Spike Lee's ''Girl 6'' and Hal Salwen's ''Denise Calls Up'' use America's phone-sex fixation to tap into the tangled connection between lust and love

By Owen Gleiberman
Updated April 05, 1996 at 05:00 AM EST

Denise Calls Up

  • Movie

Discussing your sexual fantasies over the phone used to be the sort of thing that could get you shunned in polite company (if not arrested). But to judge from the recent, multimillion-dollar explosion in phone-sex services (not to mention the rise of cybersex), America no longer has much polite company. We’ve become a nation of heavy-breathing schmoozers — vicarious erotic fantasists who fork over piles of cash to talk about the things we don’t feel safe doing. Even in intimate relationships, getting off over the phone has acquired an aura of psychodramatic chic. (You tell me your kinks, I’ll tell you mine.) True communication, it seems, means getting beyond the physical, tapping the headier thrill of uninhibited erotic daydreams. Is it any wonder the movies are following suit? Spike Lee’s Girl 6 and Hal Salwen’s Denise Calls Up both offer new-style variations on cinematic sexuality: Instead of showing us naughty stuff, they show us people talking about naughty stuff. On the phone. These are movies that invite you to look (and listen) through the peephole of your imagination.

At the beginning of Girl 6, the heroine, a beautiful aspiring actress (Theresa Randle), goes in to audition for the hottest director in Hollywood (played, in a derisive bit of self-satire, by Quentin Tarantino). She’s desperate to land a part yet so full of pride that when he casually asks her to expose her breasts, she hesitates, botching the audition. Why, you may ask, would someone who sacrificed a shot at stardom in order to keep her shirt on then proceed to apply for a job as a phone-sex operator? That’s the first of many issues in Girl 6 that don’t quite parse. Yet as soon as the film moves into the sleek Manhattan office where Randle begins working, we can put the question on hold, since Lee, calling upon his most impish instincts as a director, has envisioned phone sex as a ribald comedy of corporate deception.

As it turns out, Girl 6 (she’s almost never referred to by her real name) is a terrific actress. She knows just how to follow the leads of her clients, dancing to the whims of their libidos, always honing in on the secret detail that will bring them to a climax. Lee photographs the callers in video-verité style, humanizing their loneliness even as he showcases their pathetic — and, in some cases, twisted — desires. Girl 6 becomes whomever they want her to be: lascivious schoolgirl, floor-scrubbing housewife. Written by the playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, Girl 6, in terms of language, is only moderately raunchy, yet the phone-sex scenes have a hot-and-horny delirium that’s both funny and true to the antic nature of erotic desperation. Randle, with her rich, honeyed voice, makes an authentic phone-sex star. We can believe that she gets more requests than anyone else; she drapes that voice around her callers like a bearskin rug.

Seated in modular, glass-walled cubicles, speaking into headphones that make them look as if they were fielding orders for J. Crew, the operators in Girl 6 are no-nonsense middle-class professionals who’ll do whatever it takes to keep their clients on the line. Lee, as usual, bounces his movie along with attention-grabbing gimmicks (spiky parodies of Foxy Brown and The Jeffersons, nonstop Prince on the soundtrack, a cameo by Madonna as a blowsy phone-sex entrepreneur). Shot by Malik Hassan Sayeed, Girl 6 has a candy-coated, video-charged spontaneity; the jumpy images invite you to savor the faces of these young fantasy goddesses whom the callers can never see. It’s a bitterly ironic joke that all of them, unless the clients specify otherwise, are required to be ”white.” (In one nifty bit, a chunky African-American operator with Rasta braids does a pitch-perfect caricature of a breathy blond dream princess.) At the same time, the film begs a question: Who are they really? Who, indeed, is Theresa Randle playing?

Lee, I’m afraid, hasn’t a clue. He has made half a movie, a phone-sex comedy in which the heroine has no real existence apart from the phone. Randle, the costar of Bad Boys, has perky features and a ripe, come-hither smile, yet there’s a generic, Skipper-doll quality about her. Lee seems to be saying that Girl 6 is an empty vessel whose identity is completed by the personalities of her callers. But it’s the film itself that’s incomplete. Girl 6 is scattershot and glib — a sketchbook of a movie that uses phone sex as a tease, a shortcut to drama. When Girl 6 is away from her office, she trades quips with her neighbor (played by Lee), a slacker obsessed with baseball, and indulges the frowsy come-ons of her shoplifting ex-husband (Isaiah Washington). Eventually, she gets ”hooked” on phone sex — addicted to the control she can exert as she does nowhere else. Lee’s vision turns out to be cautionary in a drably conventional way: If you work in phone sex, it will drag you down, down, down. Girl 6, it seems, was right to leave her shirt on. But what’s the point of making a comedy of exposure in which exposure only leads you back to square one?

Denise Calls Up, the first film written and directed by Hal Salwen, might be described as a screwball comedy for agoraphobes. The characters in this fiber-optic roundelay are stay-at-home Manhattan yups who monitor every facet of existence through their phones and fax machines. Friendship, courtship, sex — it’s all a detached, out-of-body experience, a rehearsal for the lives they’re too neurotically terrified to live. I didn’t really believe a minute of Denise Calls Up, the sort of movie that thinks it’s scoring satirical points by presenting call waiting as the conversational equivalent of coitus interruptus. (Call-waiting jokes are like mime jokes: They’ve all been made.) Still, one couple won me over: Liev Schreiber and Caroleen Feeney as wallflowers who fall in love, then make love, without ever meeting. The idea is paralyzingly cute, but Schreiber, with his acerbic baby face, knows how to play a mensch without being cloying, and Feeney gets funnier, hotter, and more biting by the minute. Her performance is a striptease of the spirit.
Girl 6: B-
Denise Calls Up: C

Denise Calls Up

  • Movie
  • R
  • 80 minutes
  • Hal Salwen