The ‘80s died a few years too early, its final throes reflected in the neon glow of a Beverly Hills swimming pool in 1987’s Less Than Zero. Cocaine-fueled despair, oversaturated sex in blues and purples, desolate teenagers dying in the dust—the film was the feel-bad movie of the decade, an open sore on the era’s facade of flawlessness. As the credits run, the sickness lingers with us, the rotting corpse of the decade captured and reflected in the death of Less Than Zero’s beautiful, doomed junkie.
Although Less Than Zero had only a modest box-office presence, grossing $3 million in the opening weekend and $12 million since, it has become an important pop-culture artifact, heralding the death of the innocent ‘80s teen flick and so thoroughly defining the career of Robert Downey Jr. that when he was arrested in 1996 for drunk driving and possession, The Simpsons parodied the bust with images drawn from the movie.
Less Than Zero
Andrew McCarthy, Jami Gertz, Robert Downey Jr., James Spader
(20th Century Fox; US theatrical: 6 Nov 1987 (General release); 1987)
Based loosely on Bret Easton Ellis’s disaffected 1985 novel, Less Than Zero revolves around the Christmas-break homecoming of college freshman Clay (Andrew McCarthy), who returns to find his two best friends, Blair (Jami Gertz) and Julian (Downey), abusing drugs, and Julian spiraling downward in a cycle of debt and prostitution, with mutual friend Rip (James Spader) acting as his dealer and his high-class pimp.
In tracing Julian’s downfall, Less Than Zero reflects the political shift toward social conservatism in an era defined by AIDS panic. His transgressive actions, appearance, and lifestyle are all meant to warn audiences, while at the other end of the moral spectrum, Clay and Blair are redeemed and rewarded for their heterosexual love and their quasi-born-again salvation from drugs and outré sex. Nevertheless, Downey’s Julian, unforgettable and iconic, transcends the film’s attempts to demonize him. Perhaps aided by Downey’s phenomenal screen presence and subsequent mythic personal struggles, Julian becomes the film’s dynamic center. Julian is the only thing we remember from the film, and the film’s intent—to demonize his lifestyle—is fundamentally subverted.
After a long, tightly controlled adaptation process, the final film version of Less Than Zero must have been unrecognizable to Ellis. In the novel, Clay is a dispassionate, bisexual drug user, who sleeps with male and female friends in equal measure. But in the hands of Jon Avnet, producer of Risky Business, the characters and story went through a number of revisions that rejected the novel’s largely detached, existential meditation on overprivileged youth in favor of a morally charged expose of drug and queer culture. Avnet hired Harley Peyton (who would later write episodes of Twin Peaks) to rewrite the original screenplay, and by the time the shooting script was completed, all references to Clay’s drug past and bisexuality were removed.
Ostensibly, the film’s action is driven by a love triangle (constructed entirely by Peyton) between Blair, Clay and Julian. However, there’s not much of a triangle. Julian is never presented as a viable partner for Blair. Instead, Clay and Blair were reconceived as an idealized conservative ‘80s power couple. ‘‘There has been a tremendous conservative change in young audiences since the book was written in 1984,” said Scott Rudin, then president of production at Fox, which distributed the film. “Their fantasy used to be great sexual experimentation. Now it is to live in a great apartment, have a great boyfriend and wear great clothes.’’
Clay and Blair epitomized this new ‘80s fantasy. They are sexually active, but it’s bizarrely restrained. In one of the film’s odder juxtapositions, while Julian is adjusting to his new life as a prostitute, Blair and Clay have sex at a Christmas party. They remain fully clothed and, constrained in the tight hallway, their movements are stilted. The camera angles splinter their bodies with extreme low or extreme high angles. Essentially, their sex is as wild as their idealized roles allow them to be—Blair even suggests marriage immediately after the first sex scene. “This is the way it’s supposed to be,” Julian remarks about the pair.
Julian’s own exclusion from this ideal highlights the widening moral gap between Clay and Julian. McCarthy’s Clay is righteous, clean, straight and passionately in love with his high school sweetheart. Julian is a corrupt, drug-addicted bisexual, linked romantically by default to his pimp and dealer. Active and assertively masculine, Clay takes it upon himself to try to rescue the passive, helplessly feminine Julian. Clay is offered to audiences as a hero, and Julian a spectacle for pity and derision.
But the essential tragedy of Julian was not the one Avnet and the other producers intended. Throughout the film, Clay’s shame, derision and rejection are meant to reinforce the audience’s denunciation of Julian’s lifestyle. This includes drugs, yes, but also his transgression of gender boundaries. In act, appearance, and profession, Julian represents a rejection of traditional masculinity. Throughout the film, Julian is made up in mascara and eyeliner, his clothing light, flowery and loose. He is often naked, in moments not intended to be erotic, around Blair and Clay when the pair is fully clothed, reinforcing his profound vulnerability. After Julian overdoses, Blair sits with him on the bed. She is restrictively, authoritatively dressed in a dark power suit, her hair perfectly and tightly pulled back, while Julian remains fully nude. He is helpless and fragile, feminized; she is armored and strong, masculinized. Likewise, when Julian is “rescued” from his night of prostitution, his nudity is shameful, his postures feminine, and Clay’s clothed presence is judgmental.
Clay’s authority and ability to judge is granted by the camera’s connection to him. It favors his perspective and his sexual interactions are filmed as erotic, while Julian’s are filmed as deviant. Additionally, unlike Clay, who shares several privileged sex scenes with Blair, Julian’s most intimate moments occur with other men. His emotional redemption comes when he begs his father to help him and after his overdose, Julian places a stolen diamond ring on Clay’s ring finger—a gesture that nearly causes Clay to hyperventilate. Most damning is Julian’s relationship with antagonist Rip, his dealer and pimp. Far from being entirely angry, Julian shares moments of complicated affection with him. Rip’s behavior toward Julian is ambivalent: He has trapped Julian in a cycle of debt and prostitution, yet the two grow closer, physically and emotionally, throughout the film. Initially their spatial relationship is ordinary, the two stand together casually. The distance between the pair shrinks as the narrative progresses, each scene gradually reducing the physical separation between the two until it becomes uncomfortably intimate. In their final scene, when Julian is most adamant on leaving, Rip embraces Julian in a long, possessive, and sensuous hug, stroking his neck and whispering, “I’ve missed you.”
Julian’s uncontrollable sexuality and his subversive relationship with Rip threatens the stability of the idea Clay and Blair’s relationship is meant to represent. The junkie’s behavior depicts how much more boundless and compelling sexuality and gender roles could be. Julian bursts from the bounds of normative behavior, leaking drugs from every pore and constantly falling: He falls out of his clothing, up and down staircases, and in one of the film’s definitive moments, nearly falls out of Clay’s quintessential L.A. convertible.
The “rescue” of Julian epitomizes the opposition established between him and Clay and serves as the crux of the film’s moral argument. The camera follows Clay as he enters an upscale brothel, the whole party laid out in a mirror reflection: the double world of the cocktail party and masked prostitution ring. Clay pushes open the first door he finds to reveal Julian on his knees in front of a customer. Unlike Clay and Blair, who keep their clothes on to have sex, Julian is readily naked to deliver a blow job.
Clay runs in to grab the stunned Julian, picking him up and helping him dress while the customer lazily protests the interruption. Clay slaps the man as Julian, still dazed, stumbles to the door. Clay shoves him along, leading him roughly. His masculine violence is heightened by both men’s feminine passivity. The camera cuts to Julian falling (of course) into a glass elevator, his bare chest pressed against it. His expression is more humiliated than repentant. His shirt falls open, and he makes no real effort to pull himself together. His mascara and eyeliner are thick and smeared for emphasis. The shirt he limply dons is emblazoned with a large scarlet flower, a symbolic mark of his crimes against manhood. Clay’s embarrassed stoicism suggests he has no comfort, or sympathy, to offer Julian.
The scene makes explicit Julian’s ultimate sin. By becoming a sexual object to be used and taking the traditionally female job of prostitute, Julian has lost his essential masculinity. By sleeping with men as well as women, he has transgressed even further. AIDS-conscious ‘80s audiences would be expected to recognize the behavior as dangerous and potentially deadly. The 15-to-24-year-old women, who particularly hated Julian at the film’s test screening, would potentially respond most acutely to the fear of Julian “bringing it home” to Blair.
Julian, we are led to believe, is irreconcilably corrupted, and the only way the film can restore conservative order is to kill him off. As Blair and Clay drive away from Los Angeles through the night, Julian dies of an unspecified cause in the car, and his death goes unnoticed until morning. The problem of Julian has been solved, and Clay and Blair can drive off into the L.A. sun.
Yet Julian’s presence in the film is what is so stirring, so moving. His strange trajectory, of audience hatred followed by iconographic elevation, of aversion supplanted by magnetism, killed any lingering hold the decade may have had on plastic morality. Julian has come to represent the entirety of the film, and any discussion of it begins and ends with him. Julian is figured as all that is wrong with American culture, yet his allure burns through the screen, attracting, repulsing and moving the spectator. Clay and Blair pass by us as if ghosts on the sidewalk.