“Lethal Lolita” (1992)

Only 90s kids will remember when we as a collective society became obsessed with, in equal parts revulsion and titillation, the story of a high school student who, evidently distraught over her affair with a man twice her age, shot and almost killed his wife. The student was Amy Fisher, and her lover was the improbably named Joey Buttafuoco. In probably the best (or worst, depending on how you look at it) example of the pre-internet obsession with taking sad, sordid tales of sex and/or violence and turning them into inescapable news stories, it was a situation that started out as merely unpleasant and eventually became something so irredeemably gross that to read about it left you wishing you could remove your eyes and boil them.

While Buttafuoco at first denied the affair and claimed that he had no idea why Fisher would shoot his wife, eventually he admitted that, whoops, he had been sleeping with her after all, starting when she was sixteen. Spending a few months in jail for statutory rape neither shamed nor humbled him, however, and it became quickly apparent that Buttafuoco kind of liked being a minor celebrity, and was all too happy to capitalize on his wife’s brutal attack to keep that fame train a-rollin’. He did interviews with Howard Stern, and courted near constant media attention, becoming both a punchline on Late Night With David Letterman, and a sort of folk hero for other middle aged schlubs whose fondest fantasy was that an unremarkable looking teenage girl might one day cast an eye in their direction too.

Fisher had barely begun to serve her seven year jail sentence before the first of three TV movies about the case aired (the other two aired a week later on the same night). The “winner” in this race was Lethal Lolita, which purported to explain things from Fisher’s perspective. The movie opens with Amy (played here by Noelle Parker) already arrested for shooting Mary Jo Buttafuoco, and lamenting cruel fate into a tape recorder. “I just don’t know how it all began…” she says, except that she does, because we see the whole thing. We jump back to a year or two earlier, where rebellious teen Amy bristles under a passive mother, and a father who alternately spoils her rotten while angrily proclaiming that a barely noticeable pink streak in her hair makes her look “like a slut.” The movie strongly hints that Amy’s father molested her at some point, in what will be a pattern of portraying her as a victim of men who treat her poorly and are only interested in what she can do for them sexually.

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Amy meets Joey (Ed Marinaro) when she brings her car to his auto body shop. Their attraction is immediate, with Joey making eyes at the braces wearing high school junior before they even speak. Tongue almost lolling out of his mouth like a Tex Avery cartoon, Joey later remarks to his co-worker “Did you see that?” The co-worker, clearly acting as the audience surrogate, gravely replies “Jailbait.”

It takes months of flirting with clumsy double entendres (when Amy brings her car in to have her name put on it in hot pink letters, Joey asks with a leer “How hot do you want it?”), but they eventually consummate their desire for each other.  Make no mistake, though, Joey is clearly the aggressor here, asking to see Amy’s bedroom and laying on such original, foolproof lines as “Do you believe in love at first sight?” while Amy looks as nervous and uncertain as someone standing in line at a ziplining course.

Despite her initial reluctance, once they sleep together Amy happily leans into the role of Joey’s piece on the side, as they maintain their puzzlingly open affair. He manipulates her with talk of love and expensive gifts, while still holding her at arm’s length, telling Amy that while he wants to be with her, he’s also obligated to remain married to his wife, the ill-fated Mary Jo. Joey explains that it’s because he’s Catholic, one of many completely absurd things he tells Amy that she maddeningly accepts without question.

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Absolutely nobody else in Amy’s life thinks the relationship is a good idea (“You have to protect yourself,” Amy’s aunt says, to which Amy responds “He had a vasectomy!”), which of course means, as far as Amy is concerned, that it’s the best idea. Joey is angry when he finds out she’s told her friends about him, even though he brags about the affair to his employees, brings her into his office for afternoon trysts, and checks them into motels under his actual last name. He also gives her herpes, which triggers a mind boggling discussion with Amy’s parents, after she, for reasons which go unexplained, tells them about the affair. All feigned bluster and disbelief, Joey insists that they’re not sleeping together, and he has no idea why Amy would say such a thing. “I only bought her a slice of pizza…I guess she has a crush on me!” he says, in a gee whiz Eddie Haskell-esque voice. Not surprisingly, her parents don’t buy it, but, curiously, opt to do nothing about it. Amy’s father, initially portrayed as a controlling bully, simply mutters “There’s nothing we can do if they both deny it,” and that’s pretty much the last we see of him.

After Amy is fired from a mall job and in desperate need of money, Joey talks her into becoming an escort. When Amy questions how Joey would feel about her sleeping with other men, he says “You have sex with your body, you make love with your mind,” and well, that’s good enough for her. He also plants a sinister seed when he asks “If I wasn’t married and Catholic…if it wasn’t Mary Jo, you know who it would be, dontcha?” Nevertheless, when Amy demands that he choose between her and Mary Jo, Joey immediately ends the relationship.

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Though she’s often spoken about, the movie is more than halfway over before Mary Jo (Kathleen Laskey) finally appears. It’s hate at first sight between the two women when Amy shows up at Joey’s house under the guise of selling candy door to door just to get a look at her. Satisfied that she’s no competition, Amy gleefully proclaims that Joey can have the “old and out of shape” Mary Jo, and starts to move on with her life.

Amy returns to being a normal teenager, spending time with friends and filling out college applications. It’s not long, however, before Joey comes back into her life, bearing a gift of lingerie. All is immediately forgiven, and, clearly very pleased with himself that it took so little to get Amy back, Joey is now a bigger jerk than ever. This means, of course, that Amy becomes even more insistent that he must be hers and hers alone.

She soon gets tangled up with another sleazy character, a trainer at a gym Joey demands she join. This is Paul (Boyd Kestner), the person Amy is addressing via tape recorder from her jail cell, and one in a long line of men who takes advantage of her naivete, sweet talking her into making pornography while telling her they can never truly be together, because he too is already committed to someone else. Amy initially hooks up with Paul to make Joey jealous and force his hand in their “relationship,” but ends up falling for him as well. Not getting the response from Joey that she was hoping for, Amy, egged on by a friend who knows some people who know some people (**wink**), decides to take a more drastic measure.

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While at the same time writing “Mrs. Amy Buttafuoco” on her school notebooks, Amy hires a hitman to kill Mary Jo. The hitman offers competitive pricing at just $800, but, like Joey, he betrays Amy with his cowardice, chickening out of shooting Mary Jo at the last minute and forcing Amy to do it instead. The final confrontation between Amy and Mary Jo, when Amy tells her about the affair (though claiming, for unknown reasons, that Joey is sleeping with her non-existent younger sister), is meant to be high drama, but ends up being high camp. Despite her limited screen time, Mary Jo gets the best line in the whole movie, when Amy says “I just think the idea of a 40 year-old man sleeping with a 16 year-old girl is disgusting,” and she responds, straight faced as can be, “He’s not 40 yet!”

Anyway, they struggle, Amy shoots Mary Jo in the head and nearly kills her, and the film ends with Amy sitting in jail and declaring, in her final line of dialogue, “Joey’s the worst thing that ever happened to me…I think I still love him.” An epilogue notes that Paul, to whom Amy reportedly poured her heart out, later secretly videotaped her talking about the crime, and that the tape wound up on a tabloid television show. It further notes, dubiously, “No one knows how the program obtained the tape.” I don’t want to make assumptions about the quality of men who sniffed around Amy Fisher, but it’s probably safe to say that it was Paul himself.

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It’s a very fine line between being naive and being as dumb as a box of rocks, and Amy Fisher (or at least, how she’s portrayed in this movie) crosses that line many times. Though, of the three movies, this is the one that’s the most sympathetic towards her (and was presumably made with at least some input by Fisher herself), it’s hard to feel for someone whose decisions and motivations never once make even the slightest bit of sense, least of all her falling for Joey Buttafuoco. Joey comes off like a swaggering thug from the moment he appears on screen, with not a single quality that could explain Amy’s attraction to him, other than a nice car and a knack for tiresome cliches. Even in the honeymoon phase of their affair, slimy insincerity all but oozes out of his pores. The more ogrish he behaves, the more Amy digs in and insists that they’re meant to be together (while also, after a point, insisting that perhaps she and Paul, who already has a girlfriend, might be meant to be together too). Some variation on “But I love him!” or “But he loves me!” is uttered at a rate of about once every seven minutes or so, and starts to sound a bit forced after a while.

The movie also implies that nothing Amy does is motivated by her own free will. It’s Joey who suggests that they start sleeping together. It’s Joey who suggests that she become a prostitute. It’s Paul who suggests that she make pornographic videos. It’s Joey who suggests (albeit obliquely) that perhaps Mary Jo should be removed from the situation entirely. It’s a friend who suggests that perhaps she should hire a hitman. It’s the hitman who suggests that she should just do it herself. There’s even a bizarre (and borderline offensive) suggestion that it was Mary Jo’s bitchy, dismissive response to Amy telling her about the affair that really drove Amy over the edge. Though Amy expresses some vague remorse for her actions at the end, it comes off as hollow, as if what she really wants to say is “Yeah, I guess it was pretty bad what I did to that lady, but she wouldn’t let me have her husband!” While it’s true that, in real life, Fisher was remarkably unsympathetic towards Mary Jo (the only truly innocent party in the whole situation), if you’re making a movie in which you want the audience to be on your side, it might be a good idea to show some compassion for the person you nearly killed, leaving her permanently disfigured.

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All that aside, Lethal Lolita, while not exactly tasteful, is probably a bit more low key than one would expect (or want) from such grotesque events. As opposed to the later two movies, it makes a rudimentary attempt at giving Fisher some dimension, portraying her both as a wannabe bad girl and a meek, compliant child, who takes up with a series of perfectly awful older men because she has daddy issues. As of this writing, twenty-five years later, Fisher continues to cash in on her ill-gotten fame (and continues to bad mouth Mary Jo, who got her own book deal out of it), so her being the true victim in the story is a bit hard to swallow. Nevertheless, of the three it’s the only one that tries to take the high ground, a refreshing choice in a situation where so many joyfully rolled around in the mud.

And now for the questions everyone’s asking…

How’s the hair? Pretty unremarkable, though the frequently mentioned tiny pink streak in Amy’s hair seems to be intended as symbolic of the rebellious streak inside her.

How about those Lon Guyland accents? Nice and juicy. Ed Marinaro sounds like a minor character in a 70s era Scorsese movie, while Noelle Parker pronounces “It’s over” as “It’s ovuh” (Ron Howard voice: “It was not over”).

How much do the actors look like their real life counterparts? Eh, a little? Though she’s the oldest of the actresses cast to play Amy Fisher, Noelle Parker is the only one of the three who makes a convincing high school student.

Saxophone music during the love scenes? Absolutely! I give this movie a solid three out of four Buttafuocos.

Original airdate: December 28, 1992

Watch it here

 

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