THE BOOTLEG FILES: “CHASTITY”

In 1965, Sonny and Cher were the ruling duo in American pop music. Three years later, their career tanked and they were lucky if they could swing a gag appearance on “Laugh-In.” Deciding that a much-needed career change was necessary, Sonny took it upon himself to write, produce and finance a feature film that would present Cher as a new force in film acting.

Of course, there were several things going against them. First, Sonny and Cher’s previous foray into movies was the 1967 bomb “Good Times.” Second, Sonny was a well-regarded songwriter and record producer, but he had no experience creating films. Third, Cher never acted in a serious role before. Fourth and perhaps most troubling, Cher had no interest in this project.

Despite these ominous warnings of failure-to-come, Sonny pressed ahead and created a screenplay about a teenage runaway who hitchhikes across the American Southwest and into Mexico. She has a deep, dark secret which prevents her from being intimate with men. Along the way, she encounters a skein of creepy guys, gets to work in a Mexican brothel, attracts the attention of a ravenous lesbian, and finds a nice guy but decides not to ignore his love in favor of life on the open road. There is also a breakfast scene here, thus enabling Sonny to literally throw in the kitchen sink.

The film was dubbed “Chastity” and Sonny sank all of his funds, all of Cher’s money, and as much cash as he could beg, borrow and cajole from friends and associates. But right before filming began, Sonny chickened out and hastily rewrote the screenplay to downplay its edgier elements. Thus, Cher’s character would be bothered by nasty men but not face serious physical or emotional damage. She would work in a brothel but not have to spread her legs. She would be pursued by the lesbian but not engage in any girl-on-girl action. Sonny did allow a brief glimpse of Cher emerging from a shower, but it happens so quickly that it is virtually subliminal.

Cher would later rue that Sonny’s rewrite drained whatever vitality the original concept may have possessed.

While Sonny had uncommon faith in Cher, he curiously seemed to overlook a basic problem. Cher was 22 when filming began, but her physical demeanor and distinctive voice did not call to mind a vulnerable teenager. Cher’s sense of maturity completely wrecked the story’s basic foundation; rather than come across as a troubled youth, she seemed like a weird woman acting like an idiot. It didn’t help matters that her make-up and wardrobe actually downplayed her beauty. Anyone who thinks of Cher as the glam queen of “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves” will be surprised at the unflattering way she is framed in “Chastity.”

Cher’s mind may not have been on her appearance or the screenplay, but she did have time to concentrate on her leading man, a hunky young actor named Steve Whittaker. She forgot all about the idea of chastity and embarked in a torrid affair which nearly jettisoned the production. Cher eventually dumped Whittaker to resume her relationship with Sonny and Whittaker stayed in the cast, although the tension on the set was reportedly horrible.

Many people assumed that Sonny directed the film, as the man credited with the direction of “Chastity” (one Alessio de Paolo) is not known to have directed any other production. Sonny never acknowledged that he directed the film and later stated in his autobiography that de Paolo was fired in post-production over a dispute on the editing. Sonny himself took over the editing, only to realize that “Chastity” was a major mess.

American International Pictures acquired the distribution rights to the film, but even that celebrated bastion of hucksterism could not sell “Chastity.” The film opened in 1969 on the drive-in circuit in Idaho and Oklahoma, where it promptly flopped. The studio then tried to jazz up the poster art by superimposing Cher’s head on the torso of a voluptuous body model, but that didn’t attract audiences. A soundtrack album on the ATCO label also failed to sell. “Chastity” brought nothing but financial disaster to Sonny and Cher. The only positive thing to emerge from the sorry chapter was the birth of the pair’s only child, a daughter whom they curiously named after their wretched movie.

“Chastity” sank from sight, only to re-emerge in 1972 after Sonny and Cher managed to stage an extraordinary comeback in which they retooled their image as nightclub cut-ups; that, in turn, lead them to a popular TV variety show and helped them score new hit records. MGM bought the theatrical rights to “Chastity” and edited it down to a PG rating (it was originally rated M, the forerunner of the R rating). The film was put it back in theaters, where it promptly died again.

Sonny never attempted to make more films and his post-”Chastity” and post-Cher movie work consisted primarily of small comic roles (most notably in John Waters’ “Hairspray”). Cher, of course, found her groove as a film actress in the 1980s. As for “Chastity,” it has never been released on home video. This is curious, since the film has turned up on television (most recently two years ago on the Showtime cable channel), and there doesn’t seem to be any problems regarding music rights or other copyright tangles. The Sonny Bono estate owns the film, but clearly it was such an embarrassment that there was no incentive to make it widely available. The film is among the most conspicuous titles in bootleg circulation, so Cher fans will have no problems tracking it down.

And just how bad is “Chastity”? If you don’t have health care insurance, don’t see it — you can run the risk of laughing yourself sick over it.

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IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

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Posted on April 30, 2004 in Features by

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