“…Out of the blue came Caged Heat. Johnathan Demme sought me out. I know he was a big Russ Meyer fan and had seen me in Vixen and Dolls, but to this day I still don’t know exactly why he wanted me. But I was lucky he cast me.” Demme got his start as producer or co-screenwriter on three low-budget films from 1971-73, then was selected in 1974 by producer Roger Corman to direct and write the film that became the best and classiest of all the women-in-prison pictures.
“I had so isolated myself from the business… I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do another film. I didn’t trust Hollywood. But Johnathan said, ‘you don’t have to read, you’ve got the part, because I’ve seen your work and I know you’re right for it.’ That made me feel so special, so I just had to do the film.”
The film was shot at Lincoln Heights Jail in downtown Los Angeles, not far from her childhood home of Silver Lake. “It had been closed for a couple of years, it was the middle of winter, and by the time we were able to feel the heat working at all, we were almost done.
Check out this updated version of Caged Heat – watch it with Jonathan, Erica, and Tak – listen to our new commentary!
At five in the morning, it was raining, and God, it was freezing in there.” But despite the discomfort, “it was really neat working in the prison. That made the story feel very real.”
A few scenes in the picture have particular resonance for her. “When I’m first taken to the prison and we have to strip, I kind of flashed back to my experience being arrested by Customs coming back from Europe. After I take my top off, the way I’m crossing my arms in front of me, feeling vulnerable… I was subconsciously drawing on that memory.
Similarly, the scene in which she’s initially freaked-out by the nocturnal sounds of screams from another cell draw upon Erica’s brief 1970 jail experience. “I was able to take myself to a different mind-set. Johnathan allowed his actors to relax so that they’d react in a natural way that wasn’t self-conscious.”
Although Caged Heat has earned a cult reputation in subsequent years, in 1974 it barely caused a ripple, which was a bitter disappointment. “People looked at the title and the posters and just thought it was another exploitation film. It didn’t get the recognition it deserved until much later.”
–by Steve Sullivan
excerpted with kind permission from Glamour Girls