BOOK REVIEW / Daughters of the Game

When women get framed:

a stark and brilliant new

story inspired by paintings

based on the film business

THE stand-in could now take the place of the actress under the rain machine; Phae Lavery was going back to her dressing room to rest until the close-ups. She beckoned her hairdresser and make-up artist with a slow flick of her wet hand; they ran to her, took up position on each side of her and made as if supporting her to her quarters.

The director called her back, and she turned, making her weariness a plain reproach to him.

"I'm going to have bruises tomorrow like Mike Tyson after the big match."

"That's why we're going for the scene - the whole of the scene - today."

The stand-in walked over to the puddles in the fake tarmac under the dripping lee of a SoHo fire escape, and looked over her shoulder for someone to take her dressing gown. Underneath, she was wearing the same light, swinging summer dress as the star, fastening with small mica buttons down the front. They were sewn on to press studs, so that when Jed Mulster, the male lead, pulled at her from behind, the buttons flew off easily.

The male lead and the stand-in were to perform the next segment of the scene in the rain, which Phae Lavery had refused to do. He had to throw his right arm round her, under her chin, and turn her till her body was bent backwards into a stretched arc. When he practised, the director saw her ribs lift and part slightly, like the fragile lips of a pink scallop, and he whispered an instruction to the lighting cameraman.

"That's how I'm meant to flip her around," Jed Mulster whispered to her. "And then - well, you saw - I grab her like this, and ..."

The director came over and pushed her head back so that it was hooked over backwards against Jed Mulster's shoulder and moved his right arm higher, so that he looked as if he was holding her in an armlock. Then he moved the actor's left arm down to her groin.

"Flex your hand. Yes, like that. Good, perfect in fact. That's the basic position. Now to the deed of darkness."

Jed Mulster's face would stay in view; the scene demanded his grimace of pleasure. She - his Cressida in the director's remake of Shakespeare's Troilus - was his whore, and the director wanted the brutality unbuttoned.

"You, Jed, think of something you really like. I want an expression of pure bliss on your face, animal ecstasy. You're appetite, the kind that cries hungry from the pit of the stomach and wants what it wants with no other thought. You're lust, greed, tyranny let loose upon the world, the enemy of innocence, the end of hope. So give this scene all you've got. And now, you - " He hesitated.

"Fernanda," said the stand-in, relaxing out of the pose, and throwing him a tentatively friendly smile, since she was working for him for the first time, and liked his films, admired the elaborate excesses of his aesthetic, his grotesque and unlovely visions of the damned.

"We both begin with F - "

A stand-in had no face, she had a thousand faces. Fernanda had gone to drama school, and registered with an agency as a model. She acknowledged she would never be used as a cover girl, she didn't have that kind of looks. But she had a figure, and she liked it being seen. Soon, casting directors came to know her work: her legs and her arms were in demand. Standing in for Phae Lavery had followed: Phae had a baby and a habit and the one had darkened her nipples and the other had puffed the skin on her body, on her thighs and upper arms especially.

In spite of the incomprehensible title and the rancid, unremitting cynicism of its squalor and savagery, The Gegg of the Pandar reached a huge audience after its release when the Americans refused to grant it a video certificate - not even at their highest exclusion rating. So a small-budget, bizarre art-house movie based on a lesser known Shakespearean tragedy became a $25,000,000 grosser and a cult film. Projectionists took out their razor blades and snipped the reels for prized souvenirs. A frame from the rape from behind in the rain became a favourite trophy. Phae Lavery's naked body in the gaping dress, arched and forced by a modern Diomedes, turned into an icon of the high street. You couldn't see her face, just the actor's hands, one jammed across her parted ribcage, twisting her right breast, the other shoved down against her crotch, with her head thrown back and her thin neck aquiver and stretched, and a glint of tooth, above the strange taut apex of her upside-down chin.

It had been a closed set when Phae Lavery was playing the events leading up to the rape, but the technicians were back and busy checking the rigs and the lights during Fernanda's scene. Still, some of them later remembered that she had stood in at the crucial moment of the notorious shot, and when they bumped into her, at a screening or a trade party, they'd nudge her knowingly. Some would say she'd missed out there, and yet others would urge her to take the case to the union and get some money for her famous ribs. It was now being bootlegged by art students and designer of fanzines and CD covers; it was rapidly becoming, on this side of the fin-de-siecle, what Monroe in The Seven-Year Itch in that white dress lifting over the subway grating had been in the Fifties. But Fernanda laughed, as if at the very thought of it. "Look at me," she'd say. "Think that's me?"

She had two small boys now, growing up, and she wanted to keep from them the knowledge of this kind of work in their mother's past. But also, though she hardly put this into words herself, she wanted to remain fluid, a woman with many faces; she did not like to be recognised.

The image came up in discussions about the prevalent complaisance of the media with open incitements to rape; Camille Paglia retracted, on several programmes, that she had ever said that women liked rough sex. Jed Mulster made a public service broadcast, earnestly advocating the use of condoms. The director expressed no surprise that his attack on the scabrous decade had become merely more fodder for mass fantasies. He would not offer any apologies: the obscenity was not of his making. He was merely a pair of eyes, a pair of ears. Phae Lavery for her part frequently expressed heated indignation, in interviews, when "that shot" came up, which it always did.

Then the photograph appeared in an advertising campaign for a famous brand of designer jeans with a witty and lubricious double entendre in the slogan. Phae Lavery sued; she pleaded mental distress at the image of herself raped circulating round her wherever she went. The defence of the designer jeans and their advertisers had no difficulty finding plenty of witnesses who, for reasons they did not quite understand, found it rather satisfying to testify in court that the famous image of Phae Lavery had not been posed by her at all.

The stand-in was traced; Fernanda was called to give evidence. Afterwards, when she went to pick up her boys from school, they and their friends looked at her curiously. Phae Lavery was awarded damages, all the same, as the jury decided that her grievance was genuine since everyone thought the raped girl was her. The advertisement was withdrawn, but the company did not care; it was felt that the image had now lost its aura.

! This story appears in the catalogue to John Dewe Mathews' exhibition 'Images on Film' at the Eagle Gallery, 159 Farringdon Road, London EC1, 0171 833 2674, 12 Oct - 4 Nov (Wed-Fri 11-6, Sat-Sun 11-4)