there is a great story surrounding how he convinced MGM to take the movie, but I have yet to hear it).

Music scenes were reshot to provide more production value (Dane says only one additional sequence was actually filmed). Robert spoke of Heavenly Bodies as a “Cinderella story.” There were predictions the movie would do twelve million dollars on its opening weekend–a huge figure at the time.

There was only problem with all these high-powered producers and big studios and growing expectations–at the end of it all there was still only this minuscule TV movie shot on a shoestring budget (Robert says $900,000). All the talk in the world could not transform the sow’s ear into a silk purse.

That became evident when Heavenly Bodies, starring a then-unknown Cynthia Dale (she has gone on to  better things), opened in the midst of a howling blizzard in February, 1984.

And bombed.

Robert, who had so artfully created something out of not much of anything, and pushed the movie higher than anyone ever expected it could  go, could not in the end convince an audience to see the movie.

For me, Heavenly Bodies quickly turned into a nightmare. By that time I had become the movie critic for the Toronto Star, Canada’s largest newspaper. Naively, I figured everyone would react to my involvement with an understanding sense of humor.

I should have known better.

You would think I had been defrauding widows and orphans of their life savings  the way my fellow critics tore into me.

I remember gathering my family and the dog in front of the television set on the Friday evening Heavenly Bodies opened. Critic Leonard Maltin was reviewing the movie on Entertainment Tonight.

At the end of his lacerating review, his eyes grew large with surprise. “What’s more,” he reported, “it turns out that one of the writers is a movie critic. Well, here’s a piece of advice.” He leaned toward the camera and seemed to speak to me personally: “Don’t give up your day job.” I looked around. Only the dog was still in the room.

In the years that followed, I tried in vain to shake off the shadow of Heavenly Bodies–not helped by the fact that the box office bomb went on to become a huge success on video.

Divorced, fed up with Toronto, and having left the Star, I fled to Los Angeles to finish writing a book – and, in my mind at least, to make a new start. Finally, I had escaped my past. I felt calm and at peace as I settled in that first evening in my new apartment. I turned on the television set and – literally this is true – there on the screen was Heavenly Bodies. I could run but I could not hide from that movie.

Splice is a much better and more ambitious film than Heavenly Bodies. Nonetheless, it suffered a similar box office fate when it was released in the summer of 2009. You hope against hope with these things even when you know you shouldn’t, and when it doesn’t pan out, it’s devastating.

Despite all the hoopla around the Toronto International Film festival this week, the hard reality is that most Canadian films are lucky to open in one theatre, never mind a thousand.

Given the state of Hollywood, it’s highly unlikely a major studio would ever take a chance on a small Canadian movie like Heavenly Bodies or Splice and give it a wide release.

Meanwhile, Flashdance, the movie that inspired Heavenly Bodies, is headed for the Broadway stage. Can a Heavenly Bodies musical be far behind? I would say that’s impossible.

But then, as I have already demonstrated, I should know better.

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About

Author of "The Sanibel Sunset Detective" and "The Strange." Ron spends part of the year on Sanibel Island, Florida, where he writes detective novels featuring private eye Tree Callister. When he is not in Florida, he resides outside Toronto, Ontario with his wife, Kathy.

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13 comments on “I Should Have Known Better: The Wildly Improbable Story of Heavenly Bodies
  1. Erin says:

    How can I see this movie again? Netflix?

    • ronbase says:

      Family members are hereby forbidden from watching that movie. I don’t want you breaking into gales of laughter when I enter the room (any more than everyone already does)…

  2. Oh my oh my! What a story. But then we writers usually have so many “I should have known better” moments. Let me tell you one of mine …

  3. Lynda Schwalm says:

    How timely. Just saw Cynthia Dale in 42nd Street at Stratford.

  4. Bob Johnston says:

    I saw some of this movie once on TV. I am glad that Gord J directed me to this blog. We”, you made up for it with your novels. BJ

  5. Your blogs bring back so many wonderful memories 🙂 Love reading them.

    • ronbase says:

      Thanks, Susan…and what a delight to hear from you…think of you and David often as the first anniversary of his death approaches…always the better days, the fonder memories…

      • ronbase says:

        Thanks, Antonia… I love your description of Montreal snow removal…you captured it perfectly–and eloquently! Makes me long for winter (sort of)…

  6. JenniferSmith says:

    Never forget, Roger Ebert used to write soft porn for Russ Meyer and is damned proud of it. So hold your head high!

    BTW, I have an old friend who was one of the dancers / workout girls in ‘Heavenly Bodies’. But that’s the Canadian movie industry for you – just a small town where everyone knows everybody.

    • ronbase says:

      Thanks, Jennifer…I actually am quite fond of the whole thing at this point..and every time I run into Robert Lantos we still shake our heads…and you’re right, it is a small town, at least as far as the movie business is concerned.

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