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Lana Clarkson, Barbarian Queen - A Biography

by Mike Haberfelner

October 2008, updated March 2010

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Let's face it, Lana Clarkson was not the best actress around, her legacy to cinema history is not all that insurmountable, and in a bitter ironic twist, her main claim to fame is actually her death from a gunshot in the foyer of legendary music producer Phil Spector's Alhambra, California home.

Yet to just dismiss Clarkson as a mere footnote in Spector's own biography would not do the woman justice either, she should at least be credited for being one of the few females to play lead roles in the extremely macho barbarian movie genre, one of the few American 1980's action heroines, and a woman who just tried to push her career onwards even when the odds were against her, and who, should need arise, was able to switch gear from action heroine to other fields of performing, most surprisingly of all even in stand-up comedy.

 


 

Early Life, Early Career

 

Lana Clarkson was born in 1962 in Long Beach, California, but spent most of her childhood and youth in Cloverdale, California, where she enjoyed a fairly normal upbringing. And she grew up do be quite a beauty, and long-legged, too, so when the family - after Lana's dad's death - moved to Los Angeles, she didn't take long to attract the attention of photographers and the like, and at age 16, she became a model, and had quite some success in the profession.

 


From modelling, it was only a small step to doing extra parts in movies and on television. 

Originally, the 1982 highschool comedy Fast Times at Ridgemont High (Amy Heckerling) starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judge Reinhold and Sean Penn was nothing more than just another extra gig for Lana, but then apparently fate struck: According to legend, character actor Vincent Schiavelli, who plays a science teacher in the film, came up with the idea to give his character a really hot blonde wife - and since this idea was made up on the spot, he pretty much had only the extras on hand to choose from ... including of course Lana Clarkson, whose model looks made her the obvious choice.



Sure enough, Clarkson's role wasn't particularly big, she just had a handful of lines, but it was enough to catch the attention of Hollywood, and soon enough she was cast in a few more movies including Brian De Palma's Scarface (1983) starring Al Pacino and the Kirstie Alley-starrer Blind Date (1984, Nico Mastorakis), again in supporting roles, and she made guest appearances on pretty much every other popular TV-show of the 1980's, including Three's Company (1983), The Jeffersons (1983), Mike Hammer (1984), Knight Rider (1984), Who's the Boss (1984), The A-Team (1985), Hotel (1986), and Amazing Stories (1986).

 


 

Barbarian Queen

 


While above-mentioned film- and TV-work at least meant steady work and presence in the public eye, none of it was destined to make Lana Clarkson a star, this was left to a comparatively cheap movie, the Roger Corman-production Deathstalker (1983, John Watson) [Roger Corman bio - click here].

In itself, Deathstalker wasn't all that great a movie, simply a barbarian flick shot at the height of the genre trying to cash in on the success of Conan the Barbarian (1982, John Milius), but it gave Lana Clarkson plenty of opportunity to shine: Though she didn't receive top-billing and dies halfway through the film, her appearance as the feisty barbarian ready to shed her already revealing costumes at appropriate moments in the film's narrative easily outshines Rick Hill's bland hero and his goodie-two-shoes love interest Barbi Benton.

 


Of course, Lana's effect on the (male) audiences didn't go unnoticed by prodcuer Roger Corman, who elevated her to leading role status in a later barbarian movie, Barbarian Queen (1985), directed by Deathstalker's co-producer Héctor Olivera. The film, which Roger Corman with some justification later dubbed "the original Xena Warrior Princess", wasn't particularly good, but it was significant inasmuch as it was one of the very few films of the barbarian genre that had a woman in the lead. But despite all of the feminist messages the movie is supposedly transporting, there is hardly an actress in its cast who doesn't have a rape and/or topless scene at one point or another - which is probably why the film was way more appealing to a male, beer-drinking audience than to any self-respecting feminist ... and despite all of its shortcomings, Barbarian Queen featured just enough action and nudity to become a cult classic with a fanboy audience.

 


Lana's role as female barbarian did definitely catch on with the audiences, so much so that in 1989, she returned in the not at all related sequel Barbarian Queen II: The Empress Strikes Back (Joe Finley). Compared to the first film, number two features a few more supernatural elements (not too many though, since the budget was tight), but its main focus is of course Lana Clarkson again, and there are numerous excuses woven into the plot to get her topless (including a mud-wrestling scene).

 


Lana was also a barbarian woman in the film Wizards of the Lost Kingdom 2 (1989, Charles B.Griffith), another Roger Corman production also starring David Carradine, Mel Welles and Sid Haig, but this one's really bottom-of-the-barrel, inasmuch as it recycles most of Lana's action scenes from Barbarian Queen and has her only doing some linking sequences. And to avoid redubbing of the old material, her character in this one's even called Amathea, just like in the first Barbarian Queen. Still, bad movie lovers might get a chuckle or two out of it.

 

Even before Barbarian Queen II and Wizards of the Lost Kingdom 2 though, Lana Clarkson acted in a film that successfully spoofs her action babe persona: Amazon Women of the Moon (1987, John Landis, Joe Dante, Peter Horton, Robert K.Weiss, Carl Gottlieb), a spoof of contemporary television programming in anthology film format. Clarkson can be seen in the titular episode (directed by Robert K.Weiss), a parody of 1950's style space operas - but her appearance is overshadowed by the performance of Sybil Danning [Sybil Danning bio - click here], maybe the only other female action star of the USA of the 1980's.

 


 

The Decline

 



By the early 1990's, Lana Clarkson's greatest successes turned into a sort of curse: She had become so popular as a female barbarian (at least with a certain audience segment) that only few people wanted to see her in other roles - but by 1990, the barbarian genre was pretty much as dead as a doorknob, and nobody had the slightest interest in resurrect ingit, which meant for Lana it was back to supoporting roles in films and on television, and the two feature films she shot in the 1990's are not especially worth mentioning, Jim Wynorski's Edgar Allan Poe adaptation The Haunting of Morella (1990) starring David McCallum and produced by Roger Corman, and a very small role in the ill-conceived, belated sequel Another 9 1/2 Weeks/Love in Paris (1997, Anne Goursaud) starring Mickey Rourke and Angie Everhart ... not that her television work in series like Night Court (1990), Wings (1992), Silk Stalkings (1993, 1995) or Land's End (1996) was much more significant though.

 


During the 1990's though, Lana Clarkson did a lot of work on commercials, often with a comic edge, to keep herself in the public eye, and she even did stunt work on the film Retroactive (1997, Louis Morneau), a science fiction thriller starring James Belushi.

 


It was only in 2000 that Lana Clarkson's career seemed to get back on track (as sexy action babe) with the film Vice Girls (Richard Gabai), in which she plays one of three female cops (the others are played by Liat Goodson and Kimberley Roberts) who go undercover in the porn industry to catch a serialkiller. Now of course, this is a pure piece of sexploitation of the B-movie variety ... but not without its amusing moments. Trash filmmaker Jim Wynorski had his hands in production by the way.

 


Besides this film, she also appeared in the short Little Man on Campus (2000, Morgan Lawley), a highschool comedy/melodrama, in a supporting role in March (2001, James P.Mercurio), a quite serious drama, and she had a role in the episode Virtual Vice (2001, Susan Tuan) of Roger Corman's sexy-superheroine series Black Scorpion that also featured Lou Ferrigno [Lou Ferrigno bio - click here].

 

Clarkson could not use the momentum of all these films to make a comeback as action heroine though as in 2001, she broke her wrists, which put her plans for career recovery on hold - yet she remained optimistic about her situation, tried her hands on standup comedy and started production on Lana Unleashed, a showcase reel of herself. Plus, she appeared at numerous conventions around the country to get in touch with the fan following she still had thanks primarily to Barbarian Queen.

Yet, in the early 2000's, it got harder and harder for Lana Clarkson to make ends meet, so she eventually accepted a job as a hostess in the legendary House of Blues in West Hollywood ...

 


 

Death

 

In a bitter twist of irony, the job at the House of Blues, the job she took to finance restarting her faltering career, eventually led to Lana Clarkson's doom.

On the night to February 3rd, 2003, Clarkson, then 40, met 62 year old music producer Phil Spector at the House of Blues, and for some reason, she allowed him to invite her to his home in Alhambra, California, after her shift had ended. They seem to only have met that evening, since there is no evidence they were acquainted with each other before that night.

Phil Spector, it should be noted, was a legendary music producer in the 1960's and 70's, known for his work for such diverse acts as the Righteous Brothers, the Ronettes, the Crystals, Leonard Cohen, Ben E.King and even the Ramones, known for his development of multi-layered production techiques dubbed the Wall of Sound, but also known for kitsching up the Beatles' Let it Be (who only in recent years released an alternative version of the album, Let it Be Naked, with all of Spector's input gone) and Ike and Tina Turner's River Deep Mountain High ... by the early 2000's however, his big successes were all a thing of the distant past. 

Apart from having once been a successful music producer, Spector was also known for his egocentric behavious, his notoriously bad tember, and there were rumours about several incidents involving gunplay. Nothing but rumours, sure, but ...

 

Fact is: In the early morning hours, Lana Clarkson was found shot dead in the foyer of Spector's home. She had been shot in the mouth and the gunshot must have immediately killed her. The police was informed by Spector's driver, who claimed he heard his employer saying "I think I killed somebody". The gun Clarkson was shot with apparently belonged to Spector, however he later denied having anything to do with her death - but then he would, right?

Spector was formally charged with murder only in November of 2003 but released on a $ 1 million bail. In the trial that followed, Spector tried to present Clarkson's death as accidental suicide (?), was represented by a series of celebrity lawyers (most of whom he fell out with during the trial), and presented the jurors with a panel of questionable experts. Eventually, the jurors found themselves in a deadlock (10 voted for guilty, only two for not guilty) and the judge declared a mistrial in late 2007.

 

A new trial is set for fall 2008, but what exactly happened between Spector and Clarkson we might never learn, since his attorneys and so called experts make it impossible to find out the truth - even if he should be innocent. Fact is though that Clarkson was indeed killed by Spector's gun at his home, and that the gun was apparently shoved down her throat.

To add insult to injury, some foreign media, not quite familiar with the expression hostess, dubbed Lana Clarkson a call-girl, which quite simply she was not.

 

Sadly enough, her death in Phil Spector's home made Lana Clarkson way more of a household name than any of her films did. That isn't to say that any of Clarkson's films was particularly great or she was too great an actress, but she was one of the few women of 1980's action cinema who was not just a pretty face but showed some considerable guts, who knew how to use a sword just as well as her female charms to get what she wants, and who wasn't afraid to combine a feminist attitude with very revealing outfits. 

And apart from her onscreen persona she was a woman who wasn't likely to give up, who despite of all setbacks worked on her comeback - she was only 40 at the time of her death and not too old to make it again -, and who even tried different routes (like standup comedy) to not vanish from the public eye. 

And of course, with films like Barbarian Queen - despite of all their shortcomings - she has played herself into the hearts of a loyal fanboy audience that isn't likely to ever forget her again ...

 

Update: In April 2009, Phil Spector was sentenced to 19 years to life for the second degree murder (~ non-premeditated murder) of Lana Clarkson. At least in some cases, justice prevails ...

 

© by Mike Haberfelner


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