In the late 1970s, many people considered Times Square a symbol of all that was wrong with New York. The heart of the city was clogged with peep shows, grind houses, drug dealers, hustlers, addicts, and runaways. Politicians and concerned citizens had decried the vices of Times Square for decades, but as citywide crime skyrocketed, the sense that Times Square was out of control became more urgent.
At the time, the movie director Allan Moyle lived on the most notorious block in the Times Square area: 42nd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues. As the story goes, one day Moyle bought a second-hand couch for his apartment and found a teenage girl’s diary between the cushions. The author was apparently unstable, and had spent time living on the streets. Moyle was so fascinated by the diary that he wrote a story based on it, and adapted it into a screenplay.
The script was picked up by producer Robert Stigwood, of Grease and Saturday Night Fever fame, who saw, in this story about teen girls run amok in Times Square, a vehicle for a soundtrack full of New Wave hits. Stigwood had a moneymaking formula of promoting films’ soundtracks as much as the films themselves, and he wanted to transfer his success with disco over to punk. It was the era of punxploitation movies like Rock ‘N’ Roll High School, The Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Swindle, and Ladies and Gentleman, The Fabulous Stains. At the same time that the media was condemning punk, it was trying desperately to reap profits from it.
Times Square is the story of two teenage girls—Nicky Marotta (Robin Johnson), a tough street kid, and Pamela Pearl (Trini Alvarado), the daughter of a wealthy politician—who meet in a psychiatric ward and escape together, forging a life for themselves on the streets of New York. Pamela’s father runs a campaign to clean up Times Square based on the claim that the neighborhood isn’t safe for children, but that’s exactly where his daughter ends up, and she doesn’t want to go home. She and Nicky become best friends and, it’s implied, lovers. They move into an abandoned pier together, steal food and cool disguises, run three-card Monte games, wash windshields in aggressive squeegee-man fashion, try their hand at armed robbery, and get gigs at the Cleo Club, a strip joint whose coked-up manager is played by none other than the playwright Miguel Piñero. While still on the lam, Pammy and Nicky start a punk band called the Sleez Sisters, and with the help of a radio DJ named Johnny LaGuardia (Tim Curry), they inspire bored, overprotected teenage girls to embrace the grit and danger of the city.
The film is a mess. It denounces gentrification, consumerism, television, psychiatry, censorship, cops, dads, and squares, and though its flailing critiques and silly romanticism befit a teen movie, they give away the film’s agenda to cash in on all things rebellious. It doesn’t even make sense, socially or geographically, to set a punk movie in Times Square. The soundtrack—with songs by the likes of Patti Smith, Lou Reed, Roxy Music, and Gary Numan—is exciting, but it’s too downtown for the clubs and boom boxes of Times Square. And the garish pop hits that Stigwood threw in don’t always match the film’s ostensibly punk theme.
It’s been said that Stigwood cut out entire scenes of dialogue so he could include more music for the soundtrack, and erased all overt mentions of the girls’ lesbian relationship to appeal to a more mainstream audience. This would help to explain the film’s gaping plot holes, lack of character development, and all its fun but superfluous montage sequences. As Roger Ebert put it, “Times Square is filled with ideas for a movie, but they’ve just never been organized into a movie.”
The film bombed initially, but it went on to develop a cult following, in part because girls felt empowered by its optimism. For all its problems, Times Square depicts relationships that are still hard to find in movies, like a compelling female friendship and a romance between two women. But the real revelation of Times Square is Nicky, the butch teen idol. It’s a loss to audiences everywhere that Robin Johnson, then a 15-year-old first-time actor, never became famous. She was Stigwood’s female answer to John Travolta, and the similarities between the two actors are striking: cleft chin, big blue eyes, badass (if now supremely dated) haircut, full lips that dangle a cigarette well, working-class accent, chest-puffing swagger, and the sort of raw charisma and style that eclipse a lack of acting polish. Plus Johnson has one of the most exciting voices in cinema: it’s shocking to hear a teenage girl speak with such a pack-a-day rasp.
