By David Hunter
SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — Almost as shocking as some of the images and facts revealed in this documentary set in the world of New York and New Jersey strip joints is that first-time producer-writer-director Jill Morley has no plans at present to continue with her filmmaking career.
One of several strong nonfiction works to bow during the first weekend of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, “Stripped” is both an autobiographical movie of Morley’s own stint as a go-go dancer and a bittersweet round of involving interviews with “girls” she got to know in the lucrative but decidedly risky biz.
A stage actress who turned her experiences into the award-winning and well-reviewed stage production “True Confessions of a Go-Go Girl,” which ran for five years in Manhattan, Morley filmed for years in high-8, in Beta with Peter Klusman and finally digital. A former tomboy from New Jersey, Morley is an athlete, author, journalist and producer of radio documentaries. She narrates “Stripped,” which should have a relatively easy time landing a gig on cable, along with more festival unveilings.
When the film is over and one has learned certain unpleasant facts about some of the participants, it’s easy to understand why Morley has had a hard time finishing this project, which she began in the mid-’90s.
Starting off rather benignly and containing a good many humorous moments, as well as many nominally arousing glimpses of disrobed females on and off the stage, “Stripped” is all the more powerful because the more sinister and disturbing material catches one off guard.
Certainly not intended for those easily shocked by nudity and suggestive dancing, but neither pornographic nor violent, “Stripped” has a fair number of scenes with Morley in the spotlight, including an eye-popping audition and several glimpses of her stripping.
The movie can seem at times to be a show-all procedural, but it’s ultimately a band-of-sisters chronicle of a job and lifestyle that attracts women who are hard up for money — as was Morley at the time she took up bikini dancing and moved on to more serious stuff.
Vicki had a nasty boil under her arm and needed to pay doctor bills. Single mom Susan had tried the corporate world and didn’t fit in. Morley expected it to be quite an acting challenge. The filmmaker’s roommate at one point considers stripping, but after experiencing the atmosphere of a club, she backs down. It’s one of several unique moments in “Stripped” that underscore the compelling inside perspective of Morley.
While using the film project to help justify her own doubts about “fulfilling the fantasies of a bunch of jerks” — in the words of Dick, a gentlemanly driver who regularly transports groups of strippers down to Jersey and back — Morley includes very candid stories and comments from her comrades about the finer points of the art of disrobing before an audience. Topics include how to maximize the “harvesting” of cash from customers by intimidating them, the common use of breast implants and enjoying yourself — or at least acting the part that way.
Alas, for Jill and such seemingly together friends as Angela, an ambitious blonde who met with tragedy after Morley completed the bulk of the filming about five years ago, stripping is not a healthy career with long-term potential. Other participants one gets to know and admire for their many talents are Billie, a serious performer of the burlesque arts who wants to give the audience “female energy,” and Susan, a complex character apparently with underworld connections, who disappeared and might have been the victim of foul play.
Dylan Productions. Producer, writer, director: Jill Morley Cinematographer: Peter Klusman Editor: Nelson Ryland Co-Editor/ Story Editor: Rachel DeSario Color/stereo Running time — 75 minutes No MPAA rating