dressing the part | ruthless people
In the film Ruthless People, the Memphis look is so prominent that it should probably have its own on-screen credit.
Memphis-style design has been making a comeback over the past couple of years, inspiring both waves of happy nostalgia and ugh-filled groans. But no matter where your own take on this 80s relic lands, one thing is clear. In the film Ruthless People, the Memphis look is so prominent that it should probably have its own on-screen credit.
In this 1986 dark comedy, Danny Devito plays Sam Stone, a clothing tycoon who made his fortune as the so-called ‘spandex mini-skirt king’. He’s vile, he’s a cheater, and he can’t stand his loud-mouth spouse Barbara (Bette Midler). With his mistress, he hatches a plan to off his wife, but before he can put his scheme into action, Barbara is snatched up by a pair of hapless kidnappers, Ken and Sandy Kessler (Judge Reinhold and Helen Slater). The Kesslers have a bone to pick with Sam — Sandy is the real inventor of the spandex mini and Sam stole her design and made a fortune. For payback, they demand a ransom for Barbara’s safe return. But they’re thrown off-guard when they realize Sam couldn’t be happier that Barbara has gone missing.
The Stones exemplify ‘nouveau riche’ and their Bel Air estate, presumably decorated by Barbara, showcases their tacky opulence to the 80s extreme. Save for Sam’s tchotchke-free safe space of an office, every corner of the Stone mansion is furnished within an inch of its life. From the zig-zag floor lamps in the foyer, to the geometric area rugs, to the giraffe spotted coffee mugs, Barbara’s garish taste becomes a running gag through the film. Art director Donald B. Woodruff and set decorator Anne D. McCulley created a joint where colors splash and clash in every room – primaries and pastels, color-blocking, squiggle prints, and asymmetrical furniture. According to design experts, there is not a single authentic Memphis piece in the entire movie; the Stones live in a house full of knock-offs. This could have been due to studio budget purposes, but it also illuminates the fakeness of the couple’s bourgie-laced materialism.
The fun doesn’t stop with home decor, though. It’s obvious that when Barbara likes something, she is committed, and her taste in fashion is equally vulgar. When Barbara learns that Sandy is an aspiring fashion designer, the two bond while playing dress-up in Sandy’s gaudy designs, which bear a striking resemblance to the Stone home interiors. Costume designer Rosanna Norton whipped up some laughably over-the-top creations — checkerboard jester dresses with matching neck gear and arm bands, rainbow ombré bodices with sheer blouson sleeves and metallic striped cuffs. Even the comparatively low-key sweater that Barbara wears while confronting Sam on the Santa Monica Pier features a Memphis-like intarsia pattern.
Also worth mentioning are Ruthless People‘s opening titles, created by animator Sally Cruikshank. After Cruikshank screened the film, she was struck by the eye-popping set design and suggested that they inject a similar aesthetic into the sequence. She recounted the story behind the credits to Art of the Title: ‘I said, you know what you should do is you should treat the piece so that every title is treated ruthlessly and include the design of this crazy furniture that the wife in the movie is buying — which is Memphis design — and then the production designer loaned me a book on Memphis design and I was off and running!’
Even the back patio isn’t safe from Barbara’s design prowess.
Muffy, Bab’s beloved poodle, wears a Memphis-inspired statement necklace while defiantly whizzing on Sam’s office rug.
Sam with his mistress Carol (Anita Morris), who had a thing for puff sleeve blouses and sweaters.
Carol and her boyfriend (because of course), the ‘Miami Vice’ obsessed Earl (Bill Pullman) who named his fish Crockett and Tubbs.
Barbara convinces Sandy that she is ‘the new rising star in high fashion’. We really really doubt that.
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