Thursday, February 23, 2012

Franco's Muse: Lina Romay (1954-2012)

Tragic news has emerged today from Spain, where actor Antonio Mayans -- her co-star in dozens of films -- formally announced the February 15 death of Lina Romay, the actress and filmmaker best-known as the wife and longtime creative partner of Spanish director Jesús "Jess" Franco. A cancer victim, she was only 57 years old.

Born Rosa María Almirall Martínez in June 1954, Lina Romay -- renamed after the retired former singer with Xavier Cugat's band, who died a couple of years ago -- entered the world of cinema in a brief appearance in Jess Franco's film THE EROTIC RITES OF FRANKENSTEIN (1972) as a gypsy girl, which appears in only the Spanish variant of the picture. She came to Franco's attention as the art student girlfriend of his stills photographer Ramón Ardid, but it soon became apparent to both Jess and Lina that they were personally and creatively inseparable. Their attraction ended Franco's marriage to his script girl Nicole Guettard, who disappeared from his filmography circa 1974, returned briefly circa 1980, and died in 1996. For Franco's part, having found it difficult to reassemble himself following the 1970 accidental death of his most promising actress Soledad Miranda, he claimed to sense a reincarnation of Soledad in Lina, and she -- who never met her predecessor -- claimed to sense her presence watching over them at times, as if from within.

Her first starring role for Franco was 1973's FEMALE VAMPIRE, which exists in no fewer than three distinct variants: mainstream, erotic and hardcore. A self-proclaimed exhibitionist, Lina had no problem with performing hardcore straight or lesbian acts onscreen, and she was adamant offscreen that these were things she did in character, not as herself. The IMDb lists 118 different films to her credit, but this is hardly a complete accounting. Her filmography swells to a still larger number if we take into account the variants that exist of numerous Franco films; she also worked on rare occasions for other directors, including Carlos Aured, Erwin C. Dietrich and Andreas Bethmann. During the 1980s period when she and Franco were earning their incomes from pornographic films, she sometimes worked under the secondary pseudonyms Candy (or Candice) Coster and Lulu Laverne, accepting directorial credit for some of them.

No other woman gave quite as much of herself to the fantastic cinema as Lina Romay. The sprawling filmography of Jess Franco can be divided, unevenly and much in her favor, between the films he made Before Lina and With Lina; she became so synonymous with his work, as its focus and behind-the-scenes facilitator, that an After Lina period seems frankly unimaginable. As Franco's muse, Lina inspired as many as 150 or more films, and in many of them she withheld nothing of herself from his voracious camera -- body or soul. Theirs was an ideal meeting of exhibitionist and voyeur, both giving generously to one another in one of cinema's most provocative love stories. As the years passed, Lina changed and her body changed, but it never mattered to Franco, who continued to star her and film her as if she were the most desirable woman on earth. This is not to say that Franco's adoration of her was blind; on the contrary, Lina became a skilled actress under his tutelage, acquitting herself admirably not only as vampire women and nymphomaniacs, but in roles requiring the deft touch of a light comedienne. She could carry a film without dialogue; she could be funny, tragic, insanely desirable, shocking, even embarrassing in ways that left one admiring her bravery. On the two occasions when she ended a film by screaming -- LORNA... THE EXORCIST (1974) and MACUMBA SEXUAL (1980) -- she showed she could chill the blood like no one else, on the strength of her performance alone.

In Brian Horrorwitz's ANTENA CRIMINAL, a documentary about the filming of BLIND TARGET (2000, one of their lesser pictures), a candid illustration of their 40-year union emerges as Franco loses his temper when a scene continually goes wrong. He scolds a young actress and upsets himself to the point where he had to leave the set and sit down for a smoke in another room. Horrorwitz's camera holds on his attempt to recompose himself, and we see Lina find him, lean into him and stroke his head calmingly. It is the most privileged glimpse of their private selves we have, unless we count Lina's unbilled presence on the evening in February 2009 when Franco's career was rewarded with the Goya Award. During this presentation, Lina wheeled her husband onstage to generous applause, held his microphone as he accepted the honor, and bowed to kiss his head. The moment becomes even more poignant if we realize that, though they had been lovers and collaborators for 35 years, on the evening of this life achievement recognition they were technically newlyweds.

I never met Lina, but I always imagined we would meet someday. It is unthinkable to me that Jess, now in his early 80s, has survived her. On the occasions I've written to him, it was Lina who responded to me on his behalf, and she was always very sweet and appreciative. I last heard from her on April 28 of last year, when she and Jess responded to my enthusiastic VIDEO WATCHDOG review of Mondo Macabro's LORNA... THE EXORCIST: "Dear Tim, We are very much touched by your opinion of Lorna. Not a lot of people understood the film ("another Jess Franco sex film"). Thank you. Take care, Jess & Lina."

Those who admire the work of Jess Franco cannot help but become deeply involved in it, which means that, in the course of our exploration, we end up seeing more of Lina than we see of any other actress -- seeing more of her, and seeing more OF her -- so the news of her premature death strikes us in an uncommonly personal place. As the incarnate center of a filmography I take very personally, I had and will always have a great affection for her. Anything I have ever heard or learned about her -- including the only extensive interview she ever granted, to Kevin Collins for his booklet THE LINA ROMAY FILE: THE INTIMATE CONFESSIONS OF AN EXHIBITIONIST -- only confirmed what her work onscreen led me to suspect. I remember Kevin telling me that, at the time he recorded the interview, he asked Lina to sign something and she responded "Me?" She had starred in at least 100 films and no one before Kevin had ever asked Lina Romay for her autograph. This changed as she and Jess subsequently flew to different points around the world, including America, to make various convention appearances.

Jess Franco and Lina Romay were more than a team; they were an indivisible creative force for roughly 40 years. My heart goes out to my favorite living director at this time of most terrible loss -- to him, to me, to us, to cinema.