The Good Eye: Killer Outfits – Jennifer Connelly in Phenomena

This week's horror couture reveals how phenomenal Jennifer Connelly looks in Armani

The Good Eye: Killer Outfits – Jennifer Connelly in Phenomena

I kicked off this series with speculations about Giorgio Armani's influence on Hellbound: Hellraiser II, but in fact, Armani has done scads of real film costuming since American Gigolo. Predictably, most of it is men's suiting; last year, headlines touted Elysium's Jodie Foster as "the first leading lady to be outfitted by Armani."

Not so! The first was Jennifer Connelly, in the 1985 Dario Argento horror film Phenomena.

Connelly, like Foster, grew up onscreen. She was 15 in Phenomena, her second film, sandwiched between Sergio Leone's gangster epic Once Upon a Time in America and Jim Henson's Labyrinth (the costumes for which, incidentally, made a lasting impression on women my age. Two words: Bowie's trousers). In Phenomena, Connelly plays Jennifer Corvino, the daughter of a famous American film actor sent to a Swiss boarding school where she is taunted for her sleepwalking disorder by accented mean girls and a sadistic headmistress. As in Argento's earlier masterpiece Suspiria, girls at the school disappear one by one to an eerie Goblin score (augmented here by Iron Maiden and Motörhead). Jennifer's sleepwalking is mysteriously linked to her nascent psychic connection with insects, which she explores with the help of a wheelchair-bound forensic entomologist played by Donald Pleasence.

Despite Connelly's willingness to discuss her most humiliating early roles (Career Opportunities, anyone?), Phenomena comes up so rarely in interviews that it seems likely the topic has been made off-limits. That must be it, because every interviewer staring into those limpid gray eyes has to be thinking the exact same thing: "Did a chimp really bite your finger off during the filming of Phenomena?"

Oh, did I forget to mention Inga the chimp? I don't want to spoil Inga's role in Phenomena. The story is that Argento urged Connelly to turn the chimp toward the camera during an early scene, Inga retaliated, a hospital reattached the digit, and shooting proceeded as before. (This rumor, while hard to substantiate, is believable; actress Daria Nicolodi, who had a daughter with Argento, describes his animal-handling skills as limited to handing Inga a straight razor and inciting a chimp freak-out.) If you were Connelly, this might just be the sort of trauma you wouldn't want to linger on. It is, in a word, undignified.

And Connelly really brings the dignity, even in Phenomena, whether she's driving a beetle to erotic frenzy or eating baby food out of the jar with the end of a toothbrush. (Yep. That happens.) The Armani costumes look predictably sexy on Nicolodi and the chic, bitchy headmistress, but young Jennifer also wears conspicuous Armani, including a sweatshirt embossed on the back with a giant gold eagle (the Armani logo), a pair of signature high-waisted pleated trousers, and an all-white outfit she wears throughout the climactic horror sequence. Consisting of an oversized white blouse, long white tie, and full, drop-yoked white skirt, it's clearly meant to evoke a schoolgirl uniform, and it's not much different from the other schoolgirl costumes.

But Connelly stands out from her classmates, who are infatuated with the Bee Gees and Richard Gere. (Jennifer can't lust over movie stars because remember? Her dad's one.) The eagle-logo sweatshirt makes her look golden-winged, stately and angelic, an impression reinforced by the fact that she's lit as if glowing from within. On Connelly, the Armani schoolgirl outfit looks at once impossibly sophisticated and willfully naive.

In interviews, Connelly has compared herself at that age to a puppet, saying she mimicked the adults around her whenever she didn't know what to do. She was proud of pleasing them, proud of being a "good girl," proud of her reputation as punctual, professional, and endlessly compliant. So compliant that at 14 she would, if asked, willingly manhandle a chimpanzee strong enough to tear her arms off, and suffer the consequences without complaint.

It's Connelly's ability to weather and navigate through the destructive forces of warped masculinity represented in Once Upon a Time in America, Phenomena, and Labyrinth that distinguishes and elevates her performances in that early trio of films. Spectacularly wooden, literally sleepwalking through parts of Phenomena, she nevertheless anchors it with dignity and grace. It's the hinge between her performance for Leone – a literal peepshow in which she practices ballet stiffly while a young gangster watches through a chink in the wall – and her performance in Labyrinth, in which a teenager throws the words "You have no power over me" at a controlling male with a monster bulge. Jennifer never whines in Phenomena, no matter how many of her girlfriends get impaled before her eyes. When she feels that life isn't fair, she gets on the phone with her father's solicitor and requests a wire transfer. As bad leads to worse, and worse leads to a pit of liquefying corpses, she never once panics, but instead shows infinite, almost narcotized resourcefulness.

Perhaps the most striking sequence is the one in which Jennifer, having discovered she's been poisoned, makes herself throw up in the bathroom sink. That look of calm, determined concentration on her face during the protracted and realistic scene – she tries multiple times, checks her vomit for the pill, and when she doesn't see it, swallows water and tries again – is painful if you've either been or known a teenage girl who became too beautiful, too soon. In interviews, Connelly routinely misstates her age in those early movies by two years, substituting 11 for 13, 14 for 16. Whether there's some industry-wide conspiracy to cover up her actual birth date, or, far more likely, she simply remembers her emotional age better than her real age, hardly matters. That eerie precociousness – the malleability of the actress combined with the rigidity of a deer in the headlights, her determination to survive the shitshow of the male gaze even if it means leaving a finger behind – is what made her a phenomenon.

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