When we first meet Nicky she’s smashing the headlights out of a club owner’s sports car. She smokes cigarettes in her hospital bed—“Figures,” she says to Pammy, “no fucking matches in this place,” —and plays the Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated” nonstop on her boom box. When a team of doctors and nurses surrounds Pammy (to assure her that getting a CAT scan is just like a trip to the beauty parlor) Nicky pulls a rose from a vase and starts munching on its petals, eyeing her with a smirk while the doctors’ backs are turned.
Nicky is truly unstable, but she masks her vulnerability in bravado. At some point the Sleez Sisters—outfitted in their uniform of trash-bag dresses—start dropping television sets off the roofs of buildings. This becomes their trademark, but it scares Pamela: Nicky doesn’t seem to care if she hurts anybody. She’s a menace to society. Her character doesn’t deviate too far from the archetype of the juvenile delinquent, but it’s fun to see that role so gleefully inhabited by a girl. She walks down the street with no fear.
Critics hated Times Square when it came out, but they seemed less upset by the film’s technical flaws than by its social implications. David Denby called it “an evil, lying little fantasy” and wrote that any money Stigwood made on the film’s soundtrack should be donated to funds for girls beaten and raped in Times Square. The “lie” that Times Square told was that teenage girls could wander New York City’s most notorious streets and nothing bad would happen to them.
When Nicky and Pammy set up house in a dilapidated pier, checking faucets and busting open the trunks that lay strewn about the building, the movie feels like an updated Boxcar Children story. “Hey,” says Nicky, hopping onto the shores of the Hudson, “back porch!” Times Square would seem to follow in the tradition of runaway and orphan fantasies, where kids have to be on their own to find freedom and adventure. But in 1980, the area was actually full of runaways; many people thought the film was playing irresponsibly with a painful reality.
In one of my favorite, most heavily fairy-dusted scenes, Pammy shows up to the Cleo Club looking for a job, and informs the manager that she will not be dancing topless. “You want a job,” he says, “and you don’t want to dance topless.” He pauses, looking her up and down. “I like that! Class, respect, I like that. It’s good for the club, it’s good for business.”
Next thing we know she’s shaking her hair and doing bad pirouettes in a homemade tutu while customers yell things like “Shake that thing, baby!” It’s unlikely that fully-clothed dancers are good for business in a strip club. But the message of Times Square is that the lawlessness of the Square allows you to be yourself—be weird, be angry, be queer—and so of course there would be a place for a teenager to dance awkwardly in a dumpster-dived Ren-faire outfit. Even if the specifics of the scene make it seem like a joke, it’s actually a nice sentiment to share with kids: if you go looking, somewhere you’ll find a place where you can really be yourself.
Still, what’s so bad about dancing topless? By disregarding 42nd Street’s economy of desire, the film denies the whole appeal of the place, and inadvertently suggests that its protagonists are better than the sleaze they so admire.
At the end of the film, Nicky and Pammy decide to stage a concert, and an army of Sleez-Sister imitators pours into Times Square. Wearing their garbage-bag dresses, they rush through their parents’ middle-class breakfast nooks, or past the doormen of their Upper East Side apartments, big groups of them squealing and hugging each other when they meet up on 42nd Street. Prostitutes give the Sleez Sisters side-eye, pimps light their cigarettes, kids sell them cans of beer, men sell them garbage bags (“SLEEZ BAGS, ONE DOLLAR!”). The whole economy of the street changes to accommodate them. The extended family of Sleez Sisters, unlike the rest of 42nd Street, is almost exclusively white. At first it seems odd that such a romantic anti-gentrification film would end with a vision of a gentrified Times Square, but in a sense, this is exactly what romanticism breeds. All the people who made up the ecosystem of Nicky and Pammy’s world, the characters of 42nd Street, are now just extras in a Sleez Sister fantasy. If you sugarcoat something enough, you can make it unrecognizable. You can also make a very big mess.
Times Square plays Wednesday, May 21 at BAM as part of their series “Punk Rock Girls.”