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Never let it be said that Pamela Anderson doesn’t know how to put on a show. Twenty-five years ago, the Baywatch star looked to launch her own comic book franchise with the dystopian action picture Barb Wire, based on the Dark Horse Comics series created in the early 1990s by Chris Warner. Before she got down to the superheroics, Anderson’s pneumatic alter ego — nightclub owner and freelance mercenary Barbara Kopetski, aka Barb Wire — entertained the audience on-screen and in the theater with a water-soaked striptease while clad in a strategically unzipped black leather dress. That zipper plunges even further down her writhing torso in the unrated cut that was later released on home video, along with additional moments of nudity left out of the R-rated version that premiered in theaters on May 3, 1996.
According to Barb Wire director David Hogan, the inspiration for that striptease came from an unexpected source: Melissa Etheridge’s music video for her chart-topping hit, “I’m the Only One,” which he had directed three years prior. “The first day I met Pamela was at the Beverly Hilton,” Hogan tells Yahoo Entertainment. “I had a meeting with the producers, and then met with her for her approval. I walked in, and she and Tommy [Lee, her then-husband] were in bed, so we had the meeting in their bedroom. She said, ‘You did one of my favorite music videos, ‘I’m the Only One.’ So I had an idea of what her tastes were as far as sexy scenes!”
Of course, if Anderson had had final cut, Barb would have kept her clothes on throughout her maiden adventure, which takes place against the backdrop of the Second American Civil War in the then-far off year of 2017. Hogan remembers that the former Playboy Playmate initially hoped to avoid shooting any nude scenes for the film. “I wonder if she thought, ‘God, everybody has seen everything already,” he says, noting that her infamous sex tape with Lee had been stolen from their home and leaked to the public the year prior.
Hogan remembers that Anderson was still furious about that invasion of privacy, and the cast and crew made a point of not raising the topic in her presence. “Of course, it was all the talk on the set,” he remembers. At one point, Hogan recalls walking into the production office and seeing several of the movie's producers watching Anderson and Lee's private tape. “That’s how I got a glimpse of it: I didn’t see it all, but I saw enough, that’s for sure.” (Anderson has since become an anti-pornography advocate, co-authoring the book Lust for Lovein 2018.)
Anderson also helped devise the twist that comes at the end of the striptease sequence, when Barb shows off the battle skills that make her a sought-after mercenary in the lawless town known as Steel Harbor. As she’s dancing onstage, an obnoxious male voice from the audience yells to “get it all off,” and refers to her by her least favorite word: “Babe.” Barb scans the crowd, identifies the heckler and impales him with the pointy end of her stiletto heel. onscreen.
“I acquiesced on a few her objections, but she was comfortable doing what we did, including the striptease," Hogan explains. "It’s like doing a love scene: you leave it up to the actors as to how far they want to go with it, and it was the same thing there. It was a little bit strange, because we had to do at least one take where it wasn’t PG, but also not R-rated so that was a fine line to walk. We just tried to be respectful, and it wasn’t an issue for her.”
In fact, Anderson choreographed much of the striptease herself. “The whole swing thing was her idea,” Hogan notes. “I lived just down the road from her in Malibu, and she was working out with some trapeze artists who had a whole rig in the backyard, and that’s where the swing idea came from. I was astounded by how athletic she was.”
Anderson also helped devise the twist that comes at the end of the striptease sequence, when Barb shows off the battle skills that make her a sought-after mercenary in the lawless town known as Steel Harbor. As she’s dancing onstage, an obnoxious male voice from the audience yells to “Get it all off,” and refers to her by her least favorite word: “Babe.” Barb scans the crowd, identifies the heckler and impales him with the pointy end of her stiletto heel.
“Pamela actually told me that idea when we were having lunch one day,” Hogan says, laughing. “She had a dream about impaling somebody with the heel of a stiletto, and I said, ‘We can use that.’” The scene ends with Barb Wire delivering her signature warning that adorns the film’s poster and VHS box: “Don’t call me Babe.”
