If you were coming of age in 1985/1986 - as I was - there was one star of the cinema who might have awakened strange, confusing feelings in you. A woman who, while absolutely beautiful, didn’t have the standard sexpot looks and body, whose wholesomeness in fact informed the strange sexuality of two of her signature roles. That woman was Lea Thompson, and in Back to the Future and Howard the Duck she portrayed a kind of aggressive sexuality that proved girls next door want to fuck (their sons, ducks) too.
There are fewer flops as famous as Howard the Duck , and the movie's reputation as a steaming turd is well, well deserved. There are few who will try to mount a serious defense of the film beyond perhaps praising the movie's extraordinary duck costume. But the movie being bad doesn't make it uninteresting, and Howard the Duck is profoundly interesting as a totally fucked up curiosity, especially where Lea Thompson's Beverly tries to get her fuck on with our not-man Howard.
Howard was horny throughout the film; we see him try to take a bite out of social worker's big ass when she bends over and earlier Beverly found a tiny little duck rubber in his tiny little duck wallet. But the scene in bed between Howard and Beverly transcends the jokey moments and becomes deeply uncomfortable and raises ontological questions about the possibility of sexual relations between humans and funny animals. Is it bestiality if Howard is a sentient, speaking being? Do Beverly’s advances represent a strange longing she had before Howard even arrived from Duckworld, an arousal in the presence of Anatidae? Or are we small-minded for even balking at this cross-species mating ritual?
Beverly and Howard getting it on can be argued as comic book canon. In the comics written by Steve Gerber and, at their best, drawn by Gene Colan, the duo are perhaps a couple. It’s all a little vague, thanks to the Comics Code Authority, but Howard and Beverly - a former nude model, by the way - share a bed, and they don’t wear very much while sleeping in it. In issue 2 Howard is butt naked and Beverly is wearing the sheerest of nightgowns. Their relationship appears to be very much a relationship - they even take a cruise together. But the off-panel, silly nature of the situation defuses the larger weirdness of the situation (which is supposed to be weird - Gerber is playing with expectations and being really subversive). And sometimes things just work better as drawings.
As live action it gets weirder in a bad way - a deeply discomforting, accidentally boundary-smashing way. In the movie there’s almost no question what’s going on - Beverly is hardcore coming on to Howard. And get this: it’s hot. Lea Thompson is smoking hot in panties and a little pink slip and sweater, and she’s got it turned up to ten. She’s laying in bed with Howard (who has just wolf whistled at her) and says that she’s depressed because she can’t find the right man. “Maybe it’s not a man you should be looking for,” Howard says, escalating the creep factor to one hundred.
What happens next could spark a thousand years of debate. Beverly comes onto Howard in a big way, playing with his nipple (it was established in the infamous Toples Duck Sequence on Duckworld that Howard’s people have nipples) and causing him to get a head boner:
She’s giving Howard a taste of his own medicine, making him as uncomfortable as his creepy come-ons make others. But here’s the thing: what would she do if Howard didn’t back down? And what would she do if this wasn’t a PG movie?
Yes, Howard the Duck is a PG family film, released two years after the beginning of PG-13, so no one in the MPAA thought this sequence of trouser-tightening playacting was inappropriate for 11 or 12 year old kids. These were more libertine times.
They also thought that Lea Thompson’s romp with Michael J Fox in Back to the Future was fine. That one is more famous - Lorraine Baines has young "Calvin Klein" all but dropped into her lap and finds herself inexplicably, powerfully attracted to him. And man, does she ever act on it.
It’s worth noting that this isn’t just some kind of Freudian nightmare - Genetic Sexual Attraction is a real thing, and it happens between close relatives who first meet as adults. Generally people tend to gravitate to others who are like themselves - many folks rate faces similar to their own as more attractive - and what’s more like yourself than someone who shares your DNA. It can be very confusing for adult siblings who were split up as children to meet and find that their genetic similarities make them explosively sexually attractive to each other, and this is clearly what’s happening between Marty and Lorraine.
But what’s great is how much Thompson sells it. She wants it, and she wants it bad, and she will seduce Calvin Klein as hard as she needs to. Yeah, it’s mortifying to discover that your mom’s engine was all revved up like that (even if it wasn’t for you, but doubly mortifying when it is you), but how cool is this sexually assertive and confident woman… especially in the 1950s? i love that as both Beverly and Lorraine Lea Thompson is a woman who owns her sexuality and uses it as she pleases (and Back to the Future goes the extra mile to point out that her ownership of it doesn't make her a 'slut' - Biff Tannen doesn't have the right to have sex with her simply because she likes having sex).
Again, Lea Thompson’s sexy wholesomeness is what makes both these weird almost-sex scenes work; with a more obviously sultry actress the Back to the Future sequence wouldn’t work, but having Lorraine morph from a sweet girl to a sex machine allows us to feel the whiplash Marty experiences. It’s that whole sexy librarian thing - the idea that under this buttoned-up person is an animal waiting to get free. And while Beverly is a rocker in Howard the Duck, it's Thompson's relatability that allows her come-on to be playful instead of kind of predatory. After all, Howard is like three feet shorter than she is. It's a weird dynamic.
And somehow Thompson makes both these weird, unnatural sequences sort of hot. Definitely hot enough to turn some gears in the heads of young folks in the mid-80s.
So all hail Lea Thompson, girl-next-door turned taboo sex pioneer. There are few actresses who can boast they played characters turned on by both waterfowl and their own offspring, and even fewer who did it in PG rated movies.