''Boxing Helena'''s controversies - How the film's strange marriage of love and amputation turned off much of Hollywood

It was a role so perverse even Kim Basinger (who had honey dribbled on her body in 9.5 Weeks) and Madonna (who dribbled hot wax on Willem Dafoe’s torso in Body of Evidence) backed out of it. Madonna said no way at the last minute, telling filmmakers even she couldn’t do justice to the part of Boxing Helena‘s amputee love victim. And as Basinger told an L.A. judge and jury two weeks ago, Hollywood pals predicted the part would make her an industry joke. Her agent even believed audiences would hurl tomatoes at the screen. Though ”well constructed,” Basinger went on, ”it was probably the strangest piece I ever read…The idea of a woman with no arms and no legs was very bizarre to me.”

And to almost everyone else who has had a brush with Boxing Helena, which is the first feature written and directed by 25-year-old Jennifer Lynch (David’s daughter). The film’s outrageous subject matter — it’s the story of a callous sexpot and the obsessive surgeon who tries to make her his own by severing all her limbs and confining her to a box — has made it a lightning rod for controversy, as well as for production problems, since it was conceived five years ago. And now the Basinger trial, which concluded on March 25, has given Helena enduring notoriety.

After 18 days of testimony, a jury awarded Main Line Films, the company that produced Helena, almost $9 million in damages from Basinger for her breach of a 1991 informal agreement to star in the movie. The verdict, which calls into question the movie industry’s long-standing reliance on verbal agreements, could change forever the way business is done in Hollywood.

The trial was only the latest in a series of high-profile Helena controversies. The oft-stalled and still-unreleased movie, with Sherilyn Fenn as the amputee and Julian Sands as the infatuated doctor over whom she wields strange power, premiered 10 weeks ago at the Sundance Film Festival to a wildly mixed response. The film is still facing a ratings battle, since Lynch plans to appeal the NC-17 it received for steamy pre-surgery sex scenes. And at press time, there was still no deal for its distribution. Even in Hollywood’s current independent-friendly climate, Boxing Helena has clearly struck a very, very sore nerve.

How did a movie that could have been a Cinderella dream for a young director turn into such a nightmare? Jennifer Lynch is still trying to figure it out.

”The moment I sat down to write the screenplay I knew this wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea,” says Lynch, who began developing the kinky script, based on an idea by producer Philippe Caland, when she was only 19. ”There are a lot of very powerful images in the idea of a woman in a box. It’s about being a victim. We’re always boxing ourselves and other people into things.” Though she says she wasn’t ”consciously” influenced by her father’s works (which, from Eraserhead to Twin Peaks, revel in the bizarre), she was inspired by his risk-taking. ”Growing up, I was taught that if something comes into your mind, you shouldn’t stomp that thought out,” she says. ”Don’t put up fences that have been determined by someone else. Knock those things down.”

But when it came to knocking down industry doors, Lynch had problems. Despite her good connections, she, Caland, and her agent (CAA’s Jay Maloney) shopped the screenplay to producers and studios for two years with no success. Most execs were wary of a first-time director. ”I was young, I was female, I had plenty of notches against me,” she admits. So did her script. Some producers suggested she turn it into a horror movie instead of a wacko love story. ”They wanted chain saws and needles, which wasn’t something I thought it should become,” says Lynch. Others just turned her down flat. ”Without saying they hated it, they politely asked how I expected to get this project on the screen.”

In early 1989, CineTel Films, an independent production company, optioned Helena for three months, but the project proved too sensitive for its financial backers. Finally, Main Line’s Carl Mazzocone teamed with Caland to produce the film. ”Carl got past the idea of a woman in a box as being unacceptable,” says Lynch. For a first-time producer (Mazzocone founded Main Line in 1987 and has several projects in development), Helena‘s subject matter was the attraction. ”I knew if I made this movie it would be like picking up my desk chair, throwing it through the window, and getting a flare gun that says, ‘Main Line Pictures is open for business,”’ says Mazzocone.