Hogan cites his creative partnership with Anderson as the highlight of what was otherwise a difficult shoot, followed by a disappointing release. "I just hoped for the best," he says. "I knew it wasn't the greatest moment in cinema history." Critics agreed: reviews for Barb Wire were resoundingly negative — although writers like Roger Ebert expressed modest admirations for its eccentricities — and the film limped out of theaters with only $4 million in the bank. The movie went on to receive six Razzie nominations, with its leading lady winning for “Worst New Star.”
Looking back, Hogan thinks that Anderson’s public notoriety, not to mention the lingering specter of Baywatch and Playboy, put a target on the movie. “She was aware that there were going to be some pretty harsh critics as far as her acting. Like myself, she was hoping for the best, and I thought she did a pretty good job given the material. I don’t think anyone expected her to be Liz Taylor, but she was very cooperative and did the best she could. That’s all you could ask.”
This story does have something of a happy ending: much like another famously weird female-fronted ’90s comic book movie Tank Girl — which came and went from theaters the year before Barb Wire — Hogan’s movie has built a cult audience over the past quarter-century. Celebrities like Kendall Jenner and Cardi B have modeled themselves after Anderson’s alter ego, and genre fans now marvel at the film’s oddball qualities, from a zany supporting cast that includes Udo Kier, Clint Howard, Xander Berkeley and Temuera Morrison to its surprisingly prescient depiction of a divided America in the late 2010s. (That’s the aspect of the movie that makes Hogan laugh the most now. “I had forgotten what year it was set in,” he says of the 2017 date — the year that Donald Trump entered the White House.)
And then there’s the fact that the movie is, essentially, a Casablanca remake, with Anderson in the Humphrey Bogart role and Morrison playing Ingrid Bergman. Barb Wire even ends at an airport where the former couple says farewell, and Morrison boards a flight out of the war-torn city alongside his new lover. “I thought it was a little corny, the Casablanca thing,” Hogan admits now. “I talked to a couple of director friends of mine and said, ‘Man, this script needs work.’ I think it was David Fincher who told me, ‘Just shoot the script!’”
Hogan was actually the second filmmaker to sit in the Barb Wire director’s chair: his predecessor was dismissed by the producers when they saw the initial footage of the $9 million production. “I took a look of the footage that was already shot, and I wanted to be able to reshoot those scenes, because the look was like a bad B-movie — kind of muddy, and without vitality,” he remembers. “I felt like I was stepping onto the Titanic at first.”
While he was overruled on reshoots, he did set about trying to bring a different tone to the movie going forward. “I wanted to make it a little more tongue-in-cheek, though I don’t think I achieved that. That’s something I’ve always regretted: I wanted to set it on its ear a bit more and make it a little more fun, but I didn’t get as far as I wanted to get.” Anderson was responsive to his change in direction, but Hogan says that other cast members resisted camping it up. “Xander Berkeley got it completely, but he was one of the few that did. I had to tell them, ‘Look, we’re not doing Shakespeare.’ They would not budge as far as their performance, and you could only do so many takes on a budget like that.”
According to Hogan, the version of Barb Wire that opened in theaters 25 years ago is the same one he cut in the editing room and delivered to the producers. But his involvement with Barb Wire ended there. He wasn't invited to share ideas on the marketing campaign, which he found underwhelming. "I didn't like the poster, but I wasn't invited to express my feelings about it," he says. "I started out as a graphic designer doing album covers, so I thought it could have been a better piece of art."
And Hogan similarly wasn't invited to craft the unrated cut, which he still hasn't seen. "I guess I will in the future — someone called me about a new [digital] transfer," he says. "I saw a bit of the [unrated] striptease once, and I said, 'Oh, they did use that shot!' I would venture to guess that if there was a bit more nudity, the box office would've been a bit better."
Hogan says that he and Anderson have seen each other a few times in the 25 years since the movie's release, and the subject of Barb Wire never comes up. To this day, he's both pleased and perplexed by the movie's peculiar afterlife. "I'm still getting residual checks, so I guess people are watching it," Hogan chuckles. "I was under the impression that it did make money combined with domestic and foreign distribution." And since practically every other comic book property from the 1990s — including Tank Girl— is getting rebooted, he'd happily sign on for Barb Wire 2 with Anderson back in her black leather outfit. "I think it would be great — I'd take it on," he says. "I already made all the mistakes, so I wouldn't make them again! "
Barb Wire is available to rent or purchase on most on demand services, including Amazon.